MINNEAPOLIS — Surrounded by Kansas City Chiefs teammates, Travis Kelce stood in the corner of the visitors locker room inside US Bank Stadium on Sunday, his smile growing wider and wider the more he heard them talk about him.
Receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling thought Kelce had torn his Achilles tendon, an injury that would’ve ended the season for the Chiefs’ No.1 pass catcher. Receiver Skyy Moore made a joke, one he knew would make Kelce laugh: He suggested that the NFL’s best tight end somehow found a new way to clumsily injure himself. When it looked like the Chiefs would have to play the second half against the Minnesota Vikings without Kelce, the receivers were surprised to learn that the coaches planned to use receiver Justin Watson at tight end on some plays.
Kelce kept smiling. He could relish his teammates’ enthusiasm in the immediate aftermath of the Chiefs’ 27-20 victory because he pulled off one of the most heroic performances of his 11-year career.
With each snap Kelce played in the second half, he felt pain in his lower right leg because of a low-ankle sprain, a non-contact injury that occurred during the Chiefs’ two-minute drill before halftime. Despite the injury, Kelce’s performance didn’t suffer. He summoned the strength and determination to produce vintage reception after vintage reception, to help the Chiefs win their fourth consecutive game.
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Kelce finished with 10 receptions on 11 targets for a team-leading 67 yards, including the winning touchdown. On their way to the showers, many of the Chiefs gave Kelce a high-five or a quick handshake.
“That was a team win,” Kelce said repeatedly to his teammates.
Kelce TD, easy money 💰😮💨
— NFL (@NFL) October 8, 2023
In a short exchange with The Athletic, Kelce explained that Sunday’s injury was similar to his first injury of the season when he hyperextended his right knee in the final practice before the season opener. A month ago, Kelce planted his right foot while running a route, a non-contact injury that forced him to miss a game for the first time since 2014. Without Kelce, the Chiefs lost 21-20 to the Detroit Lions.
Late in the second quarter Sunday, the Chiefs were trailing the Vikings by three points when quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed a short pass to Kelce. Once again, Kelce planted his right foot and slipped, this time on slit-film turf, which NFL and NFLPA data shows has had a higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries than other types of artificial turf. Instead of changing directions in the open field, Kelce rolled his ankle. He hobbled off the field and went to the locker room just minutes before kicker Harrison Butker made a 40-yard field goal to end the second quarter.
“I don’t like to talk to Travis when he’s hurting because he’s a mean guy,” Mahomes said, smiling. “I kind of just peeked in and looked at (head athletic trainer) Rick (Burkholder) and just asked, ‘How are we feeling?’”
Burkholder, while taping up Kelce’s right cleat, said: “He’s going to try and see if he can go.”
Kelce was the last Chief to return to the field for the second half. He jogged to the sideline in an attempt to inspire his teammates. The moment was also the first test for Kelce, who was trying to gauge if he could tolerate the pain.
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Kelce told coach Andy Reid that the team’s medical staff cleared him to return.
“He said, ‘Just give me a minute; I’m going to get this thing right,’” Reid said of Kelce. “He did a bunch of drills on his own.”
With Kelce watching from the sideline, the Chiefs anticipated that the Vikings, the league’s most blitz-happy defense through four weeks, would increase their five- and six-man pressures. The game’s first pivotal play came early in the third quarter on a third-and-18 snap. The Vikings sent seven defenders at Mahomes. Similar to his game-changing 44-yard completion in the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ comeback win in Super Bowl LIV, Mahomes backpedaled 7 yards from the shotgun after the snap to create enough time to unleash a deep pass toward Watson, who was running a deep over route.
“I didn’t necessarily see it, but I put it up there for J-Wat,” Mahomes said. “He made a play for me.”
Vikings safety Camryn Bynum could’ve intercepted the pass but mistimed his jump. Watson leaped at the right moment for a 33-yard reception.
— NFL (@NFL) October 8, 2023
“Take the elevator up to the penthouse, not everybody’s access card swipes that high,” Watson said, smiling. “We were just talking vertical jumps this week in the receivers room. Some guys were talking about who had the highest vert. My name wasn’t mentioned. I was glad to get that one on film.
“Coach Reid always says that we’re trying to rip their hearts out. They’re thinking they’re getting off the field and it’s awesome coming up with a play that tells them we’re keeping this drive going.”
The Vikings kept blitzing on the drive — and Mahomes kept burning them with completions. He generated 66 passing yards on the drive, connecting with Watson, Valdes-Scantling and receivers Justyn Ross and Rashee Rice. Mahomes ended the drive with a perfect 8-yard touchdown pass to Rice. The first Chief to congratulate Mahomes and Rice was Kelce.
“That was a great f—— drive,” Kelce said.
Chiefs for 6️⃣! @RiceRashee11 gets his 2nd TD of the year.
— NFL (@NFL) October 8, 2023
Kelce returned to the field on the Chiefs’ next possession. The drive’s third snap ended with Kelce’s most impressive reception of the game. Against tight coverage from safety Josh Metellus, Kelce leaped, caught the ball with Metellus’ right arm between his hands and squeezed the ball tight enough to maintain possession while crashing to the turf for a 14-yard gain.
“I feel like Travis has the same mindset as I do,” Mahomes said. “If you give him the window (so) he can get back in the game, he’s going to be back in the game. He’s a competitor, man. That’s why he’s one of the greatest.”
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Six plays later, the Chiefs faced a third-and-8 inside the red zone and called a play with Kelce intended to be a decoy. Mahomes pump-faked a quick pass to Kelce, hoping that receiver Kadarius Toney would be open on a wheel route in the corner of the end zone. But with the Vikings in zone coverage, rookie cornerback Mekhi Blackmon stayed with Toney. Mahomes began scrambling, unsure what he would do to get the first down.
“I stepped up in the pocket and Travis is supposed to be (near) the sideline,” Mahomes said. “Luckily, he was running across the field. I have those moments where I go, ‘Ah… I’m about to get crushed.’ Then I look over and (No.) 87 is just running free. He’s been with me a long time and knows how to get himself open.”
Vintage Mahomes/Kelce connection 😮💨
— NFL (@NFL) October 8, 2023
With their improvisation in sync, Mahomes and Kelce connected on a short pass that resulted in an 11-yard gain. Two plays later, the Vikings stayed in zone coverage and the Chiefs called a perfect play. Kelce changed directions, going from right to left, to run a short comeback route behind Valdes-Scantling and Watson to get wide open for an easy 4-yard touchdown catch.
“He finds a new way to surprise me every week,” Watson said of Kelce. “That looked like a gnarly injury. I was surprised that he even made it off the sideline. … He fired us all up coming back in there and making some plays.”
Mahomes celebrated the score by sprinting to Kelce for a face mask-to-face mask celebration.
“Let’s go!” Kelce shouted to Mahomes.
On the game’s final play, Kelce was in the end zone, the lone offensive player to join the Chiefs defense to help prevent Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins from completing a 38-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass. Kelce, though, never needed to jump for the ball. Defensive end Mike Danna ended the game by sacking Cousins.
Travis Kelce afterward pointing to his heart .. saying “All heart, baby” to the #Chiefs crowd .. then gives a young girl some game worn gear. (our own @Indiana_Johns_ with the shot) #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/UywE0NRm3X
— Harold R. Kuntz (@HaroldRKuntz3) October 9, 2023
Leaving the field, Kelce became emotional when he looked into the stands and saw Chiefs cheering for him. Kelce pointed to his chest.
“All heart, baby!” he shouted. “All heart, baby!”
Kelce was one of the final Chiefs to leave the locker room for the team bus. Limping slightly, he spent several minutes in the training room. Before that, though, Kelce told The Athletic that he intends to be with his teammates on the field Thursday night when the Chiefs host the Denver Broncos in the team’s shortest turnaround between games this season.
“I know what I have to do,” Kelce said. “I have to accept the challenge, baby!”
(Photo: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)
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