Travis Kelce, after Chiefs season under the microscope, finishes ‘on top of the world’


LAS VEGAS — Travis Kelce didn’t even have to look.

The Kansas City Chiefs’ All-World tight end knew how the play would end, even with the ball still in the air. A couple steps off the line and to his right, then a couple more back in and to his left, and Kelce threw up his hands in triumph, back turned to the action.

So worried that Kelce would continue to wreak havoc, especially in this crucial goal-line situation, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward had fallen for the eye candy that was Kelce and his route. In doing so, Ward allowed Mecole Hardman to cut outward and into the end zone unchecked, where he made a wide-open catch to deliver the Chiefs a 25-22 win in overtime on Sunday. The Super Bowl victory was Kansas City’s second in a row and third in five years.

“As soon as I saw the guys in the flat run with me,” Kelce said, “I just had a feeling Mecole was probably wide-open running, and sure enough. … Man, it was an electric feeling, knowing that all eyes on you means somebody else is helping.”

And just like that, another chapter in Kelce’s storybook career and life ended with another mountaintop experience and resounding exclamation point.

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Kelce and the Chiefs, who became the NFL’s first repeat champions in 20 years, certainly basked in the euphoria of their historic victory. But there was nothing easy about the Chiefs’ path to their fourth Super Bowl appearance in five seasons.

Unlike previous years, when Kansas City torched opponents behind the arm of Patrick Mahomes and the offensive wizardry of Andy Reid, this season’s Chiefs had to scratch and claw almost every step of the way.

While Kansas City endured growing pains at key offensive positions, Kelce had to provide even more leadership and poise, all while dealing with a new level of pressure on the field and intense scrutiny off it.

Kelce in 2023 morphed into one of the most popular figures in the NFL thanks to his romance with Taylor Swift. Every serious NFL fan already knew about Kelce, the nine-time Pro Bowl pick and four-time All-Pro selection. But dating Swift made him a household name beyond NFL circles and created a frenzy, something Kelce tried in vain to temper. He dodged media availabilities while trying to maintain a semblance of personal privacy. But his efforts did nothing to quell the infatuation about his relationship with Swift.

There were questions from outsiders about whether it would grow into a debilitating distraction for the Chiefs, but it never did. Kelce was too determined to help carry the Chiefs to his third championship, which would make this squad a dynasty, to allow his personal life to derail team goals.

So after the Chiefs had to overhaul the wide receiver position, Kelce worked even more tirelessly with Mahomes to ensure their connection remained unshakable. He took young pass catchers under his wing, in hopes that his knowledge could help expedite their development. For the first half of the season, defenses were able to better focus on limiting Kelce’s impact because they had fewer impact wideouts about which to worry.

As a result, this was not Kelce’s most statistically prolific season. He followed up a career-best 110-catch, 1,338-yard, 12-touchdown 2022 campaign with 93 receptions for 984 yards and just five touchdowns.

But Kelce kept working and kept leading, and the revamped Chiefs hit their stride in the second half of the season.

After the confetti had settled Sunday night, Kelce said the game against the 49ers had felt a lot like Kansas City’s season in general. His team started off slowly, managing only 16 first-quarter yards while Kelce received only one target thanks to lockdown coverage against him from the 49ers defense — most notably linebacker Fred Warner.

For much of the first half, Kelce struggled to get off the line while jammed by defensive linemen and then passed off to the athletic Warner, or he was used more as a decoy, running routes to clear out areas for others.

Kelce’s frustrations began to billow. Early in the second quarter, while on the sideline, he charged over to Reid — knocking the burly 65-year-old coach off-balance — and demonstratively voiced his displeasure for the substitution and play selection before teammates dragged him away.

After the game, Kelce tried to dismiss the event, saying: “I was just telling him how much I love him.” Kelce did go over to Reid later in the same quarter, hugged him and apologized for his outburst.

Reid patted Kelce on the back and after the game said Kelce told him, “Put me in! Just put me in and I’ll score.” Reid added: “I appreciate that the guy wants to play. … I love it because he loves to play the game. And he wants to help his team win. I mean, it’s not a selfish thing. That’s not what it is.”

Kelce said he focused on accountability in the second half of the game and demanded more of himself so he could better help his teammates.

No one inside the Chiefs’ locker room will ever accuse Kelce of a poor grasp on accountability. He leads by example and in deed. When it comes to demanding more out of the pass catchers, he serves as the enforcer whenever Mahomes points out an area in which the members of the position group are lacking.

And Saturday night — on the eve of the Super Bowl — Kelce addressed the entire team, delivering a speech that Chiefs players described as inspiring and emotional. The tight end urged his teammates to ignore outside declarations that the once-mighty Kansas City Chiefs were now an underdog.

“We had the formula and know that we know how to go and get it,” Kelce said.

Despite trailing 10-3 at halftime, the Chiefs never seemed to panic. Kelce broke through in the third and fourth quarters, when he racked up a game-high nine catches for 93 yards. His biggest play was a 22-yard catch-and-run on a shallow cross that positioned the Chiefs to force overtime after tying the score at 19 with three seconds left in regulation.

“That’s probably the most disappointing thing about the loss, because we went into it saying he wasn’t going to be the reason that they beat us,” Warner said of Kelce. “And we just were off on a couple plays there at the end (of regulation), where he was running wide open over the middle of the field. That’s just disappointing.”

For much of overtime, Kelce didn’t touch the ball, but still made his presence felt by commanding the attention of defenders to create openings for teammates. With San Francisco defenders focused on not letting Kelce beat them, Mahomes spread the ball around to wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Rashee Rice and running back Isiah Pacheco while directing a 13-play drive. The 12th play was a 7-yard completion to Kelce that moved the ball to the San Francisco 3-yard line and set up Hardman for the winning catch.

“Never had a doubt, baby,” Kelce said of the Chiefs securing the victory. “Never had a doubt. This game represented our season. Had the target on our back, knowing we were going to get everybody’s best shot. To have the doubters, to have the road that we went through … but to find a way through adversity yet again for four — actually, five — quarters, man, I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. Being on the mountaintop with my brothers again, it brings tears to my eyes. … I’m on top of the world.”

go-deeper

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(Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)





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