BALTIMORE — While they stood and sang, he sat in silence. As the music blared and cigar smoke filled the air and his teammates danced in the delirium of their fourth trip to the Super Bowl in five years, Patrick Mahomes retreated to a plastic chair in the corner of the visitors' locker room at M&T Bank Stadium and exhaled.
The elation was there, but at that moment the best football player in the world seemed completely relieved. He stared at his phone for five minutes with a grin on his face.
Even after the midseason grind and all the drops from his receivers, after weeks of biting his tongue in front of the microphones only to finally break out on the sidelines after his Pro Bowl tight end started showing his age, and the While pundits began to wonder whether the champions still had the guts to make another playoff run — this one had to take place on the road — one truth remains unavoidable: This is still Patrick Mahomes' league.
He is Michael Jordan in his prime, the hurdle that many of his peers can't navigate when it matters most. Jordan spent the 1990s dashing the title hopes of his peers – Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone – who were themselves worthy Hall of Famers. That's what Mahomes is doing right now, and guys like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are wondering when their time will come. And if this guy ever gets out of the way.
“It's hard to describe someone that well,” Kansas City general manager Brett Veach said Sunday night, an hour after the Chiefs earned a 17-10 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, their fourth conference win. title in Mahomes' six seasons as a rookie. “He is a legend. He is a blessing.”
And it remains an obstacle for any team in the AFC with Super Bowl aspirations.
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This run was different — perhaps even more enjoyable — because of the path the Chiefs took. Because of a chaotic regular season and an offense that never looked right and the questions that continued into early January. It's been just over a month since Veach worked with head coach Andy Reid after the Chiefs lost a game to the Raiders on Christmas Day, their fifth loss in eight weeks, an unimaginable mediocrity for a team that has been a contender ever since Championship is the moment Mahomes became the starter in 2018.
“Something wasn’t right,” Veach said. “I think this loss really hit us. It allowed the entire organization to take a look in the mirror.”
Five weeks later, he cited this as one of the reasons they are still playing.
From the start of the postseason, on a freezing evening in Kansas City in the wild-card round, the champions appeared revitalized. For starters, Kelce seemed eager to shake off his sloppy regular season: He stormed the field for warmups that night, dancing and shouting, sleeveless in subzero temperatures. His energy never wavered and his fire ignited the team. The Dolphins never had a chance.
What the Chiefs have accomplished in consecutive weeks since then – winning in Buffalo and then Sunday night in Baltimore – is a testament to the championship resolve they forged in past postseason runs, not to mention the lessons they learned from their difficult one regular season.
“It's a difficult thing,” Reid said of the long playoff runs that happen every winter and the rigors of playing two or three extra games every year. “You have to work through it mentally. That is not easy.”
The win on Sunday spoke for that. The Chiefs looked and played like a veteran team. The Ravens constantly got in their own way. The Chiefs assessed three penalties; the Ravens eight. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first two red zone trips and finished the game without a turnover; The Ravens turned over three times, twice deep in Kansas City territory.
Baltimore's frustration simmered as the game wore on. Jackson threw an errant interception into triple coverage and banged his helmet. Ravens standout rookie receiver Zay Flowers fumbled the ball on the goal line, stormed to the bench and cut his hand.
The Chiefs played like champions.
“When it came time to put the hammer down, they put the hammer down,” Reid said.
Mahomes shined early, playing the quarterback position about as well as it can be played against an elite defense like Baltimore's. He made throws from tight windows, like his touchdown against Kelce in the first quarter. He crawled out of muddy pockets and kept the rides alive. He completed his first 11 passes, a harsh and humbling reminder for the raucous, purple-and-black-clad crowd at M&T Bank Stadium.
That means the AFC still runs through the Chiefs – even if the games are played somewhere other than Kansas City.
“We are the outlaws,” Rashee Rice later boasted. “Everyone wants to beat the Chiefs. We have a target on our back every day.”
After a grueling second half that featured five straight punts from the Chiefs' offense, Mahomes threw his finest throw of the game, a bow dagger to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on 3rd-and-9 with 2:19 left, which wowed fans fled and took exits.
“We have the best quarterback in the world,” Chiefs linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “We got the best tight end in the world. We have the best coach in the world. We have the best defensive coordinator in the world. We have the best general manager in the world.
“If you have all this? It's only a matter of time.”
At one point in the second half, Mahomes had 27 completions and Jackson had five. Mahomes finished the game 30 of 39 for 241 yards and a touchdown, surpassing the league's presumptive MVP in moments big and small (Jackson was 20 of 37 for a touchdown and an interception). In a game where both quarterbacks faced championship-caliber defenses, Mahomes was more stable. Jackson was streaky at best.
And an audience that desperately wanted to see Jackson finally get to the Super Bowl – pretty much everything missing from his resume at this point – instead had to watch No. 15 pick up a win for the fourth time in five years, with a chance to win his third Lombardi Trophy. With Joe Burrow's 2021 season being the only exception, Mahomes continues to send his colleagues home year after year.
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The scene that followed was familiar in some ways, but fresh in others. Mahomes stood on another stage and accepted another trophy, perhaps the most surprising of all he has lifted in this golden start to his career. “You don’t take it for granted,” he later said of reaching his final Super Bowl. “You never know how many you’ll reach.”
He's 28. He's already won 14 playoff games, just like Peyton Manning, just like John Elway, just like Terry Bradshaw. That puts him tied for third all-time, behind only Joe Montana (16 wins) and Tom Brady (35). And he did it in just six seasons.
After Mahomes presented the Lamar Hunt Trophy, Kelce – who caught all 11 of his targets for 116 yards and a touchdown – strolled off the stage hand in hand with his celebrity girlfriend Taylor Swift. A Chiefs teammate couldn't contain the rush of photographers, dozens upon dozens of them, following them. It was breathtaking, even for a team used to being in the intense spotlight.
“My God, I’ve never seen anything like that,” the player said.
From there, Kelce eventually found his brother Jason wearing a Chiefs hat. They hugged each other.
“This is an easy team to support,” Jason said a moment later. “They stayed together through all this nonsense.”
There was plenty of that, the rigors of a championship chase that never seemed to be on track for months. The spark came from Kelce, who was nervous during walkthroughs and drills all week (“He led us,” Mahomes said, “he loves a challenge”). And from Reid, who never batted an eyelid in his postgame meetings with team owner Clark Hunt this season (“He never doubted the team,” Hunt said). And from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who devised a masterful game plan on Sunday and stifled Jackson and the Ravens' offense throughout the game.
But — like any contender — a big part of it depends on the face of the franchise, who has found a spot in a celebratory locker room to sit alone and soak up the vibes after the most exciting season of his career.
It wasn't just another trip to the Super Bowl. It was the most unlikely thing of all.
“He gives everyone that belief and that hope,” Veach said of his quarterback. “It doesn’t matter what the odds are, where we play, where we go. If we have 15 under center, we have a chance.”
(Photo: Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)