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    HomeSportAs regular season slog gives way to Super Bowl run, Patrick Mahomes...

    As regular season slog gives way to Super Bowl run, Patrick Mahomes remains inevitable

    BALTIMORE — While they stood and sang, he sat in silence. While the music thumped and the cigar smoke filled the air and his teammates danced amid the delirium of a fourth trip to the Super Bowl in five years, Patrick Mahomes retreated to a plastic chair in the corner of the visitor’s locker room at M&T Bank Stadium and exhaled.

    The elation was there, sure, but at this moment, the best football player on the planet wore a look of utter relief. For five minutes, he stared at his phone with a grin on his face.

    Even after the midseason slog and all those drops by his receivers, after he spent weeks biting his tongue in front of the microphones only to finally erupt on the sideline, after his Pro Bowl tight end started showing his age and the pundits started to wonder if the champs still had the mettle to make another playoff run — this one would have to come on the road — one truth remains inevitable: this is still Patrick Mahomes’ league.

    He’s Michael Jordan in his prime, the roadblock so many of his peers can’t find their way around when it matters most. Jordan spent the 1990s crushing the title hopes of his counterparts — Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone — worthy Hall of Famers in their own right. That’s what Mahomes is doing right now, leaving the likes of Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson asking themselves when their time is going to come. And if this guy’s ever going to get out of the way.

    “It’s hard to describe someone that good,” Kansas City general manager Brett Veach said Sunday night, an hour after the Chiefs gutted out a 17-10 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, their fourth conference title in Mahomes’ six seasons as a starter. “He’s a legend. He’s a blessing.”

    And he remains an impediment for every team in the AFC with Super Bowl ambitions.

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    This run’s been different — perhaps more gratifying — because of the road the Chiefs took. Because of a messy regular season and an offense that never looked right and the questions that lingered into early January. It was a little over a month ago that Veach huddled with head coach Andy Reid after the Chiefs dropped a game on Christmas Day to the Raiders, their fifth loss in eight weeks, an unimaginable skid of mediocrity for a team that’s been a championship contender since the minute Mahomes became the starter in 2018.

    “Something was off,” Veach said. “That loss, I think it really hit us. It allowed the whole organization to take a look in the mirror.”

    Five weeks later, he called it one of the reasons they’re still playing.

    From the minute the postseason began, on a frigid evening in Kansas City in the wild-card round, the champs have looked revived. Kelce, for starters, seemed intent on shaking off his sloppy regular season: he stormed the field that night for warmups dancing and shouting, sleeveless in sub-zero temperatures. His energy never waned, and his fire lit the team. The Dolphins never had a chance.

    What the Chiefs have done in consecutive weeks since, winning in Buffalo, then in Baltimore Sunday night, has been a testament to their championship resolve forged over postseason runs of the past, not to mention the lessons learned from their rocky regular season.

    “It’s a tough thing,” Reid said of making deep playoff runs each winter, the grind of playing two or three extra games every year. “You got to work through that mentally. That’s not easy.”

    Sunday’s victory spoke to that. The Chiefs looked and played like the veteran team. The Ravens constantly got in their own way. The Chiefs committed three penalties; the Ravens eight. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on their first two red zone trips and finished without a turnover; the Ravens turned it over three times, twice deep in Kansas City territory.

    Baltimore’s frustration bubbled up throughout the game. Jackson threw an errant interception into triple coverage and slammed his helmet. Standout rookie Ravens receiver Zay Flowers fumbled the ball on the goal line, stormed to the bench and cut his hand.

    The Chiefs played like champs.

    “When it came time to put the hammer down, they put the hammer down,” Reid said.

    Mahomes sizzled early on, playing the quarterback position about as well as it can be played against an elite defense like Baltimore’s. He made tight-window throws, like his first-quarter touchdown to Kelce. He scrambled from muddy pockets and kept drives alive. He completed his first 11 passes, a harsh and humbling reminder for a raucous purple-and-black-clad crowd at M&T Bank Stadium.

    That is, the AFC still runs through the Chiefs — even if the games are played somewhere besides Kansas City.

    “We’re the outlaws,” wideout Rashee Rice boasted later. “Everybody wants to beat the Chiefs. We got a target on our backs every day.”

    After a grind of a second half that saw five straight punts from the Chiefs offense, Mahomes lofted his prettiest throw of the game, an arching dagger to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on 3rd and 9 with 2:19 left that sent those fans filing to the exits.

    “We got the best quarterback in the world,” Chiefs linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “We got the best tight end in the world. We got the best coach in the world. We got the best defensive coordinator in the world. We got the best general manager in the world.

    “When you have all of that? It’s only a matter of time.”

    At one point in the second half, Mahomes had 27 completions to Jackson’s five. Mahomes finished 30-for-39 for 241 yards and a touchdown, outplaying the league’s presumptive MVP in moments big and small (Jackson was 20-for-37 for a touchdown and an interception). In a game where both quarterbacks faced off against championship-level defenses, Mahomes was steadier. Jackson was streaky at best.

    And a crowd that desperately wanted to see Jackson finally advance to a Super Bowl — just about all that’s missing from his resume at this point — instead had to watch No. 15 punch a fourth trip in five years, with a chance to win his third Lombardi Trophy. With Joe Burrow’s 2021 season being the lone exception, Mahomes continues to send his counterparts home, year after year.

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    The scene afterward was something, familiar in some respects but fresh in others. Mahomes stood on another stage, accepting another trophy, perhaps the most surprising of all the ones he’s hoisted during this gilded start to his career. “You don’t take it for granted,” he said later of advancing to his latest Super Bowl. “You never know how many you’re going to get to.”

    He’s 28. He’s already won 14 playoff games, same as Peyton Manning, same as John Elway, same as Terry Bradshaw. That puts him tied for third all-time, behind only Joe Montana (16 wins) and Tom Brady (35). And he’s done this in just six seasons.

    After Mahomes handed the Lamar Hunt trophy off, Kelce — who caught all 11 of his targets for 116 yards and a touchdown — strolled from the stage hand-in-hand with celebrity girlfriend Taylor Swift. One Chiefs teammate couldn’t wrap his mind around the crush of photographers, dozens and dozens deep, following them. It was staggering, even for a team accustomed to dealing with an intense spotlight.

    “My God, I’ve never seen anything like this,” the player said.

    From there, Kelce finally found his brother, Jason, who wore a Chiefs beanie. They hugged.

    “This is an easy team to root for,” Jason said a moment later. “They stayed together through all the nonsense.”

    There was plenty of it, the rigors of a championship chase that for months never seemed on track. The sparks came, from Kelce, who was edgy in walkthroughs and practices all week (“He led us,” Mahomes said, “he loves the challenge”). And from Reid, who never flinched in his postgame meetings with team owner Clark Hunt this season (“He never doubted the team,” said Hunt). And from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who scripted a masterpiece of a game plan Sunday, stifling Jackson and the Ravens’ offense all game long.

    But — same with every contender — so much of it rests on the face of the franchise, who after the most exasperating season of his career, found a seat in a celebratory locker room to sit alone and soak it in.

    It wasn’t just another trip to the Super Bowl. It was the most improbable one of all.

    “He gives everyone that belief and that hope,” Veach said of his quarterback. “It doesn’t matter what the odds are, where we’re playing, where we’re going. If we have 15 under center, we have a shot.”

    (Photo: Kathryn Riley / Getty Images)

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