Patrick Mahomes shows grit in the Chiefs’ win over the Jaguars, is optimistic about his ankle

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Amid the Chiefs’ most important game of the 2022 season, the five-person conversation on the sideline during Saturday’s divisional round playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars was not an exchange of ideas. Instead, it was a dictation from Andy Reid, a future Hall of Fame coach, to superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes of what needed to happen next.

Surrounding Mahomes and Reid were offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy and Rick Burkholder, the vice president of sports medicine. Mahomes pleaded with Reid, raising his voice and even displaying his frustration by throwing his sideline coat to the ground. Reid stood firm in his decision, never changing his tone.

“If it’s negative,” Reid told Mahomes, “I’ll put you back in.”

As quickly as he could, Mahomes hobbled toward the Chiefs locker room, his right ankle in pain and a series of X-rays awaiting. Eventually the X-ray machine revealed that Mahomes didn’t have a broken bone. Once he heard the news, Mahomes had only one thought: He was getting himself back on the field inside Arrowhead Stadium to ensure the Chiefs season didn’t end.

Indeed, Mahomes, as he often does, accomplished his mission, as the Chiefs outlasted the Jaguars for a 27-20 victory Saturday afternoon.

“I’m not coming out of a playoff game unless they take me out,” said Mahomes, who played the entire second half with a sprained right ankle. “I love this sport too much. I’m glad that I was able to get back in the game. I just love competing in this sport.”

Mahomes connected on 11 of his first 12 pass attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown. But late in the first quarter, Mahomes moved into the pocket to extend a play. After completing the subsequent pass, he had his right ankle rolled up on by outside linebacker Arden Key. Mahomes immediately grieved and struggled to move. The Chiefs called a timeout to give Mahomes more time. The next snap was even more troubling, as Mahomes mostly hopped on his left leg before and after handing the ball to running back Jerick McKinnon on a run play.

Then came Reid’s instructions during the Jaguars’ next possession, just moments after more tape was applied to Mahomes’ right ankle and foot to manage the swelling. Mahomes’ suggestion to Reid was that he could wait to get his X-ray scans during the halftime, but Reid didn’t budge, electing to have backup quarterback Chad Henne, a 15-year veteran, lead the offense.

“I thought everybody around him did a nice job, too,” Reid said. “The best thing about that is everyone trusts Chad, the confidence the guys have in him. The guys love Chad.”

In 12 plays, Henne led the Chiefs on an impressive 98-yard drive, a sequence of plays that featured short passes, rugged runs from rookie running back Isiah Pacheco and the route-running expertise of superstar tight end Travis Kelce.

Henne finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kelce with an assist from receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who ran a perfect rub route to open the way for Kelce. When Henne got to the Chiefs sideline, he was greeted by an intense Mahomes, who celebrated the touchdown by jumping in excitement and pumping his right fist.

In the Chiefs locker room at halftime, Mahomes went through a few drills, such as testing his footwork while dropping back, to convince Reid he could still perform well despite his mobility being hampered. It worked. Mahomes returned to the field at the start of the second half as Chiefs fans chanted “MVP!” The Chiefs’ first third-down play ended with Mahomes using his legs to escape the pocket, and away from defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris, before scrambling for the first down.

“That kind of told me he was OK,” Reid said of Mahomes, who will undergo an MRI on the ankle Sunday, a team source confirmed to The Athletic. “I didn’t want him to do that (scramble from the pocket), but I didn’t tell him not to. If (the player) can’t do that, then they’ve got to get out of the game.”

While the Chiefs offense then struggled in consecutive possessions, their defense offered plenty of support in the second half, which prevented the Jaguars from taking the lead at any point in the game.

A mix of veterans with postseason experience and young, inexperienced players proved to be a quality combination for the Chiefs defense to disrupt a Jaguars offense led by star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Behind defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the unit produced a solid performance to the end of the first half while Henne operated the offense. The pass-rushing duo of superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark pushed the Jaguars out of range to kick a field goal. Clark then finished with a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and a timely sack.

“It gets to a point where, you know, when the money’s on the line, you know who to call on,” said Clark, whose 12 sacks in the postseason are the fourth-most in league history. “I’m a winner. I like winning. When you get to the playoffs, it becomes a premium on making the right play every play.”

Following halftime, Spagnuolo did what he was known for: blitzing opposing quarterbacks. A blitz from safety Justin Reid was enough pressure for Lawrence to throw a “50-50 pass” on the perimeter that was intercepted by rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson, who caught the ball with only his right hand.

“That’s my favorite thing to do,” Reid said of blitzing. When guys create a pass rush and pressure the quarterback, that leads to turnovers in the secondary. We couldn’t have dialed it up any better.”

Meanwhile, Mahomes, who struggled at times with his accuracy in the second half, saved his best work for the most critical moment. The Jaguars scored their lone touchdown of the second half early in the fourth quarter to cut the Chiefs’ lead to three points. Mahomes responded by navigating the pocket and completing passes in the middle of the field to Kelce and a pivotal back-shoulder pass to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

“Luckily for me, I’m not in the right foot position all the time, so I’m able to make some throws like that anyway,” Mahomes said of having to adjust his throwing mechanics. “I got the ball out of my hands quickly and guys made plays. It’s a team sport for a reason. The guys stepped up around me.”

The constant contributor in the Chiefs offense — and their most favorable matchup against the Jaguars’ defense — was Kelce, who was targeted by Mahomes and Henne a combined 17 times. Kelce recorded 14 receptions, the most for a tight end in postseason history, for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Entering the game, the Jaguars ranked last in both success rate on passes to tight ends and EPA per play. The Jaguars in the regular season allowed 9.54 yards on average to opponents when the opposing quarterback threw a pass to the tight end. Most of Kelce’s production was generated within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, as he caught all 13 of his targets in that area of ​​the field for 84 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

“It’s really all just predicated off of how the defense reacts to what we’re doing,” Kelce said. “I was fortunate enough to have the pride to be able to make those plays. I take a lot on myself to be able to make those plays, especially when we need it the most.”

Kelce’s presence influenced the Jaguars’ coverage in the red zone in the middle of the fourth quarter. With the Jaguars assigning two defenders to Kelce, Valdes-Scantling knew all he needed to do was beat cornerback Tyson Campbell on a slant to get open in the back of the end zone. Mahomes stepped up into the pocket and delivered a 6-yard jump pass to Valdes-Scantling, who was wide open in the back of the end zone.

The play also marked the only time in the second half that Mahomes was hit by a defender.

“Pat getting up still excited and hobbling off the field just shows the toughness that he has and the leader that he is,” Valdes-Scantling said of Mahomes, who was never sacked while passing for 195 yards and two touchdowns. He was his own self. There was no difference.”

With Saturday’s victory, Reid and Mahomes have guided the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game for a fifth consecutive year, the second-longest streak in league history. The previous four games have all been played at Arrowhead Stadium, and the fifth could be as well if the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Buffalo Bills in Sunday’s promotional matchup. If the Bills win, the title game will be played in Atlanta, a neutral site since the Bills were unable to play 17 games in the regular season. (The Week 17 game between the Bills and Bengals was canceled after Damar Hamlin, the Bills’ second-year safety, collapsed and went into cardiac arrest on the field.)

In next week’s game, Mahomes will attempt to replicate a feat he pulled off two years ago in the AFC Championship Game, when the Chiefs bludgeoned the Bills to reach their second consecutive Super Bowl. In that game, Mahomes had a stellar performance despite sustaining a concussion and a torn plantar plate in his left foot, an injury also known as turf toe, the previous week in a win over the Cleveland Browns. He overwhelmed the Bills by recording 325 passing yards and three touchdowns while committing zero turnovers.

When it was time to exit Arrowhead, Mahomes left the locker room Saturday night without a walking boot. His gain was smoother than expected, too.

“It feels better than I thought it was going to be,” he said. “Obviously I’ve got a lot of adrenaline going right now, so we’ll see how it feels. I’ll hop right into the treatment tonight and try to do whatever I can to be as close to 100 percent by next week.”

(Photo of Patrick Mahomes: Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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