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Kansas City Chiefs: Road to the NFL Championship

The Kansas City Chiefs are looking to cement their dynasty and become the first team to win back-to-back championships since 2005 when they face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, February 11.

It is a rematch of the teams' title game in Miami in February 2020, when the Chiefs beat the 49ers 31-20 for their first championship success in 50 years.

Let's take a look at the journey the Chiefs have been on this season to get back to the big game.

Hopes high for a strong title defense

The Chiefs were favorites to retain their crown as NFL champions at the start of the season and had odds of around +600 before the campaign began in September.

KC's roster did not undergo any major changes in the off-season after their 38-35 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in last season's NFL Championship. The biggest change was arguably the loss of offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy, who moved to the Washington Commanders and was replaced by Matt Nagy.

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (Patriots) and safety Juan Thornhill (Browns) were notable losses in free agency, but the Chiefs strengthened their offensive line by signing two new starting tackles in Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor.

Their first-round draft pick was defensive end Felix Anudike-Uzomah, while wide receiver Rashee Rice was their selection in the second round.

Strong start after opening-day loss

The Chiefs went 2-1 in their preseason games. But they suffered a surprise loss in the opening game of the season, losing 21-20 to the Detroit Lions in what was almost a preview of the NFL Championship Game until the Lions' lost a big lead to the 49ers in the NFC Championship decider. 

Kansas City bounced back by reeling off six straight victories, although their offense did not always look like the high-scoring unit we had become used to seeing. Instead, their defense helped to grind out low-scoring wins over the Jaguars (17-9) and Denver (19-8).

The schedule had been kind to them at that stage, too, as the Lions were the only team among their first eight opponents that made the playoffs.

Mid-season struggles raise doubts 

Critics who claimed that the Chiefs did not look like the force of old appeared to be justified when the champions hit a rough patch in the middle of the season and began to lose games.

They went just 4-4 in an eight-game stretch from Week 8 to Week 16 and fell out of the race to claim the number one seed in the AFC which they had secured last season, entering the final two games of season at 9-6.

The first concerning loss was to AFC West rivals the Denver Broncos in Week 8, when the Chiefs lost 24-9 and failed to score a point in the second half. 

They bounced back with a 21-14 win over the Miami Dolphins in Germany the following week, although again, they did not score after the half-time interval.

Following their bye week after returning from Europe, the Chiefs lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, and Buffalo Bills in three of their next four games, raising doubts as to how they would fare against other quality teams in the playoffs.

Mahomes was being let down by his receiving unit, with Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Skyy Moore in particular guilty of some costly drops, while even elite tight end Travis Kelce was not the dominant force of recent years and scored only one touchdown in the final nine games of the regular season.

Fast finish secures eighth straight AFC West title

The Chiefs were fortunate that none of their divisional rivals made a serious bid to snatch away their AFC West title. 

The Chargers and Raiders both disappointed and fired their head coaches in the middle of the season, while the Broncos made an abysmal 1-5 start to the year. All of this gave the Chiefs plenty of breathing room to work through their own issues and get into a higher gear as the playoffs approached.

It meant that by Week 17, the Chiefs just needed to beat the Cincinnati Bengals - their AFC Championship Game opponents last season - to clinch the AFC West for the eighth straight season and a place in the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year.

The Bengals were fielding back-up quarterback Jake Browning and the Chiefs won relatively comfortably by a score of 25-17, although most of their points came from the foot of kicker Harrison Butker, who converted six field goals. 

The Chiefs were able to rest their starters for their Week 18 game against the Chargers as they were already locked into the AFC third seed for the playoffs, but still managed to win 13-12 to finish with an 11-6 record. As impressive as most teams would consider that, it was the Chiefs' worst regular-season record for six years.

Chiefs impress more as playoffs progress

It's not where you start, it's where you finish and the Chiefs look to have been getting their act together at exactly the right time as their three playoff performances have been some of their most impressive of the season.

The Chiefs first hosted the Dolphins in the Wild Card round in freezing conditions and were never troubled in a 26-7 win at Arrowhead Stadium as rookie Rice had 130 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Reid's team were the underdogs when they headed to Buffalo in the divisional round. It was Mahomes' first true road game in the playoffs in his career. 

The old rivals put on another epic playoff battle but the Chiefs won 27-24 at Highmark Stadium as Kelce scored two touchdowns and Bills kicker Tyler Bass missed a late field goal that would have tied the game.

That set up an AFC Championship showdown with the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens, but the Chiefs defense made some huge plays in a 17-10 win.

The Chiefs have not had the smooth season they would have hoped for but they are still standing with just one game left and they have already demonstrated the dangers of writing them off.

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