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A week of rehab and a 5-yard scramble: How Patrick Mahomes carried the Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes helped the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl. (Reed Hoffmann/AP)
11 min

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes Sr. stood in the shadow of the stage Sunday evening, a few feet away from where people wearing No. 15 jerseys made snow angels in the red and yellow confetti his son had made fall on the frigid Arrowhead Stadium grass. He puffed on a chewed-up stogie, the celebratory treat he had chosen for the occasion. “I went to the cigar shop and I said, ‘I’m getting a Joe Burrow,’ ” Mahomes said. “I thought I’d smoke one like he smokes.”

Patrick Mahomes II had led the Kansas City Chiefs back to the Super Bowl with one good ankle, uncommon pain tolerance and a surplus of grit and guts. He had hopped, skipped, limped and hobbled past Burrow and the fearless Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game. On his final snap, Mahomes made an audacious dash to the first down marker, at which point Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai’s lamentable shove provided the requisite yardage for Harrison Butker to boot the tiebreaking, game-winning field goal from 45 yards.

The Chiefs’ 23-20 victory pushed Mahomes to his third Super Bowl in five seasons as an NFL starter and provided another career milestone for the quarterback who has already become a legend at 27. Quarterbacking through an injury that would have sidelined many players, after a week of ceaseless rehab, Mahomes passed for 326 yards and two touchdowns and, in the end, conjured victory in the span of 27 seconds. The Chiefs reached another Super Bowl behind a constellation of memorable performances, starting with the destructive pass rushing of defensive tackle Chris Jones. They won foremost because of Mahomes’s unparalleled talent and irrepressible will.

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“He was hurting pretty bad,” Mahomes Sr. said. “I’ve been texting with him all week. He’s telling me, ‘Dad, I’m making progress, but I’m still hurting.’ I knew he was going to gut it out and do it. I’ve seen him do it in college. I’ve seen him do it before. So I knew he would be all right.”

All week, Mahomes required constant care. He applied ice, heat, tape and resistance bands to the right ankle he had badly sprained a week before, when Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Arden Key crashed onto his leg and bent it at an awful angle. He lacked speed and mostly lingered in the pocket, like Michael Jordan remaining earthbound in his prime. Nobody within the organization doubted he would play, but only because he is Patrick Mahomes.

“He was certainly a lot more injured today than I think he even showed out there,” Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach said. “He had a high-ankle [sprain]. Those are super painful. Some guys miss two, three weeks. But it doesn’t surprise me he’s able to grit it out and perform and make plays when we needed it.”

Mahomes’s ability to play began with his uncommon ability to heal. In 2019, he sprained his left ankle in Week 1 and returned the following week. He dislocated his kneecap later that season and wanted to return immediately; he missed only a few games with an injury that can threaten a player’s season.

“His mama has some different genes,” said Mahomes Sr., a retired major league relief pitcher. “She’s double-jointed and all that. He gets that from his mama. The athletic ability comes from me. That part comes from his mama.”

“It’s just in his wiring,” Veach said. “From the time he was a young kid, he’s always been the ultimate competitor, just that will to win instilled in him at an early age.”

Mahomes’s availability began with Chiefs assistant athletic trainer Julie Frymyer. She planned his rehab and stayed tethered to him in the team facility. She focused on increasing his mobility and lateral movement, using resistance bands to stretch and strengthen the muscles, ligaments and tendons around his ankle.

“Julie WAS the reason I was the guy I was on the field today!” Mahomes wrote on Twitter after the game. “It takes everyone but she led the charge all week!”

Mahomes “lived in the training room,” Coach Andy Reid said. Even at home, he applied constant ice and heat. Sometimes he asked his wife, Brittany, to join him as he treated his ankle so he could see his children.

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At the end of Thursday’s practice, the Chiefs’ most intense session of the week, Mahomes determined the tape around his ankle was too restrictive. “He was feeling pretty ginger,” backup quarterback Chad Henne said. “Once he got the tape off, he was like, ‘Oh, I feel free.’ ” But Mahomes needed tape to brace the ankle, so trainers adjusted how they applied it.

Even as he rehabbed, Mahomes refused to take a snap off at practice. He participated so completely that the Chiefs did not include him on their injury report.

“There was no doubt in my mind he was going to be there,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “I knew for a fact he was going to give this city and this organization and all the guys he goes to work with every single day everything he has.”

Mahomes knew his ankle would force concessions. When he passed, he would rely strictly on arm strength. “Back leg, that’s all your power,” Henne said. Mahomes knew he would throw more quick passes and check-downs than usual. Henne, the veteran who briefly relieved Mahomes against Jacksonville, told the younger quarterback, “Just hit the first open guy and don’t take any unnecessary hits.” Typically an escape artist in shoulder pads, Mahomes confined himself to the pocket.

“I didn’t have that burst that I usually have,” Mahomes said.

Mahomes piloted the Chiefs to a 13-6 halftime lead, moving well within small spaces. The Bengals had prepared for Mahomes as if he would be full strength, but as they realized Mahomes would be pocket-bound, they adjusted. No defenders accounted for Mahomes’s scrambling. On the rare plays he tried to squirt through the pocket, his lack of acceleration prevented big gains. Before his final scamper, Mahomes had run twice for three yards.

On the Chiefs’ second possession of the second half, Mahomes rolled to his left to escape linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither’s blitz. He saw wide receiver Mecole Hardman open across the middle, which forced him to plant his right foot, twist his upper body and sling a pass. He knew stopping would be his most painful act and, as he slowed, he took an awkward step. He limped back to the huddle, his gait affected for the rest of the night.

“They got me [as] close as they could to 100 percent,” Mahomes said, “and then I just battled through.”

The worst pain Mahomes felt came after the ball slipped out of his hand as he attempted a quick pass. He dived for the fumble into a pile of bodies, unable to protect his ankle. The Bengals emerged with the ball. Mahomes staggered off the field. As the game wore on, he appeared to think about the position of his ankle on every step.

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“I was definitely staying a lot more warm today than normal,” Henne said. “Always trying to keep my legs loose, just in case. You could be one hit away or just one bad fall.”

Mahomes operated with a diminished receiving corps. Kelce had injured his back at practice Friday and woke up Sunday uncertain whether he would play. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kadarius Toney, two of Mahomes’s top wide receivers, exited with injuries. On the Chiefs’ penultimate drive, Mahomes recorded a first down with a pass across his body, drifting left, to Marcus Kemp — a wide receiver who had caught four passes in his five-year career, none this season. Mahomes felt comfortable with Kemp because they were rookies together in 2017 and he had thrown to him on the Kansas City scout team.

The Chiefs’ defensive line swamped Burrow to stall Cincinnati’s last drive in the final minute of the fourth quarter. With the score tied at 20, rookie Skyy Moore returned Drue Chrisman’s ill-fated, line-drive punt 29 yards to the Kansas City 47-yard line. Mahomes trotted to the field with 30 seconds left.

Butker has one of the strongest legs in the NFL; he’s typically able to blast field goals from nearly 70 yards. But the conditions shrank his range. The wind chill dipped to near 0 degrees by game’s end, and the cold air left footballs deflated on the inside and hardened on the outside. In warmups, Butker had come up short on a 55-yard try. He told the coaches that he had a limit of 53 yards and was not certain he could make that. To give Butker a realistic chance, the Chiefs would need to advance at least 20 yards, to the Bengals’ 33-yard line.

The drive began with Mahomes’s lateral to Isiah Pacheco, who could not get out of bounds after a six-yard gain. The Chiefs burned their final timeout. An incomplete pass left them with third and four with 17 seconds left.

Mahomes took a shotgun snap and dropped back to his own 41. As Bengals defensive tackle B.J. Hill closed in, Mahomes scooted up in the pocket. He saw no open receivers and shuffled right, around defensive end Sam Hubbard. Space opened toward the sideline. If he ran, he would need to reach both the Cincinnati 43-yard line and the sideline to preserve the drive. He sprinted.

“That’s just all heart,” Henne said. “He knew he needed to make a play there and get us in field goal position. That’s just heart and determination.”

As Mahomes neared the sideline, Hubbard dived at him from behind, unable to reach him. Mahomes glided past the marker.

“We got a family motto: Players make plays,” Mahomes Sr. said. “And so he made a play.”

After Mahomes had taken two strides out of bounds, Ossai shoved him to the ground. An official hurled a flag as Mahomes slid on the yellowed grass near the Bengals’ bench. Fifteen additional yards gave the Chiefs the ball at the 27.

“On that last play, you saw it all come together, man,” Kelce said. “Moments like that just make it that much more special to be his teammate.”

Butker trotted onto the field. He swung his leg and drilled a kick he believed would have traveled about 65 yards on a normal day. Holder Tommy Townsend hugged him immediately, but Butker required confirmation. The ball floated just over the crossbar. Mahomes waved celebrating teammates off the field, recognizing that three seconds remained. After the Bengals’ desperate kick return went nowhere, the Chiefs had made it back to the Super Bowl.

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Mahomes will arrive in Arizona to face the Philadelphia Eagles with fresh perspective. At 24, he was the MVP as the Chiefs captured their first Super Bowl in 50 years. He has since collected competitive scars. He suffered a blowout loss in the next Super Bowl, and the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead to the Bengals in last year’s AFC championship game.

“When I first got in the league, it all happened so fast,” Mahomes said. “I won the MVP, I won the Super Bowl, and I thought that’s just kind of how it went. Now that I’ve dealt with failure, I know how much hard work and daily grind that it takes. And so I’m just excited to get to that game with the teammates that I have.”

Mahomes climbed the podium erected in the middle of the field, surrounded by teammates and Chiefs officials. After the televised ceremony, he limped to the side railing, spotted his family below and waved them over. Brittany and Mahomes’s brother, Jackson, hoisted the quarterback’s baby girl, Sterling, up to him.

Minutes later, Mahomes held on to the side railings with both hands as he descended the stairs, a final reminder of what it took to get there. For the moment, he cradled the Lamar Hunt trophy in his left hand and put his right arm around Brittany as she held Sterling. They posed for a photo — the final image of a night that showed, again, how Patrick Mahomes is different from all the rest.