Since the 2018 season, Chiefs Kingdom has revolved around the gravity of superstar Patrick Mahomes—and rightfully so. The young gunslinger set the NFL world abuzz since his installation as Kansas City’s starting quarterback, and has made supernatural plays look elementary.
Even this week, after the Chiefs outlasted the Cleveland Browns in a win-or-go-home playoff game, Mahomes and his availability dominated the headlines. There is no doubt that Mahomes is every bit as good as they say he is, but Sunday’s victory was a statement from the other 52 players on the Chiefs roster.
That statement was the same statement made last year when Mahomes went down with an injury. This is a team that will play their hearts out for each other, no matter what adversity may come—something known in these parts as “Championship Swagger”.
Championship Swagger was the rallying call of the 2019 Chiefs team, and every die-hard fan reads those words and hears them in Tyrann Mathieu‘s hoarse-from-yelling voice in the 2019 AFC Championship. The 2020 Chiefs, at times, looked like they had lost that swagger. During the last month of the regular season, talking heads around the league seemed only concerned with the Chiefs’ narrow margins of victory. They sought to prematurely reallocate the king’s crown to another team.
Those who had grown weary of having to endure Kansas City’s success were in a prime position to celebrate headed into the final minutes of the fourth quarter of Sunday’s AFC Divisional matchup. Somewhere in an alternate universe, Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless have crowned Bills quarterback Josh Allen as MVP.
As former Chiefs star Kareem Hunt celebrated his 4th quarter touchdown, bringing the Browns within a score of the defending champs, Tony Romo remarked, “…it is getting scary, and this if reverberating across the National Football League, the champs are in the lead but it doesn’t feel comfortable, does it?”
Scary and uncomfortable are the perfect words to summarize how Chiefs fans felt at that moment. Those feelings would be further amplified with eight minutes left in the game when Chad Henne threw what looked more like a punt than a pass directly to a Brown defender. The scene felt all too familiar, a return to what has been the story for a snakebitten franchise the past 50 years.
As the sensation of another playoff disaster that seemed to emulate past failures: This game had seen no punts so far, and had their Super Bowl-winning quarterback knocked out of the game in the 3rd quarter with a concussion. This game felt like a two-for-one special on the ghost of past playoff traumas. The Browns would take the ball at their own 20-yard line and convert a 4th-and-inches at the 30, continuing to gobble momentum. This was a movie we had all seen before, or so we thought.
It was a subtle difference, only noticeable in the moments on the sidelines and between plays. It was Travis Kelce on the sidelines and Chris Jones on the field both waving their arms to pump up the crowd while the defense lined up. It was Dan Sorensen jawing with Nick Chubb after a tackle on the boundary. It was Anthony Hitchens making a tackle at the line on 2nd down, and Juan Thornhill and L’Jarius Sneed clamping down on Browns receiver Rashard Higgins to force the 4th down.
Championship swagger had returned in resounding fashion.
Baker Mayfield squeezed forward the handful of inches needed to gain the first down on 4th-and-1, but that would be the last first down for Cleveland that day. On the very next play, lineman Chris Jones, the heart of Kansas City’s defense, would barrel through the Browns offensive line, hurdle a lineman at his feet, and with the sheer will of Chiefs Kingdom, latch on to the back of Nick Chubb’s jersey with one hand and force a tackle for a loss. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would bring the heat on 2nd and 11, with Mathieu and Sorensen forcing Baker to throw a screen pass, where Frank Clark was lingering resulting in an incomplete pass. On 3rd-and-11, Jones made quick work of All-Pro guard Wyatt Teller and Baker had to throw a check down, only for Chubb to be swallowed well short of the 1st down. The Chiefs defense forced a punt and continued where they left off last year: exorcising their playoff demons.
As it turns out, Championship Swagger is contagious. 35-year-old backup quarterback Chad Henne, who had not taken a snap in a meaningful football game since 2014, found that out first hand. Faced with 3rd-and-14, the veteran signal-caller did his best imitation of Patrick Mahomes’ daring dash in the 2019 AFC Championship against the Titans. Henne floated out to the left of the pocket before accelerating upfield and diving for the first down marker. Henne fell six inches short of an almost equally legendary scramble, and the Chiefs were expected to punt.
Much has been made about Andy Reid‘s decision to go for it on 4th-and-inches to ice the game. Commentary Nostradamus Tony Romo’s reaction says everything you need to know about the level of courage required to call this play in this scenario:
There is more to this moment than what the casual fan would know. The backup quarterback lined up behind a patchwork offensive line that was missing 3 starters, motioned the 3rd string running back into the backfield, and there was no Sammy Watkins either. The championship depth of Kansas City, and not just in the sense of positions on the depth chart, was on full display for a defining moment in their season.
Patrick Mahomes is still the man in Kansas City. Unfortunately, for the rest of the NFL, when Mahomes was no longer around to shoulder the load, the Kansas City Chiefs still showed that they have what it takes to overcome adversity and win on the biggest stage. This team showed they will play for each other until the final whistle, that they still have their Championship Swagger.
The headlines will continue to be about Patrick Mahomes, but the real story just might be what this team went through in the final minutes of this game, how they came together, and played for each other in what could be the catalyst in the campaign to repeat as champions.