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ANOTHER MAHOMES REMINDER: DOUBT OR DISPARAGE HIM AT YOUR OWN PERIL
Lumbering through doubts about his high ankle sprain and trash talk by the Bengals, the planet’s preeminent quarterback persevered like other sports greats in leading the Chiefs to Super Bowl LVII
The ankle could have come apart at the ligaments, and for all we know, it did. But Patrick Mahomes was going to punish it one last time anyway, after a week of concern about the severity of his injury and a night that confirmed many of those doubts. Limping, gimping and giddy-upping on one good foot throughout another gauntlet of an AFC championship game — unable to use the mobility that creates much of his magic — he elected with 17 seconds left in a tie game to turn upfield and run like hell to another Super Bowl.
Like all the sports greats who persevere through injuries and adversity in the definitive moments — Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Kerri Strug, Willis Reed, Kirk Gibson, Curt Schilling, Jack Youngblood, keep going — Mahomes lumbered toward the Cincinnati sideline and gained five yards for the first down. But it was the anxiety he created that produced his 16th career game-winning drive. Joseph Ossai, an overzealous Bengals linebacker last seen weeping on the bench, shoved Mahomes when he already was out of bounds. The unnecessary roughness penalty was worth 15 yards, just close enough for Harrison Butker to convert the winning field goal that sent the Kansas City Chiefs to their third Big Game in four years.
“First of all, I just want to thank God. He held my body together this week. He gave me the strength to be out there,” said Mahomes, still in pain but not about to admit it as red confetti fell in what remains Arrowhead Stadium, after a few silly days when the losers had renamed it “Burrowhead.”
And that final romp, when he suddenly looked like a healthy Mahomes, if not quite Usain Bolt? “At some points in games, you’ve gotta put it all on the line,” he said. “I knew I was gonna get there somehow.”
Do not refer to Mahomes as simply the greatest quarterback on the planet. That is understating the magnitude of what he represents. Sunday, he was a football player first, gutting through a 23-20 victory when he understandably could have begged off the field in various vulnerable intervals. The rest of the year, he is a humanitarian who might claim a triple-victory in Arizona in two weeks: the NFL’s Man of the Year Award, along with a second league MVP award and a second Vince Lombardi Trophy. When nothing is certain in the world anymore, we are fortunate in this football-mad nation to have Patrick Mahomes — year after year, humility atop gratitude, even if we have to sit through those State Farm ads. If he survives his duel with fellow Texan Jalen Hurts and the mauling Philadelphia Eagles, he’ll be on the iconic level of the sports legend to whom he often is compared, Steph Curry. They are partners in likability, wizardry and hardware, all in seismic times when Tom Brady might retire and Aaron Rodgers likely will change teams.
In his latest and most valiant masterpiece, we saw him overcome a whole lot of crazy. Mostly, it was about defending his preeminence as the league’s best player against the rampage of Joe Burrow, who seemed ready to take advantage of Mahomes’ high ankle sprain and return to the Super Bowl for the second time in a year. Would this be the day when Burrow, a fashion diva with a too-cool-for-school persona, became America’s biggest football hero, one-upping Mahomes in a nation teeming with racial tension?
Would the ankle ultimately be his undoing? Earlier in the fourth quarter, he had taken a shotgun snap, tried to throw a basic pass in the flat to one of his few healthy receivers, Marquez Valdes-Scantling … and morphed into Garo Yepremian. To educate millennials, Gen Zers and other kids, he was the Miami kicker who tried to throw a pass after a botched field-goal attempt in Super Bowl VII, then had the ball slip from hands before trying to volleyball-swat it in the air. His gaffe didn’t stop the Dolphins from completing the league’s only perfect season — and Mahomes’ similar blooper, without the swat, didn’t cost the Chiefs. But it could have, as it led to Burrow finding Ja’Marr Chase for 35 yards on 4th-and-6 and the subsequent tying touchdown. Mahomes was the first to praise the defense for bailing him out, whether it was a Burrow interception tipped by one rookie (Bryan Cook) to another (Joshua Williams) or a killer sack by Chris Jones that forced the Bengals to punt before the winning romp, late hit and kick.
“It took my teammates. I truly believe that,” Mahomes said. “I just tried to do whatever I could to win, and obviously there were times where you could see that it wouldn't let me do what I wanted to. … I definitely didn't feel good. I just battled through and I'll have a few more weeks to get it ready.''
And it was all of them who vanquished the nonsense that the Bengals, by virtue of a three-game winning streak in the rivalry that included last year’s AFC title victory, had turned the Chiefs’ legendary home stadium out by I-70 into “Burrowhead.” The name change was proposed by cornerback Mike Hilton, who was sold on Burrow returning to the Super Bowl and winning it all after something the quarterback said during last week’s stomping of the Bills in a Buffalo snowstorm. “I’m him,” Burrow said, and regardless of what he meant by it — was he referring to Brady or some higher being? — the Bengals ran with it.
“That's just our locker room, man," Hilton said. “That's just who we are. We got a whole bunch of guys that love playing with each other.”
Whether it was Burrow passing out victory cigars or cornerback Eli Apple mocking Bills receiver Stefan Diggs with a text message — “Cancun on 3” — the Bengals were bordering on obnoxious after their cuddly emergence last season. Even downhome coach Zac Taylor contributed, insisting the country hates the Bengals. Honestly, who could hate the long-woebegone Cincinnati Bengals, the team with tire tracks — er, tiger stripes — on their helmets? The trash talk went to a bizarre level when Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval, going beyond the usual City Hall banter, called for a paternity test to determine if Burrow is Mahomes’ father. This angered Mahomes’ wife, Brittany, who first wrote, “WEAK & embarrassing,” then referred to actor/comedian and Chiefs fan Eric Stonestreet as a “dork.”
Naturally, in keeping with his mature character, her husband decided to let his performance speak for itself. “All that stuff, you can talk throughout the week, but at the end of the day it’s a football game. You have to go out there and play it,” Mahomes said in midweek. “So we believe in just going (and) showing up on Sunday, playing our best football and seeing what happens.”
What happened was this: Mahomes not playing his best football but still winning on one foot. It didn’t take him long after the victory, in his CBS interview with Jim Nantz, to play to the adoring crowd. “I don’t know. Is this thing still called Arrowhead?” he said, not bothering to mention Hilton had committed a key pass interference penalty in the final minutes. Next up was his close friend and favorite receiving target, fellow future Hall of Famer Travis Kelce, grabbing the microphone.
“Burrowhead, my ass!” he said.
Then Mahomes took a shot at Burrow. “I don’t think we have any cigars, but we’ll be ready to go in the Super Bowl,” he said, before doubling down with another Burrowhead reference: “We showed this place is Arrowhead, not Burrowhead.” As Nantz tried to rush Kelce with network programming waiting, Kelce channeled the Rock, screaming, “I’ve got some wise words for that Cincinnati mayor. Know your role and shut your mouth, you jabroni.”
Let his teammates chirp. Mahomes continues to ooze dignity and poise far beyond his 27 years. Burrow is the one often compared to Brady. But who spoke to the seven-time champion during the week? “I talked to Tom a little bit, I have a good relationship with him now and he gives me a lot of advice,” Mahomes said. “Why would you not want to learn from the G.O.A.T.? Any time anybody like that wants to give me advice, I’ll take it in. It’s cool to see the guys you’ve watched growing up, your whole life, be able to talk to you.”
Now that Brady is finished with championships, if not football altogether, Sunday represented more than a stadium name. Who would better position himself as Brady’s heir? The final minutes determined the answer. Mahomes remains the prince in the succession race, among story lines to be front and center in the desert. Kelce will face his brother, Jason, who tweeted late Sunday, “Officially done being a Chiefs fan this season!!” Chiefs coach Andy Reid will face the Eagles team he coached for 14 seasons. Not until he unearthed and developed Mahomes did he win a Super Bowl.
“He’s as good as it gets,” Reid said.
And to think last August, Mahomes was only No. 8 on the NFL Network’s current Top 100 list determined by a vote of active players. Brady was No. 1, followed by Aaron Donald and Rodgers, then Cooper Kupp, Jonathan Taylor, T.J. Watt and Davante Adams. Does everyone now realize he thrives on snubs? As usual, he has nothing but sweet somethings for the Eagles. “I’ve watched them all year long — great quarterback, great entire team,” Mahomes said. “It’s going to be a great challenge. But I’m going to celebrate this one first.”
The opposition would be wise to say nothing that motivates him, including any and all references to the ankle. He just reduced it to a non-story.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.