Defending a championship is hard in any pro sport. In a world full of alpha athletes, you become the hunted, the one that other great teams and players — all of whom are, by nature, far more competitive than you or I could even dream of — measure themselves against.
Nowhere is this more evident than the NFL, by far the most physical team sport in America. And 16 games of being the hunted, of getting the other guys’ best shot, is … well, draining. Especially in today’s game, where players have never been bigger, stronger and faster.
That is just one of the reasons why we haven’t seen an NFL team win back-to-back championships since the 2003-2004 Patriots. It’s just that hard in the NFL, where parity reigns supreme.
Entering the 2020 season, the Kansas City Chiefs had the best odds of any team to repeat in recent memory. They have a Hall of Fame coach (Andy Reid), a generational quarterback with proven Michael Jordan-like postseason chops (Patrick Mahomes) and, oh yeah, 18 returning starters from last year’s Super Bowl-winning group.
Their continuity showed throughout the course of a rollicking 14-2 regular season, too, as they rode the “this is why we’re the f***ing champs” swagger — epitomized by a feeling of the inevitable Kansas City win whenever games were close — to a degree we haven’t seen since the ’04 Patriots and ’98 Broncos, back-to-back champs that also went 14-2.
While the Chiefs check all the boxes for a back-to-back contender, there’s one more element they need, one that was tested Sunday and will be going forward. And that is luck.
No team can win anything of significance without an element of it, especially in a league where game-changing injuries lurk around every corner. Neither the ’98 Broncos nor the ’04 Patriots would have won anything in those years had their starting quarterbacks, Tom Brady and John Elway, gotten hurt in the playoffs.
On Sunday, the Chiefs’ sense of fate was tested. Though they took care of business in the divisional round, holding on for a 22-17 nail-biting win over an ascending Cleveland team with a bright future, they had to survive late without Mahomes, who left the game in the third quarter while being evaluated for a concussion and was eventually ruled out for the rest of the game.
“He got hit in the back of the head and kind of knocked the wind out of him,” Reid told reporters afterward. “He's doing great right now, which is a real positive, passed all the deals that he needed to pass so we'll see where it goes from here.”
When pressed for more, Reid added: “I just talked to him — he's doing good. We'll see how he is tomorrow but right now he's feeling good."
What does that mean for Mahomes’ availability next Sunday against Buffalo in the AFC championship game? Who knows. He was wobbly getting up from the hit before he sprinted back to the locker room. Reid and teammates didn’t seem devastated in the postseason Zoom calls, for whatever that’s worth.
If there’s any way Mahomes can play, he will. The word “warrior” has been used to describe him by those who know him — he takes pride in playing through pain — and Mahomes was tweeting plenty after the game, an indication that hopeful folks will perceive as him feeling OK.
So now, Kansas City waits with bated breath for word on Mahomes’ status. If the news is good, and Mahomes can play against the Bills, that news will be viewed as the latest adversity they overcame on their journey. Right along with the way the Chiefs found a way to win Sunday without him, thanks to some clever play calls by Reid, some gutsy playmaking by backup Chad Henne and a defense that stepped up in the clutch.
If it plays out that way, no one on the Chiefs — or any Chiefs fans, for that matter — should take it for granted. The only thing harder than winning one Super Bowl is winning two straight, and to do it, a team needs talent, great coaching and luck, specifically of the injury variety.
Very soon, we’ll learn if the Chiefs have enough of that final ingredient to dodge a couple more bullets on their march toward history.
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