KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Patrick Mahomes certainly deserved a game ball from Sunday night’s AFC title game, when the All-Pro quarterback dashed off on his sprained right ankle in the waning seconds to help set up the winning field goal.
Travis Kelce probably did, too. With the Chiefs missing three wide receivers because of injuries, the All-Pro tight end played through remnants of back spasms that nearly kept him out of the game entirely and finished with seven catches for 78 yards and a score.
The real MVP of the 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, though, might well have been longtime Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder and his staff. It was Burkholder and fellow trainer Julie Frymyer who put together a plan to get Mahomes ready for the Bengals, then had to find a way to get Kelce ready when his back acted up 48 hours before kickoff.
“I didn’t expect to be able to run very much,” Mahomes acknowledged. “The training staff, Julie, they did a great job of getting me enough range and mobility that I was able to protect myself, and then at the end of the game there, I had to run to get the first down and got us in field-goal range. So credit to them.”
Credit to them for Kelce, too.
“I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it,” he said, “but we have the best training staff in the entire NFL. … I’m just very thankful and appreciative. I don’t know where I would have been, mentally, if I wasn’t able to play this game.”
One thing is certain: The Chiefs probably wouldn’t be preparing to face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.
The job is only beginning for Burkholder and his team, though.
Mahomes was limping badly by the end and will no doubt use the next two weeks to ready his ankle for one more game. Kelce will likewise use the time to rest his ailing back. Then there’s cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who is in the concussion protocol; linebacker Willie Gay Jr. with an injured shoulder; and wide receivers Kadarius Toney (ankle), JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Mecole Hardman (pelvis), all of whom watched the dramatic conclusion Sunday night from the sideline.
The training room might be the busiest place at Arrowhead Stadium before the Chiefs head to Phoenix next week.
The Chiefs sacked the Bengals’ Joe Burrow five times, including one by Chris Jones that forced a final punt and gave Kansas City a chance to drive for the eventual winning field goal. That pressure helped a defensive backfield playing a trio of rookie cornerbacks and a rookie safety hang with one of the best groups of wide receivers in the league.
“My whole offseason was dedicated to this game,” said Jones, who had never has a postseason sack in 11 games before getting two Sunday night. “Making sure that when that moment calls, for me specifically, that I’ll answer the call.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Without three injured receivers and with their quarterback hobbled, the Chiefs continually tried to establish the run Sunday night. But they only managed 42 yards on 20 carries, a paltry 2.1 yards per attempt.
Frank Clark had five sacks in 15 regular-season games, but the three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher has been on a postseason tear. He has 2 1/2 between the divisional round and AFC title game, giving him 13 1/2 in the playoffs for his career. He trails only Willie McGinest (16) and Bruce Smith (14 1/2) for the most postseason sacks since 1982.
Right tackle Andrew Wylie had some brutal moments against the Bengals. His holding penalty brought back a touchdown run by Isiah Pacheco and forced Kansas City to kick a field goal. Later, Wylie was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for taunting, and Mahomes fumbled three plays later to set up a tying touchdown by Cincinnati early in the fourth quarter.
Mahomes, Kelce, Sneed, Gay, Hardman, Smith-Schuster and Toney would be plenty. But the Chiefs also had WR Justin Watson (illness) inactive Sunday and RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (sprained ankle) is still not fully back from injured reserve.
3 — The Chiefs will be making their third Super Bowl appearance in four years and the fifth in franchise history. They also will be seeking their third Lombardi Trophy after winning their first two 50 years apart.
The Chiefs are 5-4 against the Eagles with coach Andy Reid winning the past six games. How did he manage that? Reid won his last three before getting fired by Philadelphia and has since won all three against his former team with Kansas City.