Reigning NFL champion Kansas City withstood a third-quarter concussion that sidelined star quarterback Patrick Mahomes to defeat Cleveland 22-17 on Sunday, moving one victory from a Super Bowl return.
Mahomes, last year’s Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, completed 21-of-30 passes for 255 yards while throwing for one touchdown and running for another before exiting early in the Chiefs’ home playoff triumph.
“We’re one team, one heartbeat — we play for one another,” said Chiefs receiver Tyrann Mathieu. “When any of our teammates go down, we all step up for one another.”
Kansas City will entertain the Buffalo Bills, whom they beat 26-17 in October, in next Sunday’s AFC Championship game with the winner advancing to the NFL title spectacle on February 7 at Tampa, Florida.
“Great team. Got playmakers all over the place,” Mathieu said. “We’ve got a challenge in front of us next week.”
Mahomes’ status for next week remains uncertain.
Six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into New Orleans to face the Drew Brees-lead Saints in a later NFC playoff game. The winners visit chilly Green Bay next Sunday to face another veteran quarterback, Packers star Aaron Rodgers, for the other Super Bowl spot.
The Chiefs seized a 19-3 half-time lead but momentum swung in the second half after Harrison Butker missed a field goal attempt and Baker Mayfield marched the Browns 77 yards and flipped a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry to lift Cleveland within nine points.
On Kansas City’s next possession, Mahomes was slammed down on a run by Browns linebacker Mack Wilson and left the game for good with a concussion, replaced by reserve Chad Henne.
The Chiefs added a 33-yard Butker field goal for a 22-10 lead, but the Browns responded by marching 75 yards on 18 plays in 8:17, converting on two fourth-down situations before Kareem Hunt’s 3-yard touchdown run pulled them within the final margin.
The Chiefs drove within field goal range but Cleveland’s Karl Joseph intercepted Henne in the end zone.
Kansas City forced the Browns to punt and Henne scrambled 13 yards to set up a fourth down and inches conversion play.
“HenneThingIsPossible,” Mahomes tweeted after the victory.
Looking like they would try to lure the Browns into an offside penalty, Chiefs coach Andy Reid instead called for a Henne pass to Tyreek Hill and he completed the toss for five yards and a first down and Kansas city ran out the clock from there.
“That’s why we love Big Red (Reid),” Mathieu said. “He’s our spirit warrior out here. We know he always has a play under the table.”
The Chiefs opened with a 10-play, 75-yard march capped by a Mahomes 1-yard touchdown run 5:49 into the game, but the conversion kick failed.
With three consecutive playoff game rushing touchdowns, Mahomes matched Steve Young for the NFL record by a quarterback.
Cleveland halved Kansas City’s lead on Cody Parkey’s 46-yard field goal, matching his longest of the season.
But the Chiefs answered with a 75-yard drive and a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to tight end Travis Kelce for a 13-3 Kansas City lead early in the second quarter.
The Chiefs, whose league-best 14-2 regular-season record earned a first-round bye and home-field playoff advantage, added a 50-yard Butker field goal.
Early Browns heartache
Cleveland responded by moving almost 75 yards downfield only to suffer heartbreak just inches from a touchdown with 94 seconds remaining in the first half.
Mayfield connected with Rashard Higgins on a 25-yard pass play and the receiver dove toward the front corner of the end zone, reaching out with the ball toward the goal line, when Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen slammed into him helmet-first and jarred the ball out of his grasp.
The ball rolled into the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback, giving the Chiefs the ball.
Mahomes, nagged early by a left foot injury, drove the Chiefs upfield to set up a 28-yard Butker field goal for a 19-3 half-time lead.