Then their defense and Chad Henne — 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 13-yard 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 (15-2) 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 night 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 hadn’t played in 21 days, since the Chiefs clinched the AFC’s top seed in Week 16, but he hardly missed a beat before leaving midway through the third quarter. He 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 next 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 (12-6), 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.
In fact, Mahomes was so sharp passing in the first half that he even completed a celebratory heave to a lucky fan in the far reaches of Arrowhead Stadium's upper deck following his touchdown jaunt.
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, the Chiefs' Daniel Sorensen arrived to deliver a hit, popping the ball into the end zone for a touchback — the call stood after a video review.
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.
Mahomes, already hobbled by a foot injury, stumbled as he tried to get to his feet. He was eventually helped to the blue tent on the sideline, then ran to the locker room, where he was evaluated for a concussion.
“It kind of knocked the wind out of him and everything else," Reid said after the game. "He's doing great right now, which is a real positive as we look at this. He passed all the deals he needed to pass and we'll see where it goes from here.”
The momentum finally turned, the Browns began to lean heavily on their vaunted run game, which had produced just 18 yards in the first half. Nick 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.
It remained with Cleveland when Karl Joseph picked off Henne in the end zone a few minutes later, but the Chiefs stuffed Chubb on first down, forced an incompletion and ultimately made Cleveland punt.
Henne's gutsy scramble and Reid's equally daring fourth-down call kept the Browns from having another chance.
“It's a little different when your quarterback goes down, someone so important to your offense and your team,” Kelce said, “but you have to throw it all into the same bucket of, ‘When adversity hits, what are you going to do? Where does your mind go? Where do we go from here as a team?’ We rallied around Chad, gave him some confidence, knowing we were out there making plays every single snap, just like if Pat was out there.”
BACK ON THE FIELD
Stefanski made his playoff head coaching debut after missing last week's game in Pittsburgh because of COVID-19. Pro Bowl OL Joel Bitonio and CBs Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson also were back from their illnesses.
The Chiefs begin preparing for the Bills next Sunday. They beat them 26-17 in Buffalo in Week 6.