KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- After 50 years of frustration, the Kansas City Chiefs are heading back to the Super Bowl.
It took another postseason rally, coming back from 17-7 deficit against the Tennessee Titans in Sunday's AFC Championship, but the Chiefs managed to pull away with a 35-24 victory to punch their ticket for Miami.
Winning an AFC championship is an amazing feeling, quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.
“Obviously being able to do it at home, being able to win the Lamar Hunt Trophy here and do it for the fans and everybody like that was awesome,” Mahomes said. “We fell short last year and we learned from it. We built every single day and now we have the chance to go to Miami and get the ultimate goal, which is a Super Bowl.”
The Chiefs got off to shaky start defensively, surrendering a 37-yard connection from Ryan Tannehill to rookie receiver A.J. Brown on the second play of the opening drive. The Titans had reached the end zone on 40 of their last 41 scoring drives entering the game, but the Chiefs stood up the Titans in the red zone and held Tennessee to a 30-yard field goal to open the scoring.
Kansas City's defense nearly made a game-breaking play on Tennessee's second possession when cornerback Bashaud Breeland appeared to pick off a Tannehill pass intended for Corey Davis. Officials ruled the ball hit the ground, however, and the Titans retained possession. A Chiefs penalty on third-and-5 and a fourth-and-2 pass from Tannehill to Adam Humphries extended the drive. Henry took a direct snap from the 4-yard line into the end zone in putting the Titans ahead 10-0.
The Chiefs finally broke on to the scoreboard late in the first quarter. Mahomes used two push passes on jet sweeps on a 10-play, 74-yard drive capped off by a jet sweep pass to Tyreek Hill for 8 yards, cutting the deficit to 10-7.
The Titans opened up the second quarter with the clock-draining drive they've specialized in this postseason. A defensive pass interference flag on cornerback Bashaud Breeland on third-and-22 gave the Tennessee offense a new life, and they capitalized. Tannehill finished the 15-play, 74-yard drive comprising 9 minutes and 7 seconds with a 1-yard pass to offensive line Dennis Kelly, who lined up as an eligible receiver. That put the Titans up 17-7.
Mahomes then put his MVP prowess on full display in the final minutes of the first half. When the Chiefs have fallen behind in the preseason, the team put its faith in the quarterback, Reid said.
“We all do, we all believe in him,” Reid said. “It's not just me, it's everybody.”
After the long Titans' drive, Mahomes engineered a quick five-play, 63-yard drive capped off with a 20-yard touchdown strike to Hill. Kansas City then held the Titans to a three-and-out, and Mahomes struck again driving Kansas City 86-yards in 1 minute, 40 seconds. He finished the drive himself with an immaculate scramble, covering 27 yards and dragging a couple of Titans defenders with him into the end zone for the final few yards. That lifted the Chiefs a 21-17 halftime lead.
The Titans played a version of two-man, Mahomes explained, with double coverage on both both Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. That left wide open space out to his left once the defensive line got caught up in blocks.
“I was thinking about just running out of bounds,” Mahomes said. “As I got to the sideline I realized that I could cut up. I was running down the sideline and I knew we had two timeouts so I was like, I might as well try to cut it back. I cut it back and luckily was able to hang on to the ball and get in the end zone.
That play proved huge, Reid said.
“For him to be able to see that in the heat of it is something,” Reid said. “He's got great eyes, great vision, which we know in the passing game, but he sees the whole picture and then he's able to find spots.”
After that Kansas City's defense finally started to assert its authority. The Chiefs lead the NFL in scoring defense over the final six games of the season, and the revitalized unit assumed command in the second half. The Titans collected 186 total yards in the first half but tallied only 21 in the third quarter.
Running back Derrick Henry, who bowled through the Titans' two playoff wins with 377 rushing yards, picked up just 69 yards on 19 carries against the Chiefs. The plan was to hit him low, linebacker Anthony Hitchens said.
“The second time I had a chance to hit him low, I actually missed him,” Hitchens said. “Then I went to the sideline and told my guys, “Just because I missed him, it doesn't mean I'm going to stop going low.' That's the only way that you are going to get this guy down.”
Safety Tyrann Mathieu agreed that the defensive game plan against Henry was that simple.
“I don't think it was anything extra we needed to do defensively,” Mathieu said. “It's just more so about doing your job, understanding that one of us is going to have to make the tackle and the rest of us just have to rally to the ball. I thought we did a good job of that for the most part in the run game.”
Meanwhile, the Chiefs offense didn't let up. Running back Damien Williams plunged in for a 3-yard run opening the first quarter, and the celebration started at Arrowhead Stadium. Midway through the quarter, wide receiver Sammy Watkins got behind the Titans secondary, and Mahomes scrambled until he found his man. After a catch and fun of 60 yards, the Chiefs owned a 35-17 lead.
The Titans didn't relent, however, with punter Brett Kern throwing a pass on a fake punt to safety Amani Hooker for a 28-yard gain. That set up a Tannehill touchdown pass for 22 yards to tight end Anthony Firsker, closing the gap to 35-24.
With the victory, the Chiefs laid claim to the Lamar Hunt Trophy presented each season to the AFC Champion, an award named hearing the name of the team's founder that had never landed in the hand of the team's franchise.
Until now. Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt strolled into his postgame press conference still holding the trophy and sitting atop the corner of the podium.
“Obviously we are very emotional,” Hunt said. “We are very excited to win the trophy that has my dad's name on it and have an opportunity to head to Miami and head to Super Bowl LIV.”