KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City Chiefs had lost Patrick Mahomes to a concussion and were in danger of losing the game.
Then their defense and Chad Henne along with a gutsy call by Andy Reid kept their hopes of a Super Bowl repeat alive, holding off the Cleveland Browns 22-17 on Sunday to advance to their third straight AFC championship game.
With their star quarterback reduced to a spectator, the oft-forgotten bunch opposite Mahomes' high-powered offense forced the Browns to punt in the waning minutes. Then, his 35-year-old backup showed some moxie with a long third-down scramble and audacious fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill – when go-for-broke Reid decided to go for it – that gave the Chiefs a first down with just over a minute left and allowed them to run out the clock.
“That's why we love Big Red. He's always on time,” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “He's like our spirit warrior out here behind the scenes. He's always trying stuff. We always knew he has one play on the table.”
Or, as Mahomes wrote on Twitter after the win: “#HenneThingIsPossible.”
“We go through all those Saturday nights with the quarterbacks, those situations: 'Fourth-and-1 to win the game, what do you want?'” said Reid, who never once thought about punting on fourth down. “My coaches were on board, they all did a great job with the spot, with the calls, everything – they were spot-on. It was a great job.”
Mahomes finished 21 of 30 for 255 yards and a TD, and ran for another score.
Harrison Butker added three field goals for the Chiefs, who nearly blew a 19-3 lead but survived to become the first AFC team to host three consecutive conference title games. They'll face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
“It stings,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “We came here to win and didn't get the job done. There is a finality to that.”
Baker Mayfield threw for 204 yards with a touchdown and a pick for the Browns, who were coming off their first playoff win since the 1994 season. But their inability to drive for the winning touchdown – they punted with 4:23 left in the game – and defensive letdown kept them from winning two playoff games in a season for the first time since 1950.
“It came down to us on defense and we let it slip,” Browns pass rusher Myles Garrett said. “We had two opportunities. We didn't make it happen. It was right in front of us and we just – this time we didn't get it done.”
Mahomes completed 11 of his first 12 passes and led the Chiefs to back-to-back touchdowns to start the game. He ran for the first and let Travis Kelce turn a dump-off into a 20-yard catch for the other, making him the first player since the 49ers' Steve Young in 1995 with three straight playoff games with TDs on the ground and through the air.
After the teams swapped field goals, with Butker breaking the Chiefs playoff record with a 50-yarder into the wind, the Browns marched for what could have been a momentum-swinging score heading into halftime.
But just when Rashard Higgins tried to stretch over the goal line, Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen arrived to deliver a hit, popping the ball out of the end zone for a touchback call.
The entire complexion of the game changed early in the third quarter, though.
First, the Browns held the Chiefs when Mayfield threw an interception and Butker missed a field goal. Then, Mayfield led them briskly the other way, capping a 77-yard drive with a TD throw to Jarvis Landry.
And finally, roughly 17,000 fans allowed in the stadium due to pandemic were left sitting in stunned silence when Mahomes was tackled around the head with 7:27 left in the quarter and left crumpled on the turf near midfield.
The momentum finally turned. Chubb converted on fourth down with a hard run, then Hunt followed another fourth-down conversion on the same drive by hitting the end zone against his former team to make it 22-17 with 11:07 to go.
Tampa Bay at Green Bay
When: 3:05 p.m. Sunday
Buffalo at Kansas City
When: 6:40 p.m. Sunday