As a regular season effort gives way to a Super Bowl run, Patrick Mahomes remains inevitable

BALTIMORE – While they stood and sang, he sat in silence. As the music blared, cigar smoke filled the air and his teammates danced in the rave of a fourth trip to the Super Bowl in five years, Patrick Mahomes retreated to a plastic chair in the corner of the visitors' locker room at M&T Bank Stadium and exhaled.

The joy was certainly there, but in this moment, the best footballer on the planet wore a look of complete relief. For five minutes he stared at his phone with a smile on his face.

Even after a midseason effort and all those drops from his receivers, after he spent weeks biting his tongue in front of microphones only to finally erupt on the sideline, his Pro Bowl tight end was starting to show his age and critics were starting to wonder if the Champs still had the ability Another playoff round – this one must come On the road – There is one inescapable fact: This is still Patrick Mahomes' league.

He's Michael Jordan in his prime, a barrier that many of his peers can't find their way to when it matters most. Jordan spent the 1990s crushing the title hopes of his peers — Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone — and they are worthy of a Hall of Fame in their own right. That's what Mahomes is doing now, leaving the likes of Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson asking themselves when their time will come. And if this guy will get out of the way.

“It's hard to describe someone Which Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said Sunday night, an hour after the Chiefs beat the Ravens 17-10 in the AFC Championship Game, their fourth conference title in Mahomes' six seasons as a starter. “He's a legend. He's a blessing.”

He remains a liability for every team in the AFC with Super Bowl aspirations.

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This round has been different – and perhaps more satisfying – because of the route the leaders have taken. Because of a chaotic regular season, an offense that never looked right, and questions that lingered until early January. It's been just over a month since Veach met with head coach Andy Reid after the Chiefs lost a Christmas Day game to the Raiders, their fifth loss in eight weeks, an unimaginable slide from mediocrity for a team that was a contender for the Championship ever since. The moment Mahomes became the starter in 2018.

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“Something went wrong,” Fitch said. “I think this loss really affected us. It allowed the entire organization to take a look in the mirror.

Five weeks later, he described that as one of the reasons they were still playing.

From the moment the postseason began, on a frigid evening in Kansas City in the wild-card round, the champions looked fresh. At first, Kelce seemed intent on shaking off his sloppy regular season: He stormed the court that night for warmups, dancing and screaming, sleeveless in subzero temperatures. His energy never waned, and his fire ignited the team. The Dolphins never had a chance.

What the Chiefs have done in back-to-back weeks since then, winning in Buffalo, and then at Baltimore on Sunday night, has been a testament to the championship resolve built up during past postseason runs, not to mention the lessons learned from their rocky regular season.

“It's tough,” Reid said of making deep playoff runs each winter, and the difficulty of playing two or three extra games each year. “You have to work through it mentally. It's not easy.

Sunday's win spoke to that. The Chiefs looked and played like a veteran team. Crows were constantly getting in their way. The Chiefs committed three penalties. Eight crows. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first two red zone trips and finished without a turnover. The Ravens turned it over three times, twice deep in Kansas City territory.

Baltimore's frustration built throughout the game. Jackson threw a fumbled interception in triple coverage and slammed his helmet. Ravens rookie standout Zay Flowers fumbled the ball on the goal line, stormed the bench and cut his hand.

Play bosses like heroes.

“When it came time to put the hammer down, they put the hammer down,” Reed said.

Mahomes shined early, playing the quarterback position and being playable against an elite defense like Baltimore's. He made tight window throws, like his first-quarter touchdown to Kelce. It got out of muddy pockets and kept drives alive. He completed his first 11 passes, a harsh and humbling reminder to the raucous, purple-and-black-clad crowd at M&T Bank Stadium.

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That means the AFC is still run by the presidents — even if the games are played somewhere other than Kansas City.

“We are outlaws,” Rashi Rice later widely bragged. “Everyone wants to beat the Chiefs. We have a target on our backs every day.”

After a second half that saw five straight shots from the Chiefs offense, Mahomes made his most beautiful throw of the game, a curving dagger to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on third-and-9 with 2:19 remaining that sent those fans onto the field. Exits.

“We got the best quarterback in the world,” Chiefs quarterback Drew Tranquil said. “We've got the best tight end in the world. We've got the best coach in the world. We've got the best defensive coordinator in the world. We've got the best general manager in the world.”

“When will you have it all? It's only a matter of time.”

At one point in the second half, Mahomes completed 27 to Jackson's five. Mahomes finished 30-for-39 for 241 yards and a touchdown, outpacing the league's reigning MVP in moments big and small (Jackson was 20-for-37 for a touchdown and an interception). In a game in which both quarterbacks faced championship-caliber defenses, Mahomes was more consistent. Jackson was streaky at best.

And fans who desperately wanted to see Jackson finally advance to the Super Bowl — all that's missing from his resume at this point — instead got to watch No. 15 make a fourth trip in five years, with a chance to win his third. Lombardi Cup. With Joe Burrow's 2021 season being the only exception, Mahomes continues to send his counterparts home year after year.

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The scene then was familiar in some ways but new in others. Mahomes stood on another podium, accepting another trophy, perhaps the most surprising of all the trophies he has hoisted during this golden start to his career. “You don't take it for granted,” he later said of advancing to his last Super Bowl. “You never know how many you're going to get.”

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He is 28 years old. He has already won 14 playoff games, as have Peyton Manning, John Elway, and Terry Bradshaw. That puts him third all-time, behind Joe Montana (16 wins) and Tom Brady (35 wins). He did this in just six seasons.

After Mahomes handed the Lamar Hunt Trophy, Kelce — who scored all 11 of his catches for 116 yards and a touchdown — walked off the stage alongside his famous girlfriend, Taylor Swift. One Chiefs teammate couldn't wrap his head around the crowd of photographers, who were following them by the dozens and dozens. It was amazing, even for a team used to dealing with intense lights.

The player said: “Oh my God, I've never seen anything like this before.”

From there, Kelsey finally found his brother, Jason, who was wearing a beanie. They hugged.

“this easy “A team to root for,” Jason said after a moment. “They stayed together through all this nonsense.”

There was a lot of it, the rigors of a championship chase that didn't look on track for months. The spark came from Kelce, who was electric in instruction and drills all week (“He led us,” Mahomes said. “He loves a challenge.”) And from Reid, who never backed down in his postgame meetings with team owner Clark Hunt this season (“He never questioned the team,” Hunt said.) And from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who wrote a masterpiece of a game plan on Sunday, stifling an offense Jackson and the Ravens throughout the game.

But – as with all contenders – a lot of it falls on the franchise, which, after the most exciting season of its career, has found a seat in the ceremonial locker room to sit alone and enjoy.

It wasn't just another trip to the Super Bowl. It was the most unlikely thing ever.

“He gives everyone that belief and that hope,” Veach said of his midfielder. “It doesn't matter what the odds are, where we're playing, where we're going. If we have 15 balls under center, we have a shot.

(Photo: Kathryn Reilly/Getty Images)

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