KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As his Ankle Game progressed, Patrick Mahomes limped and winced more often. He would run-hop after plays, a kind of forced gallop letting you know that, despite some of his sensational throws, he ached in ways that pain medication and clever taping techniques could not sufficiently restrain.
He’s the quarterback of a football team, after all. Playing eight days after suffering a high-ankle sprain could only mean exacerbating the injury. On Sunday night, with a Super Bowl berth at stake, Mahomes threw 43 passes, braced himself to absorb three sacks from Cincinnati Bengals defenders and crashed to the Arrowhead Stadium turf several more times as the Kansas City Chiefs tried to defeat the one team that had repeatedly solved them during their showstopping era.
It took an extraterrestrial effort for Mahomes to play — and play well — in the AFC championship game. But the Chiefs kept needing more from their superstar to hold back the Bengals, a glowing-hot team led by the coolest franchise quarterback in the NFL. And just when it seemed Mahomes might not have enough to outlast all of the challenges, he attempted to do the one thing he hadn’t shown all week.
On one good leg, he ran.
He ran for the sideline, he ran for the AFC title, and considering the fragility of his movement, it seemed as if he ran for his life, too.
With eight seconds remaining in a tie game, he reached the sideline after a five-yard gain that secured a first down. After he strained to get out of bounds, Cincinnati defensive end Joseph Ossai knocked him over and received a 15-yard penalty for the late hit. The error put the Chiefs in field goal range, and Harrison Butker made the 45-yard kick to deliver Kansas City the AFC title with a 23-20 victory.
Of all brilliance Mahomes has unfurled in five seasons as an NFL starter, that hobbling, game-clinching display of determination says the most about him. It has been clear for quite some time that Mahomes is the most gifted quarterback in the NFL. He might have the most awe-inspiring toolbox of any quarterback in the sport’s history. But this time, he showed his guts. He didn’t need to prove anything to anyone, but after a performance such as this, he verified that there’s more to his greatness than his athleticism.
The NFL is still in the Mahomes era. Joe Burrow is right there, pushing him. Josh Allen isn’t too far behind, and when healthy, Lamar Jackson still flashes his old MVP form. But Mahomes is the league’s defining young quarterback. Like a great boxer, he continues to embrace the challenge of every contender, and even though he has had a few setbacks, his early-career résumé eclipses them all.
On Feb. 12 in Glendale, Ariz., Mahomes will play in his third Super Bowl, this time taking on the Philadelphia Eagles. Now 27, he has led the Chiefs to a championship, and he also has been humbled by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense on the big stage. But Mahomes persists. He keeps coming at the league, showing new dimensions, and his fight has never looked more impressive than it does now.
“At some points in games, you’ve got to just to put it all on the line,” Mahomes said. “The defense gave us a couple chances to get in field goal range; we didn’t get there. The defense got another stop for us, and I knew I was going to get there somehow.”
Said Chiefs owner Clark Hunt: “Superman got his cape on and got it done for us.”
For the game, Mahomes completed 29 of 43 passes, amassed 326 yards and threw for two touchdowns. He managed to outplay Burrow, who threw for 270 yards and a touchdown but had two interceptions. Both impressed with their toughness. Burrow kept his team in the game after a brutal start in which he was sacked four times in his first nine dropbacks. And Mahomes, with the world’s most-talked-about ankle, turned out to be fine. Okay, functional.
Of course he was. As a football talent, Mahomes is an alien. For five seasons, we have seen him throw the ball differently — from the most unfathomable angles, after the most remarkable escapes and at the most critical moments — than anyone ever has. Now he’s a historically fast healer, too. It would be miraculous if it weren’t so unsurprising.
“He lived in the training room,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said. “I’m sure he went home, and his wife was probably working on him, too.”
Leading up to the game, Kansas City defensive end Frank Clark marveled at Burrow’s composure. He gave Burrow the highest compliment, but Mahomes shares the same traits.
“He’s got that Peyton Manning in him,” Clark said of Burrow, comparing him to the Hall of Famer as a pocket passer. “No matter how many times he gets hit, no matter how many times he gets knocked down, he’s getting back up [and] he’s controlling, bringing and pulling his offense back together and making the adjustments and making the right plays.”
Mahomes doesn’t always get credit for his resourcefulness because he’s such a highlight reel. But with Burrow on the other side, it was easier to see the side of Mahomes that grinds through difficulty.
Mahomes completed 13 of his first 16 passes. By halftime, he had 165 yards and a touchdown. The Chiefs had a 13-6 lead. It wasn’t as comfortable as the 21-3 cushion that they built early against the Bengals in last year’s AFC title game, but with the quarterback’s injury concerns and the Bengals on a 10-game winning streak in which they often jumped on teams early, it felt like a big deal that Kansas City controlled the first half.
But then the game got hard. So Mahomes hardened himself. He didn’t succumb to his throbbing ankle. He recovered after losing control of the football while setting up to pass and committing a turnover that led to a Bengals touchdown.
Mahomes kept doing what he could. The Chiefs had a solid game plan, employing quick passes to compensate for Mahomes’s limited mobility. He fed tight end Travis Kelce, who had his typical game: seven receptions, 78 yards and a touchdown. Mahomes also turned to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. He was the star of the receiving corps, catching six passes, gaining 116 tough yards and scoring a touchdown. He ran precise routes and made stunning grabs. He rewarded Mahomes for finding a way to deliver.
“He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around,” Valdes-Scantling said.
Mahomes is a quarterback prodigy already comfortable in his legend. He admits taking success for granted upon bursting into stardom in 2018, but he knows better now. Championship opportunities are rare and fleeting. He understands the Chiefs won’t be great forever. They must maximize their window while it’s still open.
“I appreciate [success] way more,” Mahomes said. “It all happened so fast. I won the MVP. I won the Super Bowl. I thought that was just how it happened. Now that I’ve dealt with failure — losing in AFC championship, losing in the Super Bowl — I know how much hard work and a daily grind that it takes.”
He knows how one play — one blow to his right ankle — can put all those dreams in jeopardy. And he knows how to keep dreaming anyway.
“People don’t realize how hurt he was,” Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach said. “It just adds to an already great legacy.”
The superhuman quarterback just won as a mortal. He did it on one leg, against his most formidable QB rival and in the face of a politician who went too far in making a joke that Burrow was Mahomes’s daddy.
“Know your role!” Kelce exclaimed as the Chiefs celebrated their AFC crown, clapping back at Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval. “And shut yo’ mouth!”
Kelce couldn’t resist, but he didn’t need to defend Mahomes. His doughty performance, punctuated by that final dash to victory, spoke the loudest.