Henne steps up, leads Chiefs to third straight conference title game


Charlie Riedel

Kansas City Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne celebrates with his teammates after diving for what was, at the time, a game-clinching first down against the Cleveland Browns. After review, the referees marked Henne just short of the first down, but it took only one more play to seal the 22-17 win for the Chiefs.

Alex Burbidge, Editor-in-chief

The Kansas City Chiefs advanced to their third consecutive AFC Championship Game on Jan. 17, edging out the Cleveland Browns, as expected, by a 22-17 score. However, they won in probably the most unlikely scenario imaginable, as the game was sealed with backup quarterback Chad Henne calling the plays.

The game began on the best note possible, with Patrick Mahomes leading the team downfield to score a touchdown within nine plays; the Chiefs’ offense was so prolific that at one point in the game, they had 11 first downs in only 21 plays. The touchdown also gave the Chiefs a lead for the 60th consecutive game, a streak good for second in NFL history. Kicker Harrison Butker, however, missed the extra point attempt. Butker struggled through the day, also missing a field goal later.

Cleveland responded with a seven-minute drive of their own, resulting in a Cody Parkey field goal to trim the lead down to three. The Chiefs responded immediately and even more efficiently than the previous drive, scoring a touchdown in a mere seven plays, highlighted by a 42-yard pass to wide receiver Mecole Hardman. Tavis Kelce, tight end, scored his 12th touchdown of the season with the score. The Browns’ next drive stalled at their own 38 yard line, which allowed the Chiefs to get one more field goal before the first controversy of the game arose.

With a minute and 42 seconds to go in the first half, Browns QB Baker Mayfield completed a pass to his wide receiver, Rashard Higgins. Higgins ran all the way to the end zone in an attempt to score, but Daniel Sorensen lived up to his “Dirty” nickname in the eyes of Browns fans, as he forced the ball out of the endzone before the score for a touchback, giving the Chiefs the ball inside the two-minute warning. Replays showed that there may have been a missed helmet-to-helmet penalty on Sorensen, with CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore saying not only that the penalty should have been called, but that all helmet-to-helmet penalties should be reviewable. Nevertheless, the Chiefs managed to give Butker good field position to kick another field goal, making the score 19-3 at halftime.

Right as the game began to look like a blowout, the KC defense began to falter a bit, as Mayfield finally threw his first touchdown of the day to wide receiver Jarvis Landry to make it a 12-point game. On the ensuing drive, more controversy took place, this time at the Chiefs’ 48-yard line.

Henne was inserted into the game midway through the third quarter after Mahomes was removed due to the NFL’s concussion protocol; he sustained a pinched nerve when he dove into Browns linebacker Mack Wilson trying for a first down. Many Chiefs fans clamored for some sort of penalty on Wilson, but replays showed that it was a clean hit on Mahomes. Furthermore, Wilson and Mahomes reconciled on Twitter, with Wilson sharing his prayers for Mahomes’ quick recovery. Mahomes responded, saying that it was “all good.” 

The 13-year-veteran guided the Chiefs into field goal range, allowing Butker to drill a 33-yard field goal to extend the team’s lead to 22-10. Henne found himself in a bit of trouble in the fourth quarter, as he threw a deep ball into the endzone on first down that allegedly was intended for wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, but was nowhere near him, and was instead intercepted by safety Karl Joseph. The momentum shifted considerably after that, as everyone inside Arrowhead Stadium and watching at home began to hold their collective breaths as the Browns took over on offense. Head coach Kevin Stefanski opted to punt on fourth down with only four minutes remaining instead of going for it with the season on the line, a move that was criticized by Browns fans across the board. The Chiefs took over and all the drama began to play out.

After the Chiefs took over, Henne completed two passes for a new set of downs. He was then sacked for a massive six yard loss, setting up a third down with 14 yards to go. Henne looked for an open man to pass to, but instead saw an opportunity to try to run for the first down; in a sense of poetic justice, the 35-year-old gave all his might to dive for the first down, in the same fashion as the run that knocked Mahomes out for the game. The referees originally ruled that the effort was good enough for the first down, which in turn would have sealed the Chiefs’ victory, but after a brief review they spotted the ball mere inches short.

Most coaches might have simply run out the play clock and call a timeout with a minute and 11 seconds left and trust the defense to get the job done, but Chiefs coach Andy Reid would have none of it. Reid called one of the gutsiest plays in the history of the storied franchise, opting to have Henne throw a pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill to secure the first down, and in turn, the victory for Kansas City.

With the win, the Chiefs clinched their third consecutive time hosting the AFC Championship Game, the first time in AFC history. The only other NFL team to host three straight title games was the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002-04. The Eagles were also coached by Reid, who is now the only head coach in NFL history to take two franchises to their conference’s championship game three years in a row.

The Chiefs will face the Buffalo Bills, who finished the regular season with a 13-3 record. One of those three losses came against the Chiefs in the sixth week of the season. The Chiefs won 26-17 in Buffalo, so, theoretically, with the Chiefs facing them again in Kansas City, it should result in another win and a second straight Super Bowl appearance.