There were no comebacks. No raucous celebrations. No more miracles.
The Chiefs, with an ailing and hobbled Patrick Mahomes, ended the storybook season of the Jaguars with a 27-20 win in the AFC divisional playoffs on a cold Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
A team whose rallying cry had been built around the word “believe” took it down to the final minute before simply running out of miracles. And there’d been too many of them to count during a frenzied run to the playoffs, including a historic comeback win in the playoff opener.
Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars battled to the bitter end, but finally ran into a deficit that they couldn’t overcome. Two turnovers in the final six minutes muted Jacksonville’s second-half season surge that was headlined by one comeback after another. Jacksonville (10-9) still had a faint pulse after Riley Patterson’s 48-yard field goal with 30 seconds left, but they couldn’t recover the following onside kick and the Chiefs kneeled down to end it.
The Jaguars still believe and they believe that they’ll be back.
“I just told them I was proud of them for the season we put together. Nobody expected us, the Jaguars, to be in this football game. From the beginning of the season to today,” coach Doug Pederson said. “I just told them how proud I was of them for how they hung together all season long, and how they battled and fought through a ton of adversity.”
Missed opportunities were the story of the game. Jacksonville was an 8.5-point underdog, but had multiple chances to make it an even tighter game in the waning minutes.
Driving in for a score to whittle Kansas City’s 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence hit Jamal Agnew on a slant that went down to the Chiefs 5. Agnew lost control of the ball on the way to the ground and Nick Bolton recovered it. Jacksonville’s ensuing drive ended with a Lawrence interception.
For a team that has picked No. 1 overall in the last two drafts, playing in a late January playoff game is foreign ground. House money, it was said to Pederson earlier in the week. The Jaguars didn’t play like a massive underdog, giving Mahomes and the Chiefs all it could handle late.
The future is brighter in Jacksonville than its been, perhaps since 1996, when an unexpected playoff run laid the foundation for years of success. It starts with Lawrence, 23, a franchise quarterback who looked like it as the season went on. He finished 24 of 39 passing for 217 yards and a first-quarter touchdown pass to Christian Kirk.
“I don’t really have the words right now, just equal parts crushed that we’re done playing, road ends for us this year. And you know, equal parts just proud of what we did,” Lawrence said. “It’s hard to feel that part of it right now because you put so much into it, you dedicate everything you have. Our whole building [worked] for six months to get these opportunities. And to come up short, it stings.”
The game was all about the resolve of Mahomes and his work carving up Jacksonville’s defense. He did it from open to close, with a little bit of a break in the middle. Injured on a tackle in the last minutes of the first quarter, Mahomes went to the sidelines and was replaced by Chad Henne. The former Jaguars quarterback came in and diced Jacksonville up for a 98-yard scoring drive.
The Chiefs’ offense was the story. For a Jaguars team that will, conceivably battle Kansas City in the coming years, finding a way to slow Mahomes and Co. is offseason goal No. 1.
As advertised, it was just too much for Jacksonville. Travis Kelce was uncoverable, catching 14 passes for 98 yards and a pair touchdowns. Isiah Pacheco provided a change-of-pace out of the backfield rushing for 95 yards on 12 carries. And even a gimpy Mahomes was too good to slow down.
“I mean I’m not coming out of a playoff game unless they take me out. I’m just going to play,” Mahomes said. “I love this sport too much; I love this game. I love playing with my teammates and being able to go out there and enjoy it together.
Jacksonville’s offense played too conservative and labored to move the ball most of the game before finding a bit of rhythm in the final quarter. Lawrence marched Jacksonville 75 yards in seven plays with Travis Etienne polishing it off with a 4-yard touchdown. That sliced Kansas City’s lead to 20-17.
It didn’t matter.
Even limping and wincing with every snap, Mahomes was just too good. He responded with an MVP-caliber march, hitting three different receivers on the drive, the final one to Marquez Valdes-Scantling from 6 yards out for a 27-17 lead. Jacksonville had its chances to answer, but Agnew’s fumble and Lawrence’s interception made it too steep of a climb.
When Jacksonville dissects the final game of its remarkable season, it will no doubt circle back to a handful of plays.
Foye Oluokun nearly picked off a batted Mahomes pass with just under 10 minutes to play in the first quarter, but it bounced out of his hands. Mahomes fired an 8-yard touchdown pass to Kelce four plays later.
With Mahomes in the locker room getting his injured ankle looked at, the Jaguars downed a Logan Cooke punt at the 2 and seemed positioned to drain the cheers from Arrowhead Stadium. Instead, Jacksonville’s defense watched as backup quarterback Henne marched the Chiefs 98 yards in 12 plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kelce.
The capper came on Lawrence’s first deep ball of the game, a 50-yard launch to Kirk. He was open with two defenders trailing him and would have likely gone into the end zone untouched. But Kirk simply whiffed on catching it. Jacksonville ultimately settled for a Patterson 41-yard field goal to get within 17-10.
“We are all hurting because of the loss, but we are all hurting because it is the final game of this year,” Pederson said. “That is the hard thing. Like I told the guys, these are the games we are going to learn from and be better because of them. I told them plan on every year us being in these meaningful games at the end of the season. We want to be one of the four, five, or six teams in the AFC every year.”
The end result is disappointing, sure, but not even the most ardent Jaguars fan could have predicted a finish like this. The Jaguars were sitting at 3-7 after a loss to the Chiefs in Week 10. What followed was comparable to the magical second half run in 1996.
Jacksonville ended the regular season on a 6-1 tear, including a 20-16, come-from-behind win over the Titans in prime-time in Week 18. That delivered an AFC South title and the first home playoff game since the 2017 season. We all know what happened next.
“When you go out there and it all finally comes to an end, it hurts. It stings. There are emotions, there are tears. You put it all on the line and you put so much into this stuff.,” Kirk said. “It’s not supposed to be easy to lose and to move on from it. It is going to sting and it is going to hurt. I am so proud of everybody in this locker room and this team to be in this place and to be where we are today.”
Pederson’s first season has traits of 1996 for more than just the numbers. That 1996 season, Jacksonville’s second in the NFL, was the first of four consecutive playoff berths. It peaked in 1999 with a 14-2 regular season record and a second AFC title game appearance. The Jaguars were the second-youngest team in the playoffs this season. An arc like what Jacksonville saw after 1996 is absolutely going to be expected.
Lawrence’s growth as a player and a leader is a significant reason for those expectations to be through the future sunshade cover at TIAA Bank Field. He’ll start the 2023 season as a top 10 quarterback in the league and is a massive sales pitch to free agents in the coming years.
“It’s hard to even think about next year right now because ... this loss is fresh,” Lawrence said. “But we’re going to be back and this is the new standard. We set that and this is the bar and we’ll be back.”