How Chiefs reached AFC title game: Key moves, turning point, biggest reasons for success, full season results

The Kansas City Chiefs stumbled early this season, hit their stride, won an epic divisional round game and are now hosting the AFC championship game for an NFL record fourth-consecutive year.

So how did Andy Reid’s club improve from a 14-2 season in 2020 that featured a convincing conference title game victory? No, its record wasn’t as impressive this time around, but there’s reason to believe it’s a Kansas City team more equipped to win the Super Bowl this year than in February of 2021. 

Let’s review with a look back at their key acquisitions, most important wins and other notable moments from their 2021 campaign:

Key acquisitions

After the blocking abomination in the Super Bowl last February, the Chiefs felt work needed to be done up front. A lot of work. They swung one of the most surprising trades I can remember — between AFC rivals — landing Brown from the Ravens in a deal that included a second and a sixth also going to Kansas City in exchange for the Chiefs’ first, third, and fourth-round picks in 2021 and a fifth-round selection in 2022.  

In free agency, the Chiefs made Thuney the highest-paid guard — on a multi-year deal — in football after a dazzling beginning to his career in New England. With those two moves, Kansas City was well on its way to rebuilding the offensive line, something that needed to be done. 

Then Ingram fell into their lap at the trade deadline. He started hot in Pittsburgh but cooled, and he wasn’t happy with reduced snaps. General manager Brett Veach sent a sixth-round pick to the Steelers for the powerful veteran rusher. 

Key draft picks

The reconstruction of the unit tasked with protecting Mahomes was not complete with the Brown trade and Thuney signing. The Chiefs selected Humphrey in Round 2, and he garnered Offensive Rookie of the Year hype for the duration of his first NFL season. Playing center in Reid’s offense has often produced incredible results for whomever’s blocking there, but Humphrey played well beyond his years at the pivot. 

Four rounds later, Kansas City picked Smith as a flier. After years on the draft radar, health issues led to his colossal slide, and Kansas City was content stopping his plummet. Smith, a strength-based blocker with an NFL body, was fantastic as a rookie, too. And with that, the offensive line was reworked. 

The team’s first second-round pick (Bolton) had his issues in coverage early but settled into his role as the team’s sideline-to-sideline patrol man.

Turning point

Week 10 vs. Raiders: The Chiefs started 3-4 before holding on for an ugly 20-17 win over the Giants and then beating the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers, 13-7. But the offense was still not right. Not even close. It wasn’t until a shellacking of the Raiders that the Chiefs righted the ship, hitting big plays all over the field against Gus Bradley’s Cover 3-based defense. Mahomes got on track, finishing with 406 yards and five touchdowns on 35-of-50 passing and a studly rating of 127.6. 

From that point forward, the Chiefs have mostly looked like the Chiefs again. 

Key win

Week 18 vs. Broncos: With an immense amount of parity in the NFL this season — particularly in the AFC — the final game of the regular season was critical for the AFC playoff picture. And it wasn’t a cake walk for the Chiefs in Denver. The Broncos took a 14-10 lead into the half and were up, 21-20, midway through the fourth. On the doorstep of another touchdown, Ingram popped Broncos running back Melvin Gordon, allowing Bolton to scoop up the ball and run it back for an 86-yard score. Massive play in a massive win.

Had the Chiefs lost that game, the Bills would’ve been the No. 2 seed and the Chiefs No. 3 — meaning that divisional round contest would’ve been in Buffalo. 

Biggest reasons for their run

  • Yards after the catch: I’m not taking anything away from Mahomes because he’s a superstar, but the Chiefs offense is extraordinarily YAC-friendly. Entering this conference title clash with the Bengals, Kansas City averages a hefty 6.31 yards after the catch per reception. That’s second in the NFL to only the 49ers. Between Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman and a collection of springy scat backs, the Chiefs are built to gash defenses after the catch. 
  • The offensive line: Since the aforementioned Raiders game in Week 10, Mahomes has only been sacked 11 times in eight contests on 307 drop backs. That equates to a pretty low sack rate of 3.6%, which is nearly identical to his sack rates for the entirety of the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Has the Chiefs offensive line been unstoppable? No. But the rebuild has worked. 

Full 2021 results


vs. Browns

W, 33-29


at Ravens

L, 35-36


vs. Chargers

L, 24-30


at Eagles 

W, 42-30


vs. Bills

L, 20-38


at WFT

W, 31-13


at Titans

L, 3-27


vs. Giants 

W, 20-17


vs. Packers

W, 13-7


at Raiders

W, 41-14


vs. Cowboys

W, 19-9


vs. Broncos

W, 22-9


vs. Raiders

W, 48-9


at Chargers

W, 34-28 (OT)


vs. Steelers

W, 36-10


at Bengals

L, 31-34


at Broncos

W, 28-24 

Wild Card

vs. Steelers

W, 42-21


vs. Bills

W, 42-36 (OT)

AFC Championship vs. Bengals TBD

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