KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — When Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes headed up the tunnel inside Arrowhead Stadium to have X-rays taken on his sprained right ankle, and Chad Henne trotted onto the field in the second quarter of their divisional playoff game against Jacksonville, it was obvious who the backup quarterback was going to target.
Not that the Jaguars could do anything about it.
Henne’s first throw went to Travis Kelce. So did another. And another. And by the time the Chiefs were on the doorstep of the end zone, it was the All-Pro tight end whose short touchdown grab finished off a 98-yard scoring drive.
In that respect, Kelce was like a big, comfy security blanket for the Chiefs, who went on to win 27-20 and advance into a Sunday night rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC title. Kelce finished with 14 catches, one off the NFL playoff record, and along the way continued his run on career statistical charts too numerous to count.
“Every time I step up here,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said afterward, “I feel like he breaks another record.”
Kelce isn’t the only standout tight end in the conference championships, though. The Bengals feature Hayden Hurst in their high-flying attack, and the 49ers’ George Kittle and the Eagles’ Dallas Goedert will square off in the NFC title game.
But it’s been Kelce who, over the past decade, has continued to revolutionize the position.
He is athletic enough to beat one-on-one coverage. Crafty enough to find holes in zones. And while the 33-year-old is a little bit older and perhaps a tad bit slower these days, he’s also a whole lot wiser, and his uncanny rapport with Mahomes — and Henne, apparently — makes him a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators
“It’s like Travis knows exactly where Patrick is, what he’s going to do when he scrambles to his right or his left,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who sees enough of him in training camp and practice.
“To 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 teams.
Hurst keeps defensive backfields from focusing entirely on Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, thus taking some of the pressure off one of the best trios of wide receivers in the game. He had four catches for 45 yards in the wild-card round against Baltimore before catching five passes for 59 yards and a score in the divisional round against Buffalo.
Goedert brings a certain physical attitude to the potent Philadelphia offense. Or, as Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts put it, when he’s on the field “he’s trying to punish somebody. He’s not trying to spare no man.”
Take their divisional win over the Giants. Hurts threw to his 6-foot-5, 256-pound tight end on the game’s third play, and Goedert proceeded to plant New York cornerback Adoree’ Jackson with a stiff arm, helping to set the tone for the rest of the night. Goedert finished the drive with a touchdown catch to kick off the 38-7 rout.
“He’s tough to tackle. He is really tough to tackle,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “I wouldn’t want to tackle him.”
His counterpart in San Francisco is equally tough to tackle, though not because Kittle bulldozers defenders so much as he makes them miss. Kittle did that on five catches for 95 yards in their divisional win over the Cowboys.
The tone the ever-smiling Kittle sets for his team? One of loose, unbridled joy.
“Times we sort of feel uptight and whatnot, Kittle is like, the guy to put a smile on your face and say, ‘Hey, we’re good enough,’ that kind of thing,” 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy said. “He does bring energy and good vibes to everyone, and honestly, I do feel like he gets us back into the zone of playing well.
“So that’s what he does, and I think he’s the best in the NFL with just his personality and everything like that, too.”
Kelce is playing in his fifth consecutive AFC title game. Hurst made the playoffs earlier in his career in Baltimore. Goedert is in the postseason for the fourth time while Kittle is playing in his third conference title game in four years.
That’s four of the game’s best tight ends, all trying to reach the Super Bowl this Sunday.
“It’s what you dreamt about since you were a kid,” Kittle said. “It’s what you dream about when you’re in high school and college. You dream about it when you’re in the NFL. You dream about situations like this. Whether it’s a hunger, starvation or desperation, you do everything you can to make sure at the end of the game you can win it.”