Kansas City Chiefs overcome injury to Patrick Mahomes, hold off Cleveland Browns to reach AFC championship game
For the third consecutive season, the Kansas City Chiefs will host the AFC championship.
The Chiefs outlasted the Cleveland Browns 22-17 Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium even after star quarterback Patrick Mahomes suffered a game-ending concussion halfway through the third quarter.
The final period was a rollercoaster, the Browns scoring and subsequently intercepting and then blowing their attempt to take a lead. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett sacked backup quarterback Chad Henne with 2:33 to play, but Henne avenged the sack and turnover when he barreled for 13 yards to set up fourth-and-1. He capped the victory by rolling out to find Tyreek Hill for a pass on fourth-and-inches on a play that seemed to surprise everyone.
Mahomes had helped his team to a nine-point cushion before his neck snapped backward when tackled on an option run with 7:44 to play in the third quarter. Mahomes subsequently rolled over, then wobbled in an attempt to stand. His eyes appeared out of focus just before he was escorted off the field.
"He got hit in the back of the head and it kind of knocked the wind out of him and everything else with it, didn’t it?” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said after the game. "He’s doing great right now, which is a real positive as we look at this. Passed all the deals he needed to pass so we’ll see where it goes from here."
Two-and-a-half quarters of a crisp Mahomes performance set the tone. Before his premature exit, Mahomes completed 21-of-30 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown in addition to rushing three times for 14 yards and another score.
Henne finished 6-of-8 for 66 yards and an interception, in addition to rushing twice for 12 yards.
The Browns’ AFC Championship drought, which dates to 1989, continues. But their first postseason appearance in 18 years nonetheless represents a dramatic turnaround in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s first season.
"It sucks, to be quite honest with you guys," Browns QB Baker Mayfield said. "It sucks because we believed and that's why we're here. But I'm trying to find the positive out of it: We're setting a new standard here and everyone's saying in the locker room...we're going to be back.
"You get that taste of it but you realize you learn lessons. For now, it's definitely going to sting."
Cleveland fell into a hole as it struggled to engineer a first-half running game, further hurt by an injury to left tackle Jedrick Wills on his first snap of the game.
Mayfield was mostly sharp – 23 of 37 for 204 yards, a touchdown and an interception – but a few key mistakes and futile drives were too much to overcome.
The Browns marched down the field, threatening to enter halftime trailing by just one possession as Mayfield sailed a 23-yard pass to receiver Rashard Higgins, who dove 3 yards from the end zone as he reached for the pylon. Instead, Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen dipped his right shoulder and blasted Higgins just in time to force a touchback, the Browns losing not only the ball but also their points and possession. The touchback rule – and Sorensen’s seemingly helmet-first contact – drew criticism. “That appears to me in real time” to be head-first, CBS rules analyst and former NFL official Gene Steratore explained on the broadcast. Mayfield bowed his head, his hands on his knees in dismay.
"We hurt ourselves in the first half and they capitalized," Mayfield said. "That's what the good teams do. They were better than us."
Matters worsened for the Browns on their first possession of the second half, Chiefs Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu anticipating Mayfield’s intention just in time to jump the pass intended for Jarvis Landry. Fortunately for Cleveland, a 33-yard field-goal attempt from Harrison Butker (9 for 9 from 30-39 yards in the regular season) hit the left upright on a windy Kansas City afternoon.
But Kansas City’s early lead would never falter.
Mathieu lauded Reid in a postgame interview, celebrating his creative play calls that reached a crescendo with the deceptive fourth-down pass.
"That’s why we love 'Big Red,'" Mathieu said, using Reid's nickname. "He’s always on time. He’s like our spirit warrior out here. Behind the scenes, he’s always firing us up. We always know he’s got one play at the table."
The Chiefs will host the Buffalo Bills in the AFC title game at Arrowhead Stadium with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. A win would give the Chiefs a chance to be the first team since New England in 2003-04 to repeat as champs. A win for Buffalo puts the Bills in for the first time since after the 1993 season.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein