If Patrick Mahomes had a flair for the overly dramatic instead of just the dramatic, he might have dug a red marker pen out of the junk drawer and begun scribbling on the sock that would cover his right ankle in the AFC championship game against the Bengals.
The roll of tape wrapped around his ankle might have made that challenging, but he reminded us again Sunday how determined he can be.
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All anyone needed to see to understand the depth of Mahomes’ commitment was that final play from scrimmage, which began with 17 seconds left and the Chiefs facing third-and-4 from the Cincinnati 47. Despite being diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain just eight days earlier, he had executed 65 prior plays, and that included two runs, three Bengals sacks and the usual assortment of Mahomes throws after various darting moves to keep himself from being hammered.
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In this circumstance, given the limited time remaining in a game that was tied, Mahomes intended to pass but hadn’t much of an opportunity, with the pass rush surrounding him almost immediately. He stepped forward into a vacant space, then noticed the vast open area toward the right and began dashing in that direction.
How could he move so fast with only one good leg? NextGen Stats calculated he was moving at 18.14 mph when he hit top speed on his 5-yard gain – his fastest run at any point in this postseason – which realistically covered about 35 yards from his starting point to the sideline.
“At some points in the games, you’ve got to put it all on the line,” Mahomes told CBS Sports. “I knew I was going to get there somehow.”
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That run might not have been enough to win the game in and of itself. He crossed the sideline at the Bengals’ 42, which would have meant needing to run another play with eight seconds left and no timeouts and risking the possibility of the ball carrier being tackled inbounds, or asking Harrison Butker to kick a 60-yard field goal on a 16-degree night with 12 mph winds (and gusts up to 20 mph).
After he left the field of play, however, Mahomes was shoved from behind by Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai.
Mahomes gives it his all for the first down!
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Sometimes, hard work is its own reward. And sometimes, it pays big in the best ways.
Had Mahomes not asked so much of his damaged leg and instead attempted a risky or speculative pass, the Chiefs might not be celebrating their third Super Bowl trip in his five seasons as a starting quarterback. Because he took the chance and took off, they wound up winning the game.
A 15-yard personal foul penalty assessed to Ossai for his hit out of bounds moved the Chiefs 15 yards closer to the goal line, and they required a mere 45-yarder from Butker for the winning points. That broke a three-game winning streak by the Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow over KC, which included last season’s AFC title game.
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“I didn’t expect to be able to run much, given the way that it felt,” Mahomes told reporters. “I tried to, a couple of times in the game, that I was trying to get through spots that I usually get through, but you could see that I didn’t have that burst that I usually have.”
For decades, those who cover sports and the fans who follow them have used Willis Reed’s Game 7 effort in the 1970 NBA Finals on a torn thigh muscle as the quintessential illustration of the athlete ignoring physical impairment to deliver under championship pressure. That was 53 years ago, though. There is a generation (or two) of sports fans who may understand the reference but were not around to see it happen. They can have Mahomes’ performance in Sunday’s 23-20 victory over the Bengals as their Willis Reed moment.
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As television reporters tried to make the appropriate fuss about what Mahomes had achieved in this game, which included 29-of-43 passing for 326 yards and two touchdowns, he worked nearly as hard during those brief interviews to shift the attention to his teammates, including Butker for standing up to the pressure of a kick that would place the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
“I told my team in the locker room: It’s going to be all of us,” he said. “This is a great team. This team stepped up, it’s a great football team, and we showed this place is Arrowhead. It’s not Burrowhead out there.”