The Kansas City Chiefs outlasted the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, in an instant classic of a game on Sunday to secure their third AFC Championship in four years and advance to Super Bowl LVII.
"It's a tribute to [our players'] work ethic," said Head Coach Andy Reid. "For our guys to grit up like [they did], it was beautiful."
Indeed, every member of the roster had a hand in Sunday's victory. The Chiefs persevered through numerous in-game injuries and shifts in momentum to secure the win, relying on all three phases in the closing minutes of the contest to do so.
In fact, with the game tied at 20 points apiece and only 2:36 remaining in regulation, the Chiefs elected to punt the ball away from the Bengals' 37 yard-line. A well-placed punt by Tommy Townsend backed up Cincinnati to its own 6-yard line, but the Bengals only needed to get in field goal range to potentially win the game. The Chiefs' defense, however, had other ideas.
Cincinnati only managed to reach its own 35-yard line, and on third down, defensive lineman Chris Jones sacked Bengals' quarterback Joe Burrow to force a Cincinnati punt with 44 seconds remaining in the game.
Return man Skyy Moore promptly returned the kick for 29 yards to midfield, positioning the Chiefs just outside of kicker Harrison Butker's range for a game-winning field goal. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes then proceeded to move the chains on third down with a 5-yard scramble to the sideline, and as he trotted out of bounds, Bengals' defensive end Joseph Ossai was flagged for a late hit.
Mahomes' efforts, coupled with the penalty, moved the Chiefs well into Butker's range, and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Butker didn't blink. His 45-yard attempt sailed through the uprights, and the game – which only had three seconds remaining – was essentially won.
"That was obviously the biggest kick of my career," Butker said. "It's such a blessing to be able to play with this organization – with the Chiefs. To think that we've played in five AFC Championship Games – all home games – and now a third Super Bowl is amazing, and it's a blessing. I'm just so happy with the momentum that we have now going into the Super Bowl."
Butker's kick ended what turned out to be heart-thumping game between two of the best teams in the NFL. The Chiefs never trailed in the contest, but to its credit, Cincinnati refused to go away.
Kansas City held an early six-point advantage courtesy of two Butker field goals, but the Bengals halved that lead with a field goal of their own midway through the second quarter. The Chiefs immediately responded, however, with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to tight end Travis Kelce.
The score – which took place on fourth down – gave Kansas City its biggest lead of the night at 10 points. It also represented the 13th career postseason touchdown connection between Mahomes and Kelce, making them the second-most productive duo in NFL playoff history. Only the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski (who connected for 15 touchdowns) own more.
It was part of a strong game for Kelce, who fought through a back injury to catch seven passes for 78 yards and a score. His 1,467 career receiving yards in the postseason are now the second most in NFL history, trailing only Jerry Rice (2,245).
Chiefs' cornerback Jaylen Watson then picked off Burrow on the Bengals' next possession, setting Kansas City up with great field position, but the Chiefs didn't capitalize. The Bengals seemed poised to make Kansas City pay for that failure soon after, too, as they marched deep into Chiefs' territory in the closing minutes of the first half. Watson turned in back-to-back strong plays to keep the Bengals out of the end zone though, forcing Cincinnati to settle for a field goal prior to halftime.
That meant that Kansas City carried a seven-point advantage into the break, but the Bengals tied things up when Burrow found wide receiver Tee Higgins for a 27-yard touchdown early in the third quarter.
This seemed to be a tipping point in the game, as the Chiefs had already lost numerous offensive players to injuries and the two teams were now back at square one in terms of the score. Cincinnati seemed to be wrestling the momentum into its corner, but Kansas City went on to answer in a big way.
Mahomes proceeded to engineer an 11-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on third down to put Kansas City back in front.
"He's like six-foot-five – he has long arms – and he threw his hand up," Mahomes said. "I couldn't really see in front of him, so I just tried to throw a line drive to him, and he was able to make a big play for us in a big part of the game."
The touchdown was part of a monster game for Valdes-Scantling, who caught six passes for 116 yards and the score. Additionally, three of his receptions moved the chains on third down.
"The ball just got put in the air and I made [some] plays," said Valdes-Scantling when asked about his big night. "[There's] not really any special secret. No secret sauce, just the ball went up, [and] I made the plays."
The touchdown meant that Kansas City carried the lead into the fourth quarter, but once again, Cincinnati managed to tie the game with a 2-yard touchdown plunge by tailback Samaje Perine early in the final period.
That was where the score remained until the aforementioned final sequence, and with the game on the line, Mahomes – playing just eight days removed from suffering an ankle sprain against Jacksonville – used his legs to send the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.
"Throughout the game, I think I just tried to do whatever I could to win. Obviously, there were times where you could see [that the ankle] wouldn't let me do what I wanted to, but I was able to do enough on that last play to get the first down, get myself out of bounds and try to give Harrison a chance to win it," Mahomes said. "I knew that I was going to do whatever I could to get us in field goal range, and then Harrison made the kick."
Mahomes completed 29-of-43 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns in the contest, leading Kansas City to its ninth postseason victory at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium with him at quarterback. Mahomes - who has 10 total postseason victories to his name - is the youngest quarterback in NFL history to reach double-digit playoff wins.
Defensively, the Chiefs held Cincinnati's high-powered offense to its lowest point total since late November. Kansas City racked up five sacks and two interceptions in the game, as Chris Jones led the way with two sacks, five quarterback hits and 10 overall pressures.
Sunday's victory was also a testament to the Chiefs' rookie class. In fact, seven of the Chiefs' first-year players had a significant hand in the triumph. Tailback Isiah Pacheco tallied 85 yards from scrimmage, Jaylen Watson recorded two passes defensed and an interception, cornerback Joshua Williams hauled in a pick, defensive end George Karlaftis notched a sack, safety Bryan Cook defended a pass that led to Williams' interception, and Skyy Moore's 29-yard punt return ignited the Chiefs' game-winning drive.
"What a tribute [that was] to [General Manager Brett Veach] and his staff," Reid said. "Who would have thought this at the beginning of the year? We had a lot of new faces, and for all of that to come together like that, it's satisfying as a coach."
In terms of injuries, Coach Reid mentioned cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (concussion protocol), wide receiver Kadarius Toney (ankle), wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) following the game. Fortunately, the Chiefs will now have two weeks to get healthy prior to Super Bowl LVII.
Sunday's game was in so many ways the ultimate team victory, and now with another Lamar Hunt Trophy in-hand, the Chiefs will look to win one more game as they take on the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 12.
Photos of game action from the Kansas City Chiefs AFC Championship matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals on January 29, 2023