Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs looked like they were headed to their third consecutive Super Bowl when they were leading a 21-10 lead late in the first half at home in the AFC championship game Sunday. But they scored only three more points after that, at the end of the second half, and fell to the Bengals 27-24 in overtime.
Cincinnati did look like Cardiac Cats in its epic comeback led by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, but there’s also no doubt Kansas City facilitated its own collapse with a series of mental and physical mistakes.
CHIEFS VS. BENGALS: Scoring updates, highlights from conference title game
SN breaks down the Chiefs’ breakdown with a look back at the most pivotal plays:
How Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs fell apart vs. Bengals
1. tick, tick. . . BOOM!
The Chiefs could have put the game out of reach by scoring another touchdown before halftime. But unlike the end of regulation against the Bills, they botched the final 13 seconds. The bad clock management started early, when Andy Reid burned the Chiefs’ first timeout while taking too much time to challenge a play on their first possession.
With a first-and-10 at the Bengals’ 15-yard line, the Chiefs got a pass interference call in the end zone when cornerback Eli Apple grabbed wide receiver Tyreek Hill, putting the ball on the 1. Mahomes and the Chiefs had no more timeouts, which force them to throw for the TD. The Chiefs were rolling with their short and intermediate passing all half, so after a first-down incompletion, Mahomes and Hill tried to make something happen on a pass behind the line of scrimmage, only to have time run out as Apple made a clutch tackle before the goal line. That was a sign of more bad decisions to come by Mahomes.
MORE: Mahomes, Reid explain what went wrong on possession before halftime
The Chiefs got the ball on the first possession of the second half and tried to make amends. They converted one first down with more of the running and short passing they employed in the first half. But then a shaky snap by sturdy rookie center Creed Humphrey (from Oklahoma) led to a fumble, which Mahomes recovered. Mahomes then rushed a throw to tight end Travis Kelce that just got past Kelce’s fingers. The Chiefs ended up punting for the first time.
3. Les Miserables
Mahomes started to grow impatient on his second possession of the second half. After two good runs by Clyde Edwards-Helaire sandwiching a short pass on first down, Mahomes forced the ball downfield a couple times. Again, still up 21-10, the Chiefs had a chance for a putaway drive. Instead, they had the ball for just around two minutes early in the third quarter.
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4. Phantom of the Opera
With the game now 21-13, here’s where the Chiefs transitioned from stagnation to tragedy. Mahomes, who had never thrown an interception in AFC championship play, didn’t see the ghost of Bengals defensive tackle BJ Hill hovering around the line on second-and-3 with 2:23 left in the third quarter. KC’s short passing got too predictable, especially when going away from Tyreek Hill or Kelce. Hill picked off Mahomes with his massive mitts, as if Mahomes was handing the ball to him instead of throwing toward wide receiver DeMarcus Robinson. Four straight drives, four examples of poor Mahomes execution.
5. A Chorus Line
Hill’s interception energized the Bengals, which led to a quick touchdown drive from Burrow and a 2-point conversion to tie the game 21-21. The pressure was now fully on Mahomes to get the momentum back for his team. He also was pressing, and Hill collaborated with defensive end Trey Hendrickson to drop Mahomes for a sack on third-and-short sack while Mahomes tried to push the ball deep. The Bengals’ defensive line was in harmony to get to Mahomes. Reid didn’t help by making the running game an afterthought in the second half.
The Chiefs seemed to finally get the momentum back with a highlight interception from Burrow. Mahomes and the Chiefs seemed to be in business at their 47 with the game still tied. Mahomes should settle in and finish this thing, right? Wrong. Hendrickson brought him down on third down again. The Chiefs’ offensive tackle woes from Super Bowl 55 had resurfaced. Mahomes was back to being tentative. Something wicked this way had come. The Chiefs’ offense was wearing down and the Bengals’ front was getting nastier.
7. Come From Away
The Bengals were pitching a shutout in the second half and trying to preserve a 24-21 lead with 6:04 left in the fourth quarter. After an inexplicable long stretch of not targeting Kelce, Mahomes — now playing with a sense of urgency — began throwing to his most reliable target with the deep ball taken away. A combined 31 receiving yards by Kelce put the Chiefs in long field-goal range at the Bengals’ 38.
There was more of the vintage Mahomes, the one who sizzled in the first half. With 1:30 left and three timeouts, the Chiefs had a first-and-goal at the 5. A game-winning TD was happening, right? No, just more questionable red zone play-calling and clock management at the end of a half. Mahomes got cute running around looking for a big play and got sacked by Sam Hubbard to create third-and-goal from the 9. Mahomes did it again looking for the game-winning TD and almost lost the game-tying field goal opportunity as Hubbard forced to fumble.
The Chiefs had only a brief respite from their state of no offensive rhythm, which harkened back to their midseason slump. They were lucky to send the game to overtime tied 24-24. The Bengals had gone from scrappy away team to enforcing their will.
The Chiefs won the toss and got the ball first in overtime, but unlike the divisional playoff game against the Bills, it didn’t feel like a good thing given their second-half dysfunction. That proved to be true. Mahomes was anxious to end the nightmare and was inaccurate on two rushed short throws to Robinson (again). Then he got frustrated and forced a “hero ball” downfield on third-and-long to Hill despite seeing the Bengals play two deep safeties. Those two safeties, Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell, created an interception to hand Burrow the ball for the game-winning drive.
That was appropriately Mahomes’ last throw of what was, in essence, an awful final three quarters. The Bengals got careful with the blitz and were hoping Mahomes would make the type of impatient mistakes he stopped making down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs. It worked. It wasn’t a perfect game plan for Cincinnati, but it led to a disastrous one for Kansas City.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.