“Great teams aren’t always great. They’re just great when they have to be.”
That quote was masterfully said by NFL Films legend John Facenda when describing the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, a flawed yet talented team that captured the franchise’s fourth and final Super Bowl win of the decade. Now, 45 years later, that quote could one day be used to summarize the 2023 Kansas City Chiefs.
Many people probably didn’t expect the Chiefs to be in this position on Christmas Day, when Andy Reid’s team laid an egg in Las Vegas to drop to 9-6 on the season. But since that game, the Chiefs have rebounded with four straight wins, including this past Saturday’s 27-14 win over the Bills that catapulted Kansas City into its sixth AFC title game in as many years.
On Sunday, the Chiefs will try to join the 2014-18 New England Patriots as the only teams to play in four Super Bowls over a five-year span. To do that, they’ll have to defeat the AFC’s top-seeded team, the Baltimore Ravens, in their backyard. That won’t be easy, considering that Baltimore is led by likely league MVP Lamar Jackson and a defense that allowed the fewest points in football during the regular season.
The odds will be against them, but that probably suits Patrick Mahomes and the rest of his teammates just fine. They’ve already overcome considerable odds just to make it to this point, and that’s why it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Mahomes pulls another miracle out of his hat Sunday in Baltimore.
But before we get to Sunday, let’s take a look at how the Chiefs got here in the first place, starting with what they did mere moments after winning last year’s Super Bowl.
2023 notable free agent signings
DT Derrick Nnadi (re-signed) LB Drue TranquillDT Byron Cowart TE Blake Bell (re-signed)S Mike EdwardsOT Jawaan TaylorDL Charles Omenihu
G Nick Allegretti (re-signed)DT Chris Jones (re-signed) OT Donovan Smith RB Jerick McKinnon (re-signed) P Tommy Townsend (re-signed) DB Deon Bush (re-signed)
Arguably the Chiefs’ best outside free agent signing was Tranquill, who filed the stat sheet with 78 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles despite being a part-time starter during the regular season. The former Chargers linebacker started in each of Kansas City’s first two playoff games.
Smith, who was on the open market for two months after being released by the Buccaneers in March, filled a need on the Chiefs’ offensive line that was created by offseason departures (more on that in a second). The former All-Pro has started in 14 games this season, including the Chiefs’ first two playoff games.
One of Kansas City’s other best outside free agent signings last season was Omenihu, who recorded seven sacks as a reserve during the regular season. He came on strong late in the year when he recorded 5.5 sacks over a six-game span.
Edwards, who was a member of the Buccaneers’ team who defeated the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, has also made an impact during his first season in Kansas City. He made five starts while playing in each of Kansas City’s regular-season games, tallying 51 tackles, one interception and two fumble recoveries that included his 97-yard return that helped the Chiefs clip the Chargers by a single point in Week 18.
Taylor overcame some early struggles during his first season in Kansas City, most notably penalties. He has nevertheless been a mainstay on the Chiefs’ offensive line this season. The former Jaguar has not missed a game or start this season.
While Taylor’s impact this season can be debated, that is not the case for Jones and the impact he’s had since signing one-year deal following Kansas City’s season-opening loss to Detroit. Jones put together another All-Pro campaign that included 10.5 sacks during the regular season and a forced fumble against the Bills on Sunday night. Simply put, the Chiefs aren’t playing right now if Jones wasn’t re-signed.
2023 top free agent losses
OT Orlando Brown Jr. OL Andrew Wylie WR JuJu Smith-SchusterS Juan ThornhillWR Mecole HardmanDT Khalen Saunders
Largely, the Chiefs have been able to overcome their free agent departures, especially Brown and Wylie. The Chiefs actually reacquired Hardman via a late-season trade with the Jets, but he hasn’t done much since coming back to Kansas City.
You could initially argue that Smith-Schuster was a notable loss given the Chiefs’ inconsistent play at receiver this season. But Smith-Schuster failed to put up numbers in New England this season that were anywhere close to the ones he tallied during his lone year in Kansas City.
2023 draft picks
Round 1 (31 overall): Felix Anudike-Uzomah, DE — Kansas StateRound 2 (55 overall): Rashee Rice, WR — SMU Round 3 (92 overall): Wanya Morris, OT — Oklahoma Round 4 (119 overall): Chamarri Conner, S — Virginia TechRound 5 (166 overall): BJ Thompson, LB — Stephen F. Austin Round 6 (194 overall): Keondre Coburn, DT — TexasRound 7 (250 overall): Nic Jones, CB — Ball State
Kansas City’s lack of production from this year’s rookie class is one of the reasons why the Chiefs weren’t as strong this year as they’ve been in recent years.
Rice is really the only Chiefs player who has made a significant impact this season. He started slow before finishing the regular season with 127 yards in a win over the Bengals and 130 yards in Kansas City’s playoff win over Miami. He caught each of his four targets during Sunday’s win over Buffalo.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they continue to reap the benefits of what was a strong 2022 draft class, led by Trent McDuffie, George Karlaftis III, Isiah Pacheco and Bryan Cook. McDuffie was tabbed as an All-Pro this season. Karlaftis tied Jones for the team lead in sacks. Cook started in 12 regular-season games and scored a pivotal touchdown on a fumble return in Kansas City’s Week 9 win over Miami in Week 9.
You could argue, though, that the most impact impactful player from the Chiefs’ past two drafts has been Pacheco, a former seventh-round pick who made an immediate impact upon arriving in Kansas City. He’s been an extremely consistent and dependable player who has helped open up things for Mahomes in the passing game. He’s had a big postseason so far with 89 and 97 rushing yards and two total scores against the Dolphins and Bills, respectively.
Chiefs 2023 schedule/results
at Jacksonville Jaguars
at New York Jets
at Minnesota Vikings
Los Angeles Chargers
at Denver Broncos
at Las Vegas Raiders
at Green Bay Packers
at New England Patriots
Las Vegas Raiders
at Los Angeles Chargers
Super Wild Card Weekend
vs. Miami Dolphins
AFC divisional round
at Buffalo Bills
Week 17: Chiefs 25, Bengals 17
Kansas City desperately needed a win following its loss to Las Vegas the previous week. The Chiefs trailed the Bengals, 17-7, before scoring 18 unanswered points that came courtesy of Harrison Butker field goals. The win gave Kansas City its eighth consecutive division crown and the AFC’s No. 3 playoff seed.
While it was anything but perfect, the Chiefs’ win over the Bengals (a team that was still alive in the playoff hunt entering the game) showed that Kansas City can still beat quality teams without playing its best.
In the process, the Chiefs found a blueprint that has helped get them to this point. In pulling away from the Bengals, the Chiefs sacked Jake Browning six times, got steady play from Mahomes and received monster games from Pacheco (165 total yards and a touchdown on 25 touches) and Rice.
AFC divisional round: Chiefs 27, Bills 24
If there was any doubt that the Chiefs weren’t a legitimate Super Bowl threat, this game ended any such thoughts. After trailing 10-3 early, the Chiefs scored 24 of the game’s next 34 points while reminding the Bills this rivalry is still a one-sided affair.
Fittingly, Mahomes and Travis Kelce took center stage by connecting for two touchdowns and breaking Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski’s playoff record for passing touchdowns by a quarterback-receiver duo. Their second scoring connection of the night gave the Chiefs a 20-17 lead three minutes into the second half.
Buffalo, to its credit, didn’t go gently into the night and regained the lead on Josh Allen’s touchdown pass to Khalil Shakir to give the home team the lead going into the game’s final stanza. But the Chiefs immediately responded with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that showcased how far the Chiefs’ offense has come in recent weeks.
Five different Chiefs touched the ball on the drive, including Kelce, Rice and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, whose 32-yard grab set up Pacheco’s go-ahead touchdown run less than one minute into the fourth quarter.
From there, the Chiefs’ No. 2 ranked scoring defense took over matters by not allowing Allen and Co. to score another point. They did so by shutting down running back James Cook (who had -4 yards on four carries on the Bills’ final three drives), taking away Stefon Diggs and forcing Allen to settle for short gains.
As well as Kansas City’s defense played, though, the Bills still had a chance to tie the score late in regulation. But they came up short when Tyler Bass pushed his 44-yard field goal wide right with 1:47 left. Still, the Bills had two timeouts and would get the ball back if they could get a quick stop.
That, as you know, didn’t happen, as Pacheco runs of 8 and 3 yards put the game on ice. The win epitomized how the Chiefs can win games in 2023, and it’s how they will continue to win if they are able to hoist the Lombardi once again in a little over two weeks from now.