A one-legged Patrick Mahomes ended the debate about the NFL’s best quarterback

<span>Photograph: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports

It was the most pivotal of moments. Tied game. Seventeen seconds left. The Kansas City Chiefs with a 3rd and 4 on the Cincinnati Bengals’ 47 in the AFC title game. In preordained fashion, it was Patrick Mahomes who willed his injured leg to join his healthy one and gain just enough yardage to eke out a first down. And then Mahomes was hit out of bounds by Bengals defensive end Joseph Ossai who, up until that gaffe, had played a tremendous game. The extra 15 yards given for the unnecessary roughness penalty was just enough for Harrison Butker to nail the 45-yard field goal and send the Chiefs to their third Super Bowl in four years and further cement Mahomes’s legend.

Had this been a regular-season game, Mahomes probably would have sat it out. Or maybe not. Maybe he really is superhuman, as we have suspected for much of his career. When an actual human suffers a high ankle sprain – as Mahomes did less than 10 days ago against Jacksonville – they are typically sidelined for at least three weeks. But Mahomes is a different breed: there wasn’t a scintilla of doubt he would play against the Bengals.

This one was personal. No way was Mahomes going to let his backup, Chad Henne, be tasked with removing the seemingly superglued monkey that is the Bengals off the Chiefs’ backs. If the term Burrowhead, a reference to the Bengals’ stunning win in last year’s AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, was going to die, Mahomes was going to be the one to kill it. He did just that.

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Mahomes put in one of the gutsiest, most inspiring performances we’ve ever seen from an NFL quarterback. More than 300 passing yards, a couple of touchdowns and a game-winning drive is nothing new for Mahomes. But doing it on one leg is unheard of. And doing it on one leg and continuing to perform as three of his receivers went down injured is on another level.

But Mahomes went into this matchup with immeasurable determination. He proved what many of us already knew – that Mahomes at 80% or 60% is still better than everyone else in the NFL.

He connected with Travis Kelce for a touchdown on a 4th and 1 in the second quarter on a throw he made look effortless but was dripping with difficulty. And Marquez Valdes-Scantling made catch after catch for 116 yards. He was the recipient of a perfectly precise touchdown throw, in which Mahomes had to push hard off his injured right ankle.

As with all Bengals-Chiefs matchups over the past couple of years, this one was full of intrigue. There was the Bengals creeping back into the contest in an eerily similar way to last year’s Championship Game. There was Zac Taylor with the ballsiest play call you’ll see on 4th and 6 that resulted in Joe Burrow’s deep completion to a double-covered Ja’Marr Chase. There were all kinds of officiating controversies that infuriated both sidelines. And, yes, perhaps there should have been a holding penalty on the Chiefs during the Mahomes run that set up the winning field goal.

None of that takes away from the display of grit and sheer excellence we saw from Mahomes. Any debate about identity of the best quarterback in the NFL has been put firmly to bed.

A joyous Kelce interrupted Mahomes’ postgame interview for a quick announcement: “Burrowhead, my ass. This is Mahomes’ house.”

I’d take it a step further. This is Mahomes’ league.

MVP of the week

Chris Jones made Joe Burrow’s night an uncomfortable one
Chris Jones made Joe Burrow’s night an uncomfortable one. Photograph: Denny Medley/USA Today Sports

Chris Jones, defensive tackle, Kansas City Chiefs. Add Jones to the list of Chiefs players who were bothered by the Burrowhead moniker. Jones had his own itch to scratch, entering the AFC Championship without a postgame sack in his entire career. Jones promptly delivered two sacks, three tackles for loss and five quarterback hits in one of the most dominating performances by a defensive lineman in postseason history. Mahomes will rightly be praised for his performance on Sunday, but I implore fans to watch this game back with a lens on Jones to see a masterclass in dominant line play. Both men were responsible for the Chiefs’ victory.

Video of the week

Myriad ingredients merge to form an NFL result – including injuries and officiating. Though both were relevant in the NFC Championship Game, it was DeVonta Smith’s “catch” on 4th and 3 that set the tone for Philly’s 31-7 mauling of San Francisco. It was the opening drive of the game; the Eagles were at the 49ers’ 35 and Nick Sirianni had a choice. Go for it on fourth down or play it safe and attempt the field goal. He chose the former, and Jalen Hurts rolled to his left under pressure and heaved it to Smith, who made an insane one-handed 29-yard catch. Instead of celebrating, Smith yelled: “Go, go, go” – a signal for his team to quickly get the next play off. It worked and two plays later Miles Sanders waltzed into the endzone for the Eagles’ first score. But soon it became evident that Smith never had control of the football and – had the catch been challenged – it would have been ruled incomplete and a first down for the 49ers.

Unlike many plays that are now quickly reviewed in New York and often result in a changed call before coaches throw the challenge flag, this one was not for some reason. Still, Kyle Shanahan missed a major opportunity to throw the flag and change the course of the game. Smith, on the other hand, should be commended on his heads-up reaction since he knew it wasn’t actually a catch. The whole sequence was a killer for San Francisco.

Quote of the week

“Know your role and shut your mouth, ya jabroni” – Travis Kelce to Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval.

Kelce’s fiery comment comes in response to Pureval posting a video that came across as a lame attempt at trash talking, rather than the smart social media moment he probably had hoped for. In the video, Pureval made an “official proclamation” requesting that Burrow take a paternity test to see if he is Mahomes’s daddy. It’s hard to disagree with Kelce.

Stat of the week

Brock Purdy was unable to produce one last miracle for the 49ers
Brock Purdy was unable to produce one last miracle for the 49ers. Photograph: Jason Szenes/EPA

One NFC championship run. Four quarterbacks. Things went south quickly for San Francisco against Philadelphia when Brock Purdy left the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. Enter journeyman extraordinaire Josh Johnson, the 49ers’ fourth quarterback to line up under center this season. To call Johnson ill-prepared for the moment would be an understatement. The poor guy was pressured left and right and struggled to generate positive momentum, save for a second-quarter touchdown – San Francisco’s only score of the game – that was all about Christian McCaffrey’s vision and cutting. The 49ers could have turned to a fifth passer, emergency quarterback McCaffrey when, incredibly, Johnson had to leave the game injured. But Shanahan deemed Purdy, barely able to throw the ball further than five yards, the better option.

There will be a lot of disappointment for San Francisco after this loss, in which silly penalties hurt them in addition to their quarterbacks’ injuries. But the emergence of Mr Irrelevant Purdy, after injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, is one of the more incredible storylines in recent memory. Confidence and killer instinct can take you places in the NFL. But Purdy’s success earlier in the season is also a testament to Shanahan’s playcalling and ability to disguise and adjust – few coaches would have been able to drag their team this far with so many injuries at quarterback.