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Chiefs back in AFC championship as healthy, formidable as ever

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There's been something different about this version of the Kansas City Chiefs since the second half of the season began. There's more grit, more toughness, a sense that they're building toward something special with each passing week. They know full well what it's like to be this close to a championship, when only four teams in the NFL are left standing. They also still possess plenty of firepower to ultimately make all their Super Bowl dreams come true.

Kansas City's potent offense was on full display in what turned out to be a wild 51-31 AFC divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans on Sunday. The same unit that has endured countless injuries clearly is now as healthy and dangerous as ever. The Texans learned that much after holding a 24-0 lead early in this game. They wound up watching the Chiefs generate 41 unanswered points in the most breathtaking fashion anyone could've imagined.

Kansas City was so prolific that it scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions to earn a matchup with the Tennessee Titans in next Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

"The biggest thing is that when you have guys like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, you know you can score points," Patrick Mahomes said. "It's just about the flow of the game. I've been saying for the last five or 10 games, you have to read how the game is going. Obviously, with how we started the game offensively, defensively and on special teams, we knew we had to score points. That means more scrambling around, taking more chances and taking more shots. And I thought guys made a lot of plays."

The Chiefs really haven't needed this kind of production in a long time. They finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak, and only twice did they exceed the 30-point mark. Head coach Andy Reid committed himself to a more conservative mode of football, so much so that Mahomes -- the same man who threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns on his way to being named the league's Most Valuable Player in 2018 -- had two games where he threw for fewer than 200 yards (in victories over the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders). It was starting to look like the Chiefs simply couldn't dominate in the same way they had a season ago.

So much for that concern. What became apparent on Sunday is that the Chiefs learned a few lessons from last year's playoff run, which ended with a heartbreaking loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The first was that they needed a better defense, which they've created with some shrewd offseason moves. The second was that they didn't have to spend every week showing the world how brilliant their offense can be.

Kansas City discovered as much by necessity. The offense has dealt with injuries to star players all year -- Mahomes even missed two games because of a dislocated kneecap. As a result, the Chiefs proved they could win in other ways that didn't involve home-run plays and 40-point efforts. They become more patient, more strategic and more committed to their ability to control the tempo of games.

That didn't mean they forgot how to play what amounts to fast-break basketball. Mahomes finished this game with 321 yards and five touchdown passes. Kelce had 10 receptions for 134 yards and three scores. The Chiefs generated 434 yards and 51 points despite possessing the ball for less than 26 minutes.

"There were no crazy speeches, no Go get 'em type stuff," said Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz when asked what his teammates were saying when they trailed early in this contest. "It was just let's go and let's execute."

It says something that the Chiefs didn't panic when they found themselves trailing 24-0 early in the second quarter. By that point in the game, they'd given up a 54-yard touchdown pass on a blown coverage, a blocked punt for a touchdown and a fumbled punt return that led to a third Texans touchdown. Adding to the futility were four dropped passes in the first 15 minutes of action. Basically, it was easy to see Kansas City losing by 40 points given how this game started.

That was before Texans head coach Bill O'Brien began impacting the game. He decided against going for another touchdown when Houston had a 21-0 lead and a fourth-and-1 opportunity from the Chiefs' 13-yard line. The Texans got a field goal out of it, but then Kansas City's Mecole Hardman returned the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to set up the Chiefs' first touchdown. O'Brien decided to gamble on the next possession with a fake punt that was thwarted by Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen and gave Kansas City the ball at Houston's 33-yard line. Four plays later, Mahomes hit Kelce with a 5-yard touchdown pass to make the score 24-14.

By the time Houston's DeAndre Carter fumbled the next kickoff -- giving Kansas City the ball at the Texans' 6-yard line -- you could see where this was heading. The Texans were melting down at exactly the time the Chiefs were heating up. The first half ended with Kansas City incredibly ahead, 28-24, which was as close as Houston would ever get in the game again.

"24-0 was a really good lead, no doubt about it," O'Brien said. "But I do not think any lead is safe versus these guys, and that is why we felt like we needed 50 points. We weren't able to do that."

When asked about how crazy and swift that comeback was, Kelce said, "We just had to keep our foot on the gas pedal. You can't get too excited. You can't get a sense of relief that we're back in the game. We just have to keep going. You know you have a lot of unfinished business and that the clock just keeps ticking."

Some of that "unfinished business" has to do with how the Chiefs' season ended in 2018. Their dynamic offense couldn't get them past the Patriots, and every Kansas City fan remembers the most painful moment of that AFC title game: the offsides call on former Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford that nullified what would've been a game-clinching interception in regulation. The Chiefs eventually lost that game in overtime. They also vowed to never be that close to a dream again without finishing the task.

That sentiment pervaded the Kansas City locker room after this game. As exciting as the victory was, it doesn't mean anything if this team isn't playing in the Super Bowl in three weeks.

"This was a great win but we have to put this behind us," Chiefs running back Damien Williams said. "We have a tough team coming in here so we have to stay locked in and finish what we started."

The Chiefs realize that task is much easier to accomplish with this current team. The defense has improved to the point that it's capable of making game-turning plays and closing out victories. The special teams unit boasts two electric returners (Hardman and Hill) along with a reliable kicker and punter. Kansas City even has destiny working in its favor.

The Chiefs earned a first-round bye after a dramatic season-ending win by the Miami Dolphins over New England. They also now have the AFC Championship Game back in Arrowhead Stadium thanks to Tennessee's upset win over the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night. The Chiefs even picked up some veteran pass-rushing help late in the season when they claimed Terrell Suggs off waivers. It looks very much like everything is falling into place in Kansas City.

The major question now, as Williams said, is whether the Chiefs can get over the hump. It's hard to bet against them today, even with all the magic the Titans have generated in their postseason run. The fact is that the Chiefs have a lot of good things working in their favor, including experience, confidence and talent. Add in an offense that remains potent and it's easy to think that this won't be the last thrilling moment for Kansas City this season.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @JeffriChadiha *. *

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