KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The stage had already been set up on the field for the AFC Championship Game trophy presentation. The postgame show was well underway, the Kansas City Chiefs' celebration had begun. And Joseph Ossai sat, still, on the Cincinnati Bengals bench, sobbing.
The second-year edge rusher had pushed Patrick Mahomes when the quarterback was well out of bounds in the waning seconds Sunday night. The late hit drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, putting the Chiefs in field-goal range to sew up a 23-20 victory and punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVII, where they'll face the Philadelphia Eagles. In the short term, this AFC Championship Game -- the third won by the Chiefs in Mahomes' five seasons as a starter -- will be remembered for Ossai's terrible mistake.
Later, though, it will be appreciated for Mahomes' physical toughness, for the depth of the Chiefs' receiving corps -- that kept losing members and kept making catches -- and for a defense that got just enough pressure on Joe Burrow to stymie what has become Kansas City's primary nemesis. And that the Chiefs made it to another Super Bowl in the season after they traded away their most dynamic receiver in Tyreek Hill.
"Who would have thought this at the beginning of the year?" head coach Andy Reid said. "We had a lot of new faces."
By the time Ossai finally made a slow walk to the locker room -- accompanied by Cam Sample, who had returned to the bench to console his teammate -- the focus had already settled on the Chiefs' extraordinary resilience and the Super Bowl to come. It will be the first in NFL history contested by two Black quarterbacks. It will be the first between Reid and the team he once took to the Super Bowl. And to the delight of reporters, it will feature the verbose Kelce brothers, one of whom -- Travis, the Chiefs tight end -- called the mayor of Cincinnati a "jabroni" for saying earlier in the week that Burrow should take a paternity test to prove that he is Mahomes' father because he had beaten Kansas City in their three previous meetings.
That will, apparently, no longer be necessary, although it was clear that the Chiefs thought their history of accomplishments should have garnered more respect from the Bengals and from the public than they heard during a week of trash talking.
"The mayor came after me, man," Mahomes said.
The Chiefs had been the AFC's dominant team for much of the season -- actually for the last five seasons -- with the league's best offense. But two of their three losses -- to the Bills and the Bengals -- had nearly dented their unbreakable hold on the conference. The Week 13 loss at Cincinnati, in particular, had seemed to signal that a changing of the guard might be in the offing. No team in the AFC played better in the final two months of the season than the Bengals, and even though the Chiefs were the conference's top seed, when Mahomes was injured last week in the Divisional Round, the Chiefs had a rare look about them as they approached this game: vulnerability.
"I didn't expect to be able to run very much, just the way it felt," Mahomes said.
That did not last long. Mahomes had practiced all week and there was never any doubt he would play. It was merely a question of how. The Chiefs scored on all three of their first-half drives, although the quarterback's game was clearly different. The derring-do that makes Mahomes magical was largely absent. He did not have his normal burst and, he said, he could not squeeze through spots he would normally get through. He was intent on getting rid of the ball more quickly to avoid getting hit, forcing him to take more checkdowns than usual.
But Mahomes was able to move out of the pocket to extend plays when he had to. And even as one receiver after another got hurt -- Kadarius Toney, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mercole Hardman were all injured in the game -- Mahomes kept finding targets. Kelce, who had suffered back spasms late last week, was a reliable one. And so was Marquez Valdes-Scantling -- one of the players signed in an effort to take the place of the departed Tyreek Hill this season -- who caught six passes for 116 yards. But there were also passes to Noah Gray and Marcus Kemp, the latter of whom had been brought up from the practice squad.
And, in the end, there was Mahomes himself. In the middle of the third quarter, with the score tied, Mahomes rolled to his left and threw across his body to Hardman for a first down. For a healthy Mahomes, this is a routine play. But he was not healthy, and for the first time Sunday night, he looked truly impaired. He came up limping, the force of having to stop, plant his right foot and throw aggravating the injury as much as when he had to dive to try to recover a fumble earlier in the game. Hardman was hurt. The drive continued. And on a later third down, Mahomes stepped up in the pocket and found Valdes-Scantling for a 19-yard touchdown that gave the Chiefs the lead.
Last season, the Chiefs had lost to the Bengals in overtime of the AFC Championship Game, and when the Bengals tied Sunday's game, that kind of end looked to be inevitable. Burrow had been sacked four times in the first half, but Cincy had adjusted and protected him in the second half, propelling the Bengals' comeback. But with the ball in his hands and a chance to drive for the winning score, Burrow was sacked by Kansas City one final time. The resulting punt went to the middle of the field and Skyy Moore returned it to midfield. Still, when Mahomes threw incomplete with just 21 seconds left and the Chiefs stalled just barely past midfield, another overtime looked to be inevitable.
And then ...
"Superman put on his cape," said team owner Clark Hunt.
Indeed. Mahomes, needing 4 yards, raced for 5. Ossai's shove tacked on another 15.
"The defense got stops for us," Mahomes said. "I knew I was going to do whatever I could to get us in field-goal range."
Now, Mahomes has two weeks to heal, as do his receivers. He has won a Super Bowl and then lost one -- and last year, the Chiefs missed out on the game entirely, watching as the Bengals supplanted them. Cincinnati had been on the cusp of knocking Kansas City off again and taking over as the AFC's dominant team. That is over for now. Head coach Zac Taylor was making his way through the Bengals locker room, thanking each of his players for their effort. It was just barely not enough Sunday.
Mahomes knew that feeling last year. And with one good leg, he made sure he would not feel it again this year.
"I won MVP and I won the Super Bowl and I thought that's how it went," he said. "Now that I've experienced failure, I know how much hard work and daily grind it takes."