KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Kansas City Chiefs have some of the biggest names in the NFL, from Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce to Chris Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster, yet they're playing in their third Super Bowl in four years largely because they refused to give up on players only their most-passionate fans know about.
There’s the quartet of rookie defensive backs that were picked on all season, but who largely shut down Ja’Marr Chase and the Bengals' other talented wide receivers while picking off Joe Burrow twice in the AFC championship game.
There's Skyy Moore, their fumble-prone rookie punt returner whose fumble cost them a win in Indianapolis in Week 3, but whose big return in the waning seconds Sunday night helped to set up the winning field goal in the 23-20 victory.
And there's their kicker, Harrison Butker, whose sprained ankle in the regular-season opener in Arizona led to the most inaccurate season of his career, yet who drilled the 45-yarder with 3 seconds left that ultimately sent the Chiefs back to the desert.
“Really, those are the redemption stories that you get into,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It was quite a deal to watch.”
Indeed, Reid has been around long enough to understand the unforgiving nature of the NFL, where players' careers are often measured in weeks rather than years. He's seen hundreds with promise flame out, their chances at making it big done in by fumble problems, blown blocking assignments, missed tackles or other seemingly minor miscues.
He likes to say that the line between success and failure is so small that it's almost imperceptible.
His players understand that, too.
“With the circumstances so high,” Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. admitted, “the margin of error is so slim.”
So nobody would have batted an eye had the Chiefs relegated Moore to the mothballs earlier in the season, when the first-year wide receiver couldn't even make a fair catch. To be fair, Moore had never really been put in that position, but that did not stop fans from groaning every time he fumbled a punt.
The Chiefs finally pulled him from return duties, at least during games. But Moore continued to work in practice, and it wound up paying off. Their new returner, Kadarius Toney, hurt his ankle against the Bengals, and his backup Justin Watson already was inactive with an illness. So, the Chiefs sent Moore back to fetch the biggest punt of the season.
He not only fielded it cleanly but raced up the sideline to give Kansas City a chance to win the AFC title in regulation.
“I just had to remind myself who I was and why I was here,” Moore said. "I was doing something new, and I was going to take my bumps and bruises. I just kept working at it. I didn’t think I was ever going to get a punt return again this season. But I didn’t stop catching punts. I was prepared for that moment and it paid off.”
So did the decision by the Chiefs to keep putting rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson and Josh Williams on the field together, often with rookie safety Bryan Cook, even as wily wide receivers kept beating them and flags kept flying for pass interference. Much like Moore, they took their lumps early in the season so they would be ready later.
In the AFC title game, Watson and Williams both picked off passes, one of them after Cook batted the ball in the air.
“They told us we were going to be a big part of this defense. They threw us in the fire," Williams said. "They definitely gave us every piece of information and every detail to prepare us to play well in tight situations. They didn’t just tell us to go out there and play. They gave us a game plan and showed us how to execute. We did that and we bought in.”
Butker was a slightly different case. His ankle injury in the opener in Arizona not only caused him to miss three weeks, it also forced him to alter his approach to kickoffs and field goals. The result was a shaky season in which the veteran kicker with the big leg missed a career-worst six field-goal attempts and blew three extra points.
Yet when Moore's punt return gave Patrick Mahomes and Co. the ball, and the All-Pro quarterback scrambled into field-goal range on his own sprained ankle, the Chiefs had confidence enough in Butker to send him trotting onto the field.
It was frigid. The wind was swirling. The ball probably felt like a rock. And yet Butker managed to get just enough oomph on the 45-yarder that it squeaked over the crossbar and gave the Chiefs their third AFC title in four years.
“You dream about the big kicks. That’s what people remember," Butker pointed out in the jubilant Kansas City locker room afterward. "They don’t remember your field-goal percentage during the year.”
Nor do folks remember the adversity that players such as Moore, Butker and the Chiefs' rookie defensive backfield have faced when they suddenly find themselves playing in the Super Bowl.
“Everybody pushed through and made it work," Reid said, “so I'm very proud for our guys.”
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