Chiefs regulars ready for playoff debut
KANSAS CITY, Missouri – Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelsey have been in that situation before, poised to kick off the postseason run that has taken the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game and ended twice in the Super Bowl over the past four years.
So it’s easy to assume that the rest of the Chiefs are hardened playoff veterans.
It turns out that this is not the case.
Only the three-win Chicago Bears have had more games played by rookies this season than the Chiefs, and only four teams have had more rookies than Kansas City.
This includes defenseman George Karlaftis, who started all 17 of his games, and defenseman Trent McDuffie, who started each of the 11 games he was healthy.
In fact, each of the 10 Chiefs draft picks was active in at least one game. Eight of them started at least once.
“I mean it all starts with the organization and the coaches. They set the culture here,” explained Mahomes, who at 27 is suddenly among the oldest statesmen in the franchise.
“We have a lot of veterans on the team, and when you bring in new guys, you just show them with your behavior.”
Mahomes played his part with wide receiver Sky Moore, inviting him to volunteer training during the off-season at his home in Texas. In response, Moore caught 22 passes for 250 yards and was also featured on special teams.
Defensive end Frank Clark also took Karlaftis under his wing in training camp, showing the nuanced play of the first round pick. Karlaftis had six sacks, trailing only Aidan Hutchinson and James Huston in the rookie rankings.
And safety Justin Reed has been instrumental in helping a group of defenders that includes four rookie cornerbacks and a rookie defenseman, all of whom were on the field at the same time.
Jaylen Watson had a 99-yard pick-6 to help Kansas City beat the Chargers in Week 2, while McDuffie, Josh Williams, Nazi Johnson and Brian Cook had their moments.
The fact that they’ve been put to work so often means that, at least from Reed’s point of view, they’re no longer rookies as they prepare to face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday in the divisional round of the playoffs.
“They have enough experience. They had enough games under their belts,” Reid said. “They’re freshmen, but this title is ‘rookie’ – we really want to throw it out the window because of the experience and skills behind it.”
The Chiefs have had 154 rookie games this season. Sixty-one times the rookie was in the starting lineup.
“Yesterday I came back and spoke to the group and just let them know, ‘Hey, you’re in the season where you’re not a rookie,'” Chiefs defense coach Dave Merritt added.
“Guys have to understand that every time this is a faceless opponent. … In terms of technique, you have to make sure that you are doing well and hopefully you will improve throughout the season. And that’s what they did.”
Newcomers shone not only in defense.
Moore was the most publicized offensive draft pick in Kansas City and was useful despite fumble problems that saw him removed from punt return duty.
But the star of the breakout was seventh-round pick Isaiah Pacheco, who seemed to go through every game, making every team pay to miss him in those first six rounds.
Despite not starting the first six games, Pacheco rushed for 830 yards and five touchdowns, averaging almost 5 yards per carry. It is fifth among rookies, and his TD is tied for second among freshman players.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Pacheco and the rest of the Chiefs’ rookies is that they keep getting better.
“I’m not a big wall believing rookie. This is professional football. This is your job,” Chiefs running coach Greg Lewis shook his head. “(Pacheco) has been playing football like all the other rookies all his life.”
But never with these rates. Mahomes was able to handle the pressure; he never lost in a divisional round of the playoffs as an NFL rookie.
So did the other players who helped Kansas City win four AFC title games in a row.
Will their latest – and perhaps largest – group of first-year participants manage to do the same?
“I think you’ve seen the seasons go by, these rookies get better,” Mahomes said with a smile, “and then the veterans start finding the right moment to make the playoffs.”
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