The Kansas City Chiefs started the season being doubted. Pundits, opponents and fans across the NFL believed Kansas City wasn't the best team in the AFC West and without Tyreek Hill many stated they couldn't be a Super Bowl contender. Die-hard Chiefs fans, weren't buying it. We knew this roster had the potential and we knew Mahomes' Chiefs were the best in the AFC West. Fun fact: Patrick Mahomes' record against his division since steering the ship is an inspiring 27-3. So yeah, Chiefs Kingdom wasn't worried.
Now that only one game stands in the way of a Super Bowl appearance it is vividly clear that the Chiefs were successful in silencing the skepticism this season. How do we know? Kansas City now finds itself heading into their fifth consecutive AFC Championship battle at Arrowhead — an NFL record the BBQ capital never would have predicted. But how? Sure Patrick Mahomes is magic and his football soulmate Travis Kelce doesn't hurt either, but the dynamic duo has been firing up fans with their undeniable chemistry for five years now. I'd like to propose that Kansas City's secret weapon's are names you'd never even heard of until this season — Chiefs' game-changing rookies.
Kansas City's Newest Offensive Playmakers
This season Kansas City has been able to successfully do something they haven't been able to in prior years — consistently run the football. This season has not only been successful, but the Chiefs run game has proven to be relentless and in a game of inches it's imperative to have trust in your running backs. Kansas City's star running backs, led by Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire have more than earned the fandom's trust, but this season one of the newest editions to the offensive squad has electrified Chiefs Kingdom — Isiah Pacheco.
Pacheco, who played for Rutgers, is the kind of fierce, scrappy, quick, bullying running back teams dream of adding to their roster. The rookie is having an explosive NFL debut season for Kansas City and has instantly become a fan favorite. Pacheco has five touchdowns on his NFL resume and after Mahomes injured his ankle, he was a key factor in the Chiefs playoff win over the Jaguars. He displays passionate grit on the field and somehow, when other running backs go down, Pacheco is able to extend the run for a few more yards.
The rookie running back is ending the season strong with two touchdowns and 334 yards over the last five games. Pacheco also has a tendency to play well both at Arrowhead and against the Bengals, who have managed to beat the Chiefs during their last three meetings. The rookie has quickly become a key element of Kansas City's offense and with Mahomes' ankle still in question, the run game could be relied on heavily during Sunday's AFC Championship matchup.
Pacheco credits his success to the veterans on the team who've helped the first-year adjust to life in the NFL, "It's Jerick [McKinnon], Travis [Kelce] and Pat [Mahomes], and the whole offensive line," said Pacheco. "The guys who have been here before me and they've been in this situation; those are the guys that I look up to and learn from — learning from them has helped me overcome the game by playing so fast... For me to just continue to be patient and learn from my mistakes... it's important for me to take those mistakes and grow from them."
Defensive Rookies Bring the Pressure
It's not a secret that Kansas City had some struggles defensively, which is why Coach Spagnuolo, Brett Veach, Clark Hunt and head coach Andy Reid prioritized the defense during the 2022 draft. The Chiefs used both first round picks to strengthen the ferocity of Kansas City's defense by drafting Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie and Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis. "In Veach I Trust" has become a mantra for Chiefs fans and with moves like this, it's easy to see why.
Trent McDuffie has all the characteristics for the making of a NFL elite cornerback and his breakout rookie year validates the hype. McDuffie missed seven games this season due to a severe hamstring injury, but since his return he's been a key factor in the Chiefs defensive success. The rookie's season line consists of 41 total tackles, seven passes defended and a monster sack in Week 17 against the Broncos, but that alone doesn't paint the picture for just how vital McDuffie has been for Kansas City. He's explosive off the line, instinctive, quick and displays high level football IQ.
The California native is a proud student of the game and on Kansas City's The Franchise, you can watch McDuffie setting up his office and geeking out about his massive dry erase board and setup for watching and critiquing film. It's clear No.21 not only loves the game, but is having a blast playing for Kansas City and clowning with his fellow defenders. That joy has been impressively funneled into effective play-making and McDuffie's not alone when it comes to first-year defensive excellence.
Rookie Defensive End George Karlaftis is another first-year excelling in Coach Spag's unit. The former Purdue defender has six sacks under his belt this season and with the mentorship from veteran Frank Clark, Karlaftis has become a true menace for opponents.
From the jump Karlaftis was impressing the coaching staff and veterans in Kansas City. As early as summer camp, Coach Spagnuolo was applauding the rookie's enthusiasm, work ethic and developing mentorship with veteran defensive end, Frank Clark. Telling the press back in August, "Frank (Clark) has really taken it upon himself this year to be that kind of guy. (You) know what that tells me when George (Karlaftis) is saying that, is that he wants to receive that kind of information. If he's talking about it, that means he enjoys it. Some guys don't. Every personality is different, but George is a sponge. He does that with everything, he's over there asking me questions, he's asking (Defensive Line Coach) Joe (Cullen) questions, he's asking (Assistant Defensive Line Coach) Terry (Bradden) questions, every vet that he can. He'll text Coach Cullen questions. That's a pretty good trait, right? Maybe he's texting Frank questions too, I don't know."
The rookie sponge has continued to grow this season, all the while threatening opposing offenses. Coach Andy Reid shared his pride for Karlaftis heading into the playoffs, ""I'm proud of that kid because it's hard to make it through as a rookie, period, 17 games," Reid said. "But getting better every week at that position is something that is as much mental as it is physical, and he is relentless. You see him at practice, he goes 100 miles an hour at practice. He transfers that into the games. My hat goes off to him." Karlaftis ended the regular season third among rookie edge rushers in terms of sacks and with no signs of slowing down, the future looks bright for the first-year defensive end.
Next Generation Of Chiefs Kingdom Excellence
In the past five years of the Mahomes era Chiefs, the front office has managed to add electric talent to the roster; building what could potentially be a dynasty in the making. This season's class of rookies have been an indispensable key to Kansas City's depth, danger and success. Standout first-years like Pacheco, McDuffie and Karlaftis will be instrumental in the Chiefs' fight to finally take down Joe Burrow's Bengals and advance to their third Super Bowl in three years. I have a feeling we're watching the next generation of elite footballers debut in Kansas City and it's indisputable that their break-out first years have helped propel the Chiefs to another historic AFC Championship.
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