How Chiefs' new, unfamiliar faces fueled a Super Bowl trip

KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- At some point last week, it all got out of hand. Too much Cincinnati Bengals love, too much Kansas City Chiefs disrespect. We roll our eyes when a team like the Chiefs says "nobody thought we could win," and while that wasn't technically true for this game, enough people picked the Bengals that the Chiefs had the right to say it.

Then there was the weird trash talk. The "Burrowhead Stadium" thing. The mayor of Cincinnati, unprompted, just lobbing word grenades as the Bengals were packing for their trip.

"The mayor was coming after me," Patrick Mahomes said Sunday night after willing Kansas City to the Super Bowl on one good leg. "I mean, come on."

In no universe was it ever a good idea to let the Chiefs feel like underdogs. But while it's easy to say that now, it really wasn't outlandish. This team isn't the kind of bully you picture when you think of a team that's been to three Super Bowls in five years. For proof, travel with me inside its postgame locker room, where the biggest smile in the room stretched across the face of rookie receiver Skyy Moore.

"I honestly didn't think they'd let me return another punt all year," Moore said, and he wasn't kidding. The second-round rookie was taken off of the punt return team earlier this season because he was dropping too many and it was costing the team. But even after the Chiefs stopped letting Moore return punts in games, they kept working with him on it in practice. Special teams coaches Dave Toub and Andy Hill worked with Moore on it every day.

"They just kept having confidence in me, even when I didn't," Moore said. "Here's something I'm doing for the first time, and I keep messing up, and they're out there like, 'We believe in you. We know you're going to be good at this.' It meant a lot."

Still, when he showed up Sunday for the AFC Championship Game, the last thing Moore expected was to be returning a punt in the final minute that set up the conference-winning field goal. I asked him where he was on the punt returner depth chart this week.

"It was Kadarius [Toney], then Mecole [Hardman], then J-Wat [Justin Watson], then [Trent] McDuffie, then me," Moore said.

Watson was inactive for the game, and McDuffie is one of the team's starting corners, so when Toney and Hardman went out of Sunday's game with injuries, Moore's antennae went up. Kansas City sent him back for a kick return early in the game after Toney's injury, and then, sure enough, the Chiefs tapped him on the shoulder when the Bengals lined up to punt with 41 seconds left and the score tied at 20-20.

"Honestly, the only thing I was thinking about was making sure I caught it," Moore said, "Then I saw it was like a low line drive and I had a chance to do something with it."

Moore had to backpedal to field the punt at his own 18-yard line. But the kick had little hang time, so he had room when he caught it, and he sprinted up the right sideline to the Kansas City 47 -- a 29-yard return that fit the very definition of clutch.

"Arguably the biggest play of the game," Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said.

Three plays and one terrible Bengals unnecessary roughness penalty later, Harrison Butker was lining up for the 45-yard field goal that put the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

"It says a lot about the culture here," rookie running back Isiah Pacheco said. "We've got a lot of young guys on this team, but the coaching staff and the leaders on our team made sure, all year, that we'd be ready when the time came."

Pacheco, the 251st pick in the 2022 NFL draft, out of Rutgers, had 85 yards from scrimmage in the AFC Championship Game, a week after rolling up 101 of them in the divisional round victory over the Jaguars. Pacheco was third or fourth on the running back depth chart coming out of camp but was the starter by the second half of the season and is a key reason Kansas City is still playing.

But that's not all.

Rookie cornerbacks Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams had interceptions Sunday, in a game that saw starting corner L'Jarius Sneed leave with a head injury in the first quarter. Rookie defensive end George Karlaftis had one of the team's five sacks of Joe Burrow. Marcus Kemp, a fifth-year practice squad receiver who had four catches in his career and none this season but was forced into action after injuries to Toney, Hardman and JuJu Smith-Schuster, caught a 13-yard pass for a first down at one point in the fourth quarter.

Young guys and new guys. With Kelce playing with a bad back and receivers dropping like flies, 2022 free agent signee Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught six Mahomes passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. Carlos Dunlap, signed early in training camp to help bolster the pass rush, didn't get one of the five sacks, but he hit Burrow twice and was a key part of the pressure package.

"The free agents, the guys we got in the draft, obviously they've helped us a lot and we're going to need them even more in the Super Bowl, but I can't thank them enough for choosing Kansas City," Kelce said. "Those guys who work their tails off and don't always get that opportunity in the game, for those guys to step up, that's the best feeling in the world."

We don't tend to think of the Chiefs like this. We think of Mahomes and Kelce and Chris Jones and Andy Reid -- the mainstays who have been the standouts in an incredible run of AFC dominance. We don't imagine Kansas City as a team that relies on rookies, that had to patch together a wide receiver corps all season, let alone Sunday. Given everything that went on in the offseason, the Chiefs might have had the right to think of this as something of a rebuilding year. That they've ended up in the Super Bowl anyway should terrify the rest of the league.

"That's what's crazy -- this is still only the beginning," Dunlap said. "Look around at all these young guys. Like, this was my 200th game or something [actually his 205th], but so many of these guys are just getting started. What an experience for the young guys. And think about what it means for this team's future."

No, the Patrick Mahomes/Andy Reid Chiefs don't rebuild. But they had to do an awful lot of retooling -- this year, this week and in the course of this game. They did it. And so somehow, in a year when the Bills and the Bengals took turns as favorites in a conference Mahomes and Reid have owned for half a decade, the Chiefs have emerged scarier than ever. They might not beat the Eagles in two weeks, but then again they very well might. And regardless of what happens in the Super Bowl, the Chiefs aren't going away any time soon.

Maybe next time, we'll all work a little harder to make sure they don't get to feel like underdogs.