KANSAS CITY — A bruising running game, a smothering defense and a sterling cameo performance by a backup quarterback was enough on Saturday to send Kansas City to its fifth straight appearance in the A.F.C. championship game.
The 27-20 victory over Jacksonville was secured only after Kansas City rookie Jaylen Watson intercepted Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence with just under 4 minutes left in the game. Moments earlier, Kansas City linebacker Nick Bolton had recovered a Jamal Agnew fumble inside the 5-yard line as the Jaguars were closing in on a score.
The high-flying Kansas City offense was not exactly grounded but had to put itself on autopilot after quarterback Patrick Mahomes injured his ankle in the first half. The team’s training staff employed all its power of persuasion to get the recalcitrant Mahomes to the locker room for a better look at his injury.
Backup Chad Henne dispelled the anxiety of the suddenly murmuring sold-out crowd at Arrowhead Stadium. He went 5 of 7 for 23 yards and led Kansas City on a 98-yard touchdown drive, and his team took a 17-10 lead at halftime.
Mahomes did manage to return for the second half, but Kansas City leaned into the running of Isiah Pacheco, who rumbled for 95 yards on 12 carries. By the fourth quarter, with Kansas City holding a 20-17 lead, Mahomes resembled his old self, in quick-strike fashion taking the offense 75 yards in under five minutes, capped by a 6-yard touchdown to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
The Jaguars had won six straight, including a 27-point comeback victory against the Los Angeles Chargers last week in their first playoff appearance since the 2017 season to earn the right to try to derail Kansas City’s Super Bowl aspirations.
They may very well have, had they only corrected two tendencies that haunted them all season: an inability to keep tight ends from strafing their secondary and their receivers’ penchant for dropping catchable balls.
The Jaguars led the league with 41 dropped passes, according to Pro Football Reference, and that dubious distinction was on display, especially in the opening drive of the second half, when Christian Kirk dropped a Lawrence strike on third-and-7 from their own 40-yard line. In the first half, Kirk, who had seven drops on the season, was wide open in the Kansas City red zone when he bobbled and lost a Lawrence deep ball.
The Jaguars were the N.F.L.’s worst defense against tight ends this past season by yardage, and Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce found canyons in the Jaguars secondary on Saturday; he had 14 catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Mahomes wasted little time playing pitch and catch with Kelce on Kansas City’s opening drive. His first two passes were to Kelce, who led all tight ends this season with 110 receptions. By the end of a six-minute, 83-yard drive, Kelce had caught two more, including an 8-yard touchdown pass.
Jacksonville showed its mettle, though. Agnew returned the ensuing kickoff 63 yards to the Kansas City 39-yard line. Lawrence needed just five plays to find Kirk for a 10-yard touchdown.
The normally raucous crowd at Arrowhead Stadium went worriedly quiet after Mahomes was hit on a pass as the first quarter was winding down; Jacksonville linebacker Arden Key landed heavily on Mahomes’s right leg. The quarterback was clearly hobbled as he got up.
The Kansas City training staff got busy between quarters wrapping Mahomes’s leg to treat what the team reported was an ankle injury. And he was back on the field to finish a drive that concluded with a 50-yard field goal by Harrison Butker for a 10-7 lead.
On the next Jacksonville possession, Lawrence moved the ball well down the field, though a sack ultimately forced the Jaguars to punt. Meanwhile, there was drama on the Kansas City sideline: The team’s training staff wanted to take Mahomes to the locker room for farther evaluation; he barked that he didn’t want to go.
Mahomes lost that argument.
So just as two years ago against the Browns, it was up to backup quarterback Chad Henne to get Kansas City back to the A.F.C. championship.
In 2021, Mahomes suffered a concussion; Henne had never thrown a pass — or even played a snap — in the postseason despite 11 seasons in the N.F.L. But he led a game-sealing drive, including a pass on fourth-and-short.
This year, Coach Andy Reid was again asking for Henne’s help. Starting at Kansas City’s own 2-yard line, Henne showed Reid and his teammates that he deserved their confidence.