KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs had already lost star quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a concussion Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, they were also in danger of losing the game.
Then their defense, backup quarterback Chad Henne and a gutsy call by coach Andy Reid kept their hopes of a Super Bowl repeat alive, with the top-seeded Chiefs holding off the upstart Cleveland Browns 22-17 to advance to their third straight AFC championship game.
With the reigning Super Bowl MVP reduced to spectator status, the Kansas City defense that plays in the shadow of Mahomes and a high-powered offense forced the Browns to punt in the waning minutes. Then the 35-year-old Henne showed some moxie with a long third-down scramble and an audacious fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill — when go-for-broke Reid decided to go for it — that gave the Chiefs a first down with just more than a minute left and allowed them to run out the clock.
"That's why we love Big Red. He's always on time," Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said of Reid. "He's like our spirit warrior out here behind the scenes. He's always trying stuff. We always knew he has one play on the table."
Or, as Mahomes wrote on Twitter after the win: "#HenneThingIsPossible."
"We go through all those Saturday night with the quarterbacks, those situations: 'Fourth-and-1 to win the game, what do you want?'" said Reid, who explained he never thought once about punting on fourth down. "My coaches were on board, they all did a great job with the spot, with the calls, everything — they were spot on. It was a great job."
Mahomes hadn't played in 21 days, not since the Chiefs clinched the AFC's No. 1 seed in the penultimate week of the regular season, but he hardly missed a beat before leaving midway through the third quarter. He finished 21-of-30 passing for 255 yards and a touchdown, and he also ran for a score.
Harrison Butker added three field goals for the Chiefs (15-2), who nearly blew a 19-3 lead but survived to become the first AFC team to host three consecutive conference title games. They'll face the Buffalo Bills (15-3) next Sunday.
The sixth-seeded Browns, who were coming off their first playoff win since the 1994 season, finish 12-6.
"It stings," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "We came here to win and didn't get the job done. There is a finality to that."
Baker Mayfield threw for 204 yards with a touchdown and a pick for the Browns, whose inability to drive for the winning touchdown — they punted with 4:23 left in the game — and letdown on defense kept them from winning two playoff games in a season for the first time since 1950.
"It came down to us on defense, and we let it slip," Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said. "We had two opportunities. We didn't make it happen. It was right in front of us, and we just — this time we didn't get it done."
Mahomes completed 11 of his first 12 passes and led the Chiefs to back-to-back touchdowns to start the game. He ran for the first, and tight end Travis Kelce turned a dump-off pass into a 20-yard catch for the second, making Mahomes the first player since the San Francisco 49ers' Steve Young in 1995 with three straight playoff games with touchdowns on the ground and through the air.
The home team led 19-3 at halftime, but then the entire complexion of the game changed early in the third quarter.
First, the Browns held Kansas City when Mayfield threw an interception and Butker missed a 33-yard field-goal attempt. Mayfield then led the Chiefs briskly the other way, capping a 77-yard drive with a touchdown throw to Jarvis Landry. And finally, the roughly 17,000 fans allowed into Arrowhead Stadium were left sitting in stunned silence when Mahomes was tackled around the head with 7:27 left in the quarter and left crumpled on the turf near midfield.
Already hobbled by a foot injury, the 25-year-old quarterback stumbled as he tried to get to his feet. He was eventually helped to the blue medical tent on the sideline, then ran to the locker room, where he was evaluated for a concussion.
"It kind of knocked the wind out of him and everything else," Reid said after the game. "He's doing great right now, which is a real positive as we look at this. He passed all the deals he needed to pass, and we'll see where it goes from here."
With the momentum finally turned, the Browns began to lean heavily on their vaunted ground game, which had produced just 18 yards in the first half. Nick Chubb converted on fourth down with a hard run, then Hunt followed another fourth-down conversion on the same drive by hitting the end zone against his former team to make it 22-17 with 11:07 to go.
Cleveland safety Karl Joseph picked off Henne in the end zone a few minutes later, but the Kansas City defense stuffed Chubb on first down, forced an incompletion and ultimately made Cleveland punt.
Henne's gutsy scramble and Reid's equally daring fourth-down call kept the Browns from having another chance.
"It's a little different when your quarterback goes down, someone so important to your offense and your team," Kelce said, "but you have to throw it all into the same bucket of, 'When adversity hits, what are you going to do? Where does your mind go? Where do we go from here as a team?' We rallied around Chad, gave him some confidence, knowing we were out there making plays every single snap, just like if Pat was out there."