KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A bruising running game, a smothering defense and a sterling cameo performance by a backup quarterback were enough on Saturday to send Kansas City to its fifth-straight appearance in the A.F.C. championship game.
The 27-20 victory over Jacksonville was secured only after a frantic final five minutes that saw an interception by Kansas City rookie Jaylen Watson of Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a fumble recovery by Kansas City linebacker Nick Bolton inside the 5-yard line as the Jaguars were closing in on a score, and a failed onside kick by Jacksonville.
The high-flying Kansas City offense was not exactly grounded but had to put itself on autopilot after quarterback Patrick Mahomes injured his ankle in the first half. He was hit on a pass as the first quarter was winding down; Jacksonville linebacker Arden Key landed heavily on Mahomes’s right leg. Mahomes was clearly hobbled as he got up, but as the second quarter started, he was back on the field, in a drive that ended in a field goal.
When Mahomes returned to the sideline after that possession, the team’s training staff employed all its power of persuasion to get the recalcitrant quarterback to the locker room for a better look at his injury.
“I did not want to go,” said Mahomes, who reported that X-rays on his leg were negative. “They gave me the ultimatum that I wasn’t going back in the game until I went back there.”
Mahomes relented, and he returned for the second half and the win.
Now, Kansas City awaits the outcome of the Buffalo vs. Cincinnati game, which will determine where it will play next week. If the Bengals win, Kansas City will host them at Arrowhead Stadium. But if the Bills win, the two will play at the neutral site of Atlanta; that accommodation was made after the Jan. 2 Bills-Bengals game was canceled after the on-field cardiac arrest of Bills safety Damar Hamlin.
Either way, Kansas City can thank backup quarterback Chad Henne for the opportunity to play another game. He dispelled the anxiety of the suddenly murmuring sold-out crowd after Mahomes went down. He then went 5 of 7 for 23 yards and led Kansas City on a 98-yard touchdown drive, and his team took a 17-10 lead at halftime.
Mahomes certainly appreciated Henne’s work.
“He’s ready to go at quarterback at all times,” Mahomes said. “He stepped up and took them 98 yards and a touchdown. That was the difference in the game.”
Even with Mahomes back for the second half, Kansas City leaned into the running of Isiah Pacheco, who rumbled for 95 yards on 12 carries. By the fourth quarter, with Kansas City holding a 20-17 lead, Mahomes resembled his old self, in quick-strike fashion taking the offense 75 yards in under five minutes, capped by a 6-yard touchdown to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
“It’s a credit to the guys around me — the offensive line kept me clean in the pocket because they knew I couldn’t move,” said Mahomes, who ended the game with 195 yards and two touchdown passes.
The Jaguars had won six straight, including a 27-point comeback victory against the Los Angeles Chargers last week in their first playoff appearance since the 2017 season to earn the right to try to derail Kansas City’s Super Bowl aspirations.
They may very well have, had they only corrected two tendencies that haunted them all season: an inability to keep tight ends from strafing their secondary and their receivers’ penchant for dropping catchable balls.
The Jaguars led the league with 41 dropped passes, according to Pro Football Reference, and that dubious distinction was on display, especially in the opening drive of the second half, when Christian Kirk dropped a Lawrence strike on third-and-7 from Jacksonville’s 40-yard line. In the first half, Kirk, who had seven drops on the season, was wide open in the Kansas City red zone when he bobbled and lost a Lawrence deep ball.
The Jaguars were the N.F.L.’s worst defense against tight ends this past season by yardage, and Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce found canyons in the Jaguars secondary on Saturday; he had 14 catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Mahomes wasted little time playing pitch and catch with Kelce on Kansas City’s opening drive. His first two passes were to Kelce, who led all tight ends this season with 110 receptions. By the end of a six-minute, 83-yard drive, Kelce had caught two more, including an 8-yard touchdown pass.
After the game, however, Kelce wanted to talk about Henne. He held a game ball that he said was destined for the career backup.
Just as two years ago against the Browns, Henne was also asked to get Kansas City back to the A.F.C. championship. In 2021, Mahomes suffered a concussion; Henne had never thrown a pass — or even played a snap — in the postseason despite 11 seasons in the N.F.L. But he led a game-sealing drive, including a pass on fourth-and-short.
This year, Coach Andy Reid was again asking for Henne’s help. Starting at Kansas City’s own 2-yard line, Henne showed Reid and his teammates that he deserved their confidence.
“I can’t say enough about Chad Henne stepping up and doing his thing,” Kelce said.
Though Henne may be waiting in the wings, Mahomes promised that he would be ready to play in next Sunday’s A.F.C. title game.
The Kansas City offense’s first order of business, however, is gathering Sunday to watch the Bills vs. the Bengals.
“My house or his house,” Mahomes said, nodding to Kelce. “That’s how it usually rolls.”