Super Bowl 2023: Turning points, key moves, crucial wins in Chiefs' AFC title run

The Kansas City Chiefs' season started with more doubts than usual.

The Chiefs traded star receiver Tyreek Hill in the offseason, and the rest of the AFC West made moves to catch up to Kansas City. It didn't work. The Chiefs won the division for the seventh straight time, got the No. 1 seed in the AFC, hosted an AFC championship game for the fifth straight season and made their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

It seems obvious in hindsight that the Chiefs would be back in the Super Bowl. They have a future Hall of Fame coach in Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, the best quarterback in the NFL. But there were challenges along the way.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is likely to win his second NFL MVP award after a big season. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is likely to win his second NFL MVP award after a big season. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Key moves: Chiefs add youth

For a Super Bowl participant, the Chiefs didn't have a great offseason. Trading Hill was a shocking move, though Kansas City got first-, second- and fourth-rounders in 2022, as well as fourth- and sixth-rounders in 2023. The Chiefs did get contributions from most of its 10-man draft class, most notably defensive end George Karlaftis, cornerback Trent McDuffie and running back Isiah Pacheco.

Among the free agents, receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn't have huge seasons but played key roles. Safety Justin Reid did a fine job replacing departed Tyrann Mathieu. The Philadelphia Eagles, the Chiefs' Super Bowl LVII opponent, added huge stars via trade and free agency. Compared to that, the Chiefs had a quiet offseason for a Super Bowl team.

Crucial wins: Close wins over Chargers set tone

The biggest regular-season wins for the Chiefs might have been against the Los Angeles Chargers, one of the teams that was supposed to contend for the AFC West title. In Week 2, the Chargers outplayed the Chiefs for most of the game but a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown by Kansas City rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson in the fourth quarter turned the game around. The Chiefs won 27-24 in a huge early-season statement.

In Week 11, the Chargers were 5-4 hosting the 7-2 Chiefs. A Chargers win would have pulled them within a game of Kansas City. The Chargers took a 27-23 lead on a Justin Herbert touchdown pass in the final two minutes. But Mahomes drove the Chiefs downfield and hit Travis Kelce for the game-winning score with 31 seconds left.

Both games could have gone either way. The Chiefs won both and ran away with the AFC West title.

Turning point: Chiefs get hot after huge 49ers win

Six weeks into the season, the Chiefs were 4-2. They had a loss to the Indianapolis Colts, which was even more perplexing by the end of the season. The Chiefs were coming off a Week 6 home loss to the Buffalo Bills, a game that seemed huge in the AFC playoff picture, when they traveled to play a tough San Francisco 49ers team. At that point, the Chiefs looked good but maybe not great. They weren't solidified as a Super Bowl favorite. They were after beating the 49ers 44-23. The Chiefs rolled up 529 yards against an elite defense.

That started a stretch in which the Chiefs won 12 of 13 games, including playoff wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals. That dominant win at San Francisco was a declaration that the Chiefs would be Super Bowl contenders. Again.