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Chiefs lean on defense, mental toughness to defeat Ravens, advance to fourth Super Bowl in five years

BALTIMORE – In the moment, it felt like the AFC Championship Game was more about the implosion of the Baltimore Ravens, the failure to get the offense in any kind of rhythm, the lack of discipline, the turnovers. There is an entire offseason to dissect why Lamar Jackson was so sublime until Sunday, why the brilliance hasn't yet translated into a Super Bowl trip, why a throw into triple coverage in the end zone is likely to be replayed over and over during the Ravens' postmortems.

But to focus on the Ravens' stunning collapse Sunday is to minimize that the Kansas City Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl after winning 17-10. Again. And for the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, somewhat improbably. Do you remember that the offense was struggling so badly that Mahomes yelled at both his teammates and officials in frustration after pass after pass slipped through his receivers' hands? That was this season.

It was poetic that Marquez Valdes-Scantling made the third-down reception, falling backward, with Ravens tumbling atop him, to seal the game and send the Chiefs to their fourth Super Bowl in five years. Valdes-Scantling had a memorable drop on a deep ball in the Chiefs' loss to the Eagles in the regular season, one of the many signals this season that the Chiefs were unusually vulnerable, that they could be taken this time. Mahomes put a lot of air under the pass, it was an easy reception for Valdes-Scantling, and it was a sign that for all the messiness and self-inflicted wounds of early this season -- hey, how about all those times they lined up offsides early in the season? -- the rest of the AFC could not knock the Chiefs out, and the Chiefs would not be knocked off their belief that they had enough. Coach Andy Reid paid tribute to his coordinators for, among other things, keeping up the hope when things weren't going well.

"MVS is a picture of that," Reid said Sunday. "People coming down on him everywhere, he keeps it right there and does a great job with it. Just phenomenal. That kid, he's taken a beating here, and he was able to just hang in there and battle."

Then, he added about the play: "No, it wasn't hard to call."

This Chiefs team is not like the others. It is powered by its defense, and even Mahomes admitted he learned this season that it was OK to lean on the defense to win games when the offense was struggling. They did that Sunday, too. The Chiefs did not score in the second half. They got zero points off three Ravens turnovers, but after L’Jarius Sneed punched the ball out from Zay Flowers as the receiver extended to try to cross the goal line, the Chiefs were at least able to eat some clock. They essentially played for a punt, pinning the Ravens at their own 1-yard line. The Chiefs had already accomplished their goal, to jump to a quick lead and play from ahead, so that the defense could limit the Ravens. Getting the Ravens in an early hole meant that the league's leading rushing team ran just 16 times for 81 yards. It meant that other than a few hero plays by Jackson -- a jaw-dropping escape from a sack that turned into a 30-yard touchdown pass to Flowers, for one -- the Ravens offense was abysmal. They converted just three of 11 third-down attempts. Their inability to sustain drives meant the Chiefs held the ball for 15 minutes more than the Ravens. After the game, Chiefs players wore T-shirts that read “In Spags We Trust,” an ode to their beloved defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

That the Chiefs are playing their best football in the playoffs is not a surprise. Reid and general manager Brian Veach both talked about the mental and physical fatigue that teams that repeatedly make deep postseason runs face. It's better than the alternative, of course, but it is still something that, they believe, may have hampered the Chiefs early in the season. Travis Kelce looked spent for large chunks of the season. He got the final week of the regular season off. And now, in the postseason, his legs are lively and his extraordinary connection with Mahomes bails out the offense over and over.

"It's tough to go back-to-back-to-back seasons," Reid said. "You played a lot of football games. You've got to work through that. You got to work through that mentally. When it came time to put the hammer down, they put the hammer down, which was important. To be in this position, that tells you a little bit of something about the mental makeup of this football team."

Reid said he never doubted that the Chiefs would eventually emerge from their struggles. While the Ravens will spend the offseason wondering why they were dominant until the most important moment, the Chiefs roll on again. The vulnerabilities are long forgotten. The most dominant team is, after all, a familiar one.

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