KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — As Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes walked up the tunnel at Arrowhead Stadium to have his sprained right ankle X-ray and Chad Henne trotted onto the field in the second quarter of their division playoff game against Jacksonville, it was obvious who the backup quarterback would be aiming for.
Not that the jaguars can do anything about it.
Henne’s first litter went to Travis Kelce. Another one too. And another. And with the Chiefs on the doorstep of the end zone, it was the All-Pro tight end whose short touchdown grab ended a 98-yard scoring drive.
In that regard, Kelce was like a big, comfortable security blanket for the Chiefs, who later won 27-20 and advanced to a rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC title on Sunday night. Kelce finished the game with 14 catches, an NFL playoff record, while continuing his run on career stat charts too numerous to count.
“Every time I move up here,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said afterwards, “I feel like he’s breaking another record.”
Kelce isn’t the only standout tight end in the conference championships, however. The Bengals have Hayden Hurst in their high-flying attack, and the 49ers’ George Kittle and Eagles’ Dallas Goedert will face off in the NFC title game.
But it was Kelce who continued to revolutionize the position over the past decade.
He’s athletic enough to beat the one-on-one coverage. Smart enough to find holes in zones. And while the 33-year-old is a little older these days and maybe a little slower, he’s also a lot smarter, and his uncanny relationship with Mahomes – and apparently Henne – makes him a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators
“It’s like Travis knows exactly where Patrick is, what he’s going to do if he creeps right or left,” said Chiefs defense coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who sees enough of him in training camp and practice.
“For me, that’s the most amazing thing,” Spagnuolo said. “How they get that, I’ll never know.”
Each of the tight ends playing Sunday brings something unique to their team.
Hurst keeps the defensive backfields from focusing solely on Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, relieving pressure on one of the best trios of wide receivers in the game. He had four catches for 45 yards in the wildcard round against Baltimore before making five passes for 59 yards and a goal in the divisional round against Buffalo.
Goedert brings a certain physical attitude to Philadelphia’s potent offense. Or as Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts put it, when he’s on the field, “he’s trying to punish someone. He doesn’t try to spare anyone.”
Get their division win over the Giants. Hurts threw to his 6-foot-5, 256-pound tight end on the third play, and Goedert planted New York cornerback Adoree ‘Jackson with a stiff arm and helped set the tone for the rest of the night. Goedert ended the drive with a touchdown catch to initiate the 38-7 loss.
“He’s difficult to deal with. He’s really tough to deal with,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “I wouldn’t want to attack him.”
His San Francisco counterpart is just as difficult to take down, but not because Kittle bulldozes the defenders as much as he lets them miss. Kittle did so with five catches for 95 yards in their division win over the Cowboys.
The tone the always smiling Kittle sets for his team? One of loose, unbridled joy.
“At times where we’re kind of tight and stuff like that, Kittle’s the guy that puts a smile on your face and says, ‘Hey, we’re good enough,’ like that,” said 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy . “He brings energy and good vibes to everyone and honestly I feel like he puts us back in the zone of good play.
“So that’s what he does and I think he’s the best in the NFL just with his personality and all that.”
Kelce is playing in his fifth straight AFC title game. Hurst made the playoffs earlier in his career in Baltimore. Goedert is in his fourth postseason while Kittle is in his third conference title game in four years.
That’s four of the best tight ends in the game, all trying to reach the Super Bowl this Sunday.
“You’ve dreamed of this since you were a kid,” said Kittle. “This is what you dream about when you’re in high school and college. This is what you dream about when you’re in the NFL. You dream of such situations. Be it hunger, hunger or desperation, you do whatever it takes to win at the end of the game.”