As a former Super Bowl MVP and (soon to be two-time) league MVP, Patrick Mahomes' legacy was already pretty secure prior to Sunday night's AFC Championship Game. But his performance while playing through a painful ankle injury has instantly catapulted Mahomes' status as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL's 103-year history.
A week after suffering a high ankle sprain, Mahomes willed the Chiefs to a 23-20 win over the Bengals, the same team that had handed Mahomes one of his toughest defeats in this game on year ago. Mahomes threw for 326 yards and two scores, but his 5-yard run -- that included a 15-yard penalty after he was pelted out of bounds by Bengals linebacker Joseph Ossai -- on the Chiefs' final play of regulation set up Harrison Butker's game-winning field goal.
Mahomes gives it his all for the first down!— NFL (@NFL) January 30, 2023
📺: #CINvsKC on CBS
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/fM5ertlhHi pic.twitter.com/z78Phcfkyp
Mahomes will now play for the right to join Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Jim Plunkett, Bob Griese, Bart Starr, John Elway, Peyton and Eli Manning as starting quarterbacks that have won multiple Super Bowl rings. To do so, Mahomes will have to best an Eagles defense that registered a staggering 70 sacks during the regular season.
Before we look ahead to the Super Bowl, however, let's put a historical perspective on Mahomes' performance against the Bengals by looking at the other notable playoff performances by players who were dealing with significant injuries.
Mahomes' effort on Sunday was nothing short of gritty, but Jack Youngblood still holds the mantle as the gutsiest playoff performance in postseason history. A Hall of Fame linebacker for the Rams, Youngblood faced the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV with a broken leg. With Youngblood on the field, the Rams nearly upset the heavily-favored Steelers, who took Youngblood and Co.'s best punch before winning their fourth Super Bowl in six years.
"We had all the confidence that we can we can play with with Pittsburgh, even though they had been the champions three times before," Youngblood told CBS Sports in 2022. "We firmly believed we could stop the run, get after [Terry] Bradshaw and we could cover [Lynn] Swann and [John] Stallworth. And to be honest with you, we hurt ourselves. They didn't hurt us. We knocked each other down on two touchdowns. We had double coverage, and they scored 14 points on those two plays."
Here's the part of Youngblood's story that's truly crazy: he played in the following week's Pro Bowl. When asked decades later why he played in the Pro Bowl, Youngblood said he didn't want to miss the party.
"I mean, we went through the season, and now it's time to let your hair down a little bit," Youngblood said. "We do have to go out and compete a little bit. But it wasn't nearly as intense. It was a show. Let me put that away."
Toughest guy in #NFLHistory?— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) January 26, 2018
Former @RamsNFL HOF DE Jack Youngblood played through the 1980 playoffs, Super Bowl and #ProBowl WITH A BROKEN LEG.
Happy birthday, Jack! pic.twitter.com/CrP1k7ghNL
It was a Steelers player who later made history by playing in a Super Bowl with a major injury. Rod Woodson, a Hall of Fame defensive back for the Steelers, 49ers, and Ravens, tore his AFC and also injured his MCL while trying to tackle Barry Sanders in the 1995 season opener.
Woodson somewhat managed to convince Bill Cowher to keep him on the active roster should the Steelers make a deep playoff run. That didn't seem like a possibility, however, as the Steelers limped to a 3-4 start as Woodson and other notable starters dealt with injuries.
The Steelers, thanks to a tough defense, a five wide receiver set and the exploits of receiver/running back/quarterback Kordell Stewart, rallied to win 10 of their next 11 games to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl. And while still wasn't 100%, Woodson had rehabbed well enough to dress for the big game.
Woodson played well and actually broke up a pass intended for Michael Irvin in the second half. But two interceptions proved costly as the Steelers lost a close game to the dynastic Cowboys.
"Bill was open-minded enough to listen," Woodson told CBS Sports in 2021. "I don't think any other coach in the league would have done that. He did leave that light at the end of the tunnel for me.
"Obviously, if we had more injuries, if we had a ravaged secondary with injuries, they would have had to put me on IR to put more bodies on the active roster. Carnell Lake did a tremendous job moving from strong safety to playing corner, and we got back to the Super Bowl. It gave me a great opportunity. But it started with Bill Cowher saying, 'You know what? I'm going to listen to you. But if anybody else gets hurt, I'm going to have to put you on IR. But if nobody does, then we can ride this thing out.'"
Like Youngblood, Terrell Owens also played through a broken leg in a Super Bowl. The Hall of Fame receiver faced New England in Super Bowl XXXIX despite breaking his leg and tearing a critical ligament in his right ankle seven weeks prior. Owens not only played, he was the Eagles best player with 121 yards on nine catches. Owens' effort helped the Eagles stay in the game, but Philadelphia was ultimately defeated by the Patriots and Brady, who also knows about playing through a painful injury in the playoffs.
That time T.O. played in the Super Bowl seven weeks after breaking his leg... and caught nine passes for 122 yards. (via @nflthrowback)— NFL (@NFL) December 7, 2021
Happy 48th birthday, @terrellowens!pic.twitter.com/DHrjafybMc
In practice during the week of the 2017 AFC title game, Brady suffered a deep gash just below his right thumb after colliding with a teammate. The injury was so bad it caused Brady to doubt whether he would ever be the same.
Fortunately for Brady, the gash did not lead to any structural damage, which allowed Brady -- despite the pain and not having the ability to fully grip the ball -- to face the Jaguars for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Brady's injury appeared to impact his play early as the Patriots fell into an early 14-3 hole. But as he has done throughout his career, Brady willed his team to victory on the strength of two fourth quarter touchdown passes.
Brady then threw for a Super Bowl record 505 yards in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. He would later win his sixth and seventh Super Bowls in his later years. Brady's last Super Bowl ring came at the expense of Mahomes, who is back in the big game for the third time in his still young career.