Why this AFC Championship Game puts Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes in unfamiliar territory

Patrick Mahomes either took a gingerly step off a pair of stairs, or he bounced off them with some pep inside the first floor of the Chiefs’ home stadium, depending on where you gather your information. He was either hobbled during the media’s brief view of practice, unwilling to put any pressure on his right high-ankle sprain, or, wow, look at the progress he’s made from a high-ankle sprain.

This is where we are in the analysis of an ankle that could sway a trip to the Super Bowl. The reality is Mahomes completed practices as a full participant officially, but if history of these injuries is any indication (and it typically is), he will be at least somewhat limited when the Bengals arrive for the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

Mahomes spoke for about 10 minutes on all of this Wednesday, but the details of his progress toward playing Sunday remained a bit murky. What instead became clear is this is more familiar territory than any of us realized.

Sure, maybe not with this particular ankle — but the injury history is extensive enough that he and head coach Andy Reid separately remarked that he will draw on those experiences as he navigates this one. First, there was a knee. Then a toe. And now an ankle. There’s some been-there-done-that to this equation.

But not for another one. For all of the pertinent injury conversation, a 27-year-old quarterback is still occupying an uncommon role.

An underdog.

As we sift through the debris of the most primary story this week, there is a subplot that is intriguing enough on its own. The Chiefs, at least for the moment, were a slight playoff underdog in Vegas for the first time in Mahomes’ career. This, mind you, will be his 15th playoff game.

His initial reaction?


“Yeah, I mean every time I walk on that field, I don’t think I’m an underdog,” Mahomes said.

There are certain telling moments within a Mahomes news conference, and although they don’t come weekly, they’re informative when they do arrive.

Mahomes is an underdog — by just one point as of late Wednesday — whether he wants to acknowledge it or not. But regardless of the circumstances, it would appear he’s irked by it. More obviously, he’s taking note of it. These are the types of things that have produced some of his career-best moments — it was no surprise, for instance, that he destroyed the same Tampa Bay defense that got him in the Super Bowl. At the very stadium, no less.

But there’s a key difference to Sunday’s championship game: We’re dealing with the exception to that rule.

The only exception.

Regardless of the actual betting favorite Sunday, some relevant facts will remain. The Bengals will still be the only team to beat Mahomes three times in his career, and they swept him in a calendar year. That’s not changing. They got him at this stage a year ago, too, and then went ahead and won the rematch this regular season.

Mahomes is winless against Joe Burrow in three tries. In fact, he is only two games below .500 against one quarterback — ever — and he’s THREE games below .500 against that one.

As good as we’ve seen Mahomes with his back against the wall during a game, this is really the first time we’ve seen him with his back pressed this tightly against a wall before a game. Never has Mahomes had so much time to consider and absorb how he maneuvers his way out. It was notable, therefore, when he remarked Wednesday afternoon that he really hasn’t spent much time at home this week, even asking his wife to bring his kids to some of his work obligations just for the chance to spend some time with them.

Can you recall the last time Mahomes has been doubted like this before kickoff? (Social media replies excluded, of course.)

It makes for a fascinating story when elite athletes are placed into new environments. A compelling narrative will follow.

A significant chapter in the arc of Mahomes’ career awaits.

Win or lose.

Think you’ve heard enough about the Bengals this season? Imagine how frequently you’ll hear of them in Kansas City next season if they knock out the Chiefs again. If Burrow improves to 4-0 against Mahomes. How long will that statistic follow Mahomes? Would one win even be enough to overcome it? Would one win even come at all?

If the Chiefs get this one, though, it could offer Mahomes the biggest win of his career since he lifted the Lombardi Trophy three years ago — and likely the second-biggest win of his life.

The first as a playoff underdog.

These are the types of games that sports’ best athletes consider opportunities, despite any of the momentum mounting in the opposite direction.

Nay, because of any momentum mounting in the opposite direction.

Few such opportunities greet Mahomes.

One is knocking now.