The Kansas City Chiefs have the best record in the N.F.L. in the past five seasons, winning 64 games.
Yet for all that winning, the Cincinnati Bengals had proved to be Kansas City’s kryptonite. The Bengals had beaten the Chiefs three times in a row, including in last year’s A.F.C. championship game.
The teams met again on Sunday in a rematch that would determine who would face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12 in Glendale, Ariz. And the Bengals appeared on the verge of upsetting the Chiefs yet again, just as they had done the previous three times.
But Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes took over with 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. On a hobbled right ankle, he scrambled 5 yards for a first down at the Cincinnati 42-yard line and was shoved after he was out of bounds. The ensuing 15-yard penalty was the difference maker for kicker Harrison Butker, whose 45-yard game-winning field goal just passed the cross bar with three seconds remaining, giving the Chiefs a 23-20 victory.
“At some point in games, you have to put it all on the line,” Mahomes said about his late scramble.
Kansas City will now head to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons. The game will feature the top seeds from both conferences for the 14th time in Super Bowl history. Kansas City Coach Andy Reid will face his old team, the Eagles, and Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce will play against his older brother Jason, the center on Philadelphia.
The Chiefs were only slight favorites heading into the game; Mahomes was recovering from a high ankle sprain he sustained a week ago against Jacksonville in the divisional round, and Travis Kelce had back spasms. Mahomes didn’t scramble for many yards, but he was able to run out of the pocket to buy time to find receivers.
“I didn’t have that burst I usually have,” Mahomes said. “But I was able to do enough to get out of bounds.”
Though he wasn’t comfortable planting his right foot at times, Mahomes finished the game 29 for 43 passing for 326 yards and two touchdowns.
He led Kansas City on three scoring drives in the first half, including a 14-yard touchdown strike to Kelce on fourth-and-1. Kansas City’s defense sacked Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow four times in the first half after notching none when the teams met in December.
“It was pure grit for him and Kelce,” Reid said of Mahomes and his tight end.
But the Bengals didn’t panic. They had trailed by 7, 14 and 18 points in their last three games against Kansas City, and they won each time by 3 points. After gaining no yards on offense in the first quarter, the Bengals came alive in the second quarter, notching two field goals and heading into halftime behind by just one score, 13-6.
Burrow, who in his third season has emerged as one of the league’s top passers, went 26 for 41 for 270 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also had a team-high 30 yards rushing.
On the Bengals’ first drive of the second half, Burrow picked up where he left off, leading the Bengals on a 62-yard drive that ended with receiver Tee Higgins leaping over a defender to grab a 27-yard pass near the pylon in the end zone to tie the score at 13.
Like in last year’s A.F.C. title game, the two rivals traded blows for much of the second half and seemed destined for overtime again.
Mahomes, who had been visibly limping as he ran to his left on the previous possession, led Kansas City on an impressive 11-play drive. It ended with Mahomes, under pressure in the pocket, throwing a 19-yard pass to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling at the goal line.
On their next drive, the Chiefs tried to build a cushion that the Bengals would not be able to overcome. But Mahomes, out of the shotgun, lost control of an attempted pass that was ruled a fumble and recovered by Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard at the Kansas City 45-yard line.
The Bengals cashed in on the opportunity. On a fourth-and-6, Burrow threw a 35-yard pass to receiver Ja’Marr Chase in double coverage. Two plays later, running back Samaje Perine crossed the goal line to tie the game again at 20.
The Bengals’ defense appeared to shut down Mahomes twice on the ensuing drive, but one play was called back because the referee stopped the clock before the snap. On the do-over play, the Bengals were called for defensive holding, which gave Kansas City an automatic first down.
The Kansas City drive fizzled. But Burrow tried to do too much on the next drive. He threw to receiver Tee Higgins in double coverage, and the pass was tipped by safety Bryan Cook and intercepted by cornerback Joshua Williams.
With just under seven minutes remaining, Kansas City appeared poised to grab the lead after Mahomes connected with running back Isiah Pacheco, who broke free from a tackle and scrambled 16 yards down the sideline. But again, the Bengals shut down the drive. Reid chose to punt and that forced the Bengals to start their last drive deep in their own end of the field.
With two and a half minutes remaining, the Bengals set out to steal another game from Kansas City. But penalties undid their drive, and Kansas City, after a 29-yard punt return, took over with 30 seconds and two timeouts.
That was all the time Mahomes and the Chiefs needed to rewrite the script against the Bengals, and earn another trip back to the Super Bowl.
“I’m riding a wave right now,” Reid said of the opportunity to face his old team.