Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce has been around this league for a very long time. He was drafted in 2013 and is just about to cap off his age-34 season with what could be his third Super Bowl victory this coming Sunday. All eyes will be on Kelce during Super Bowl LVIII, and not just because of his famous girlfriend.
From essentially his sophomore season in 2014 (he missed all but one snap in 2013 due to injury), Kelce has been one of the most prolific and productive tight ends in the NFL. Even before All-World quarterback Patrick Mahomes was throwing him the football, Kelce was still averaging 954 yards through his first three full seasons. But once Andy Reid selected Mahomes, Kelce went on to break the 1,000-yard threshold every year from 2017-2022. This season, he fell short by just 16 yards after missing a pair of games.
For any other tight end, his dip in production would potentially signify the beginning of the end. The Chiefs offense was not its usual self in 2023 and Kelce did average a career-low 10.6 yards per reception. For added context, it’s actually the first time he’s finished beneath 12.0.
So for what it’s worth, you were probably somewhat justified in believing Kelce was on the downturn this season. But then the playoffs arrived and the veteran has since gone on one of his best postseason runs of his storied career. Through three games, Kelce has 23 receptions for 262 yards and three touchdowns. All three scores have been massive for the Chiefs and I don’t think they’d have made it to their second consecutive Super Bowl without them.
So while there’s many in the league who would like to see Kelce and the Chiefs finally fall off after so many years of dominance, this old dog still knows exactly how to win when it matters most.
Below, I broke down the masterful effort and nuance that Kelce showed en route to finding the end zone three times this postseason and why they show that he’s not only still the best tight end in the league, but why he might be coming close to earning G.O.A.T. status at his position.
1.) The 3-yard score vs. the Bills to put the Chiefs up 20-17 in the third quarter
While not the favorite of my three on this list, Kelce’s second touchdown against the Bills was a masterful performance in nuance, individual effort, and sheer power of will to find the end zone on the road against an opponent that has become one of Kansas City’s biggest rivals with in the AFC.
With the ball at the three-yard line, the Chiefs lined up in a three-tight end formation with all three connected to each other on the left side. To the right was a wideout Rashee Rice by his lonesome and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the backfield.
At the snap, Mahomes turns to his right to show a run look to CEH. This didn’t influence the defense all that much aside from those lined up outside the box to the offense’s right. They had to respect CEH’s path in the backfield.
But with the backfield action going right, the offensive line and trio of tight ends took their steps to the left. After about three paces of action, Kelce sticks his foot in the ground and comes back towards Mahomes who rockets a pass into his chest. With fellow tight ends Noah Gray and Blake Bell now setting up blocks in front of him, Kelce rode his massive wave of blockers towards the front left pylon.
Before fully committing to the outside, Kelce took a hard jab step up the field between Bell and his left tackle. This small movement got multiple Bills defenders to commit to that gap which then allowed Kelce to bounce back outside as Gray and Bell sealed the edge. His teammates did just enough to allow Kelce to bowl over everyone en route to making it just inside the pylon before landing out of bounds.
A casual fan isn’t going to notice all the little details about a scoring play that went for three yards, but those who challenge themselves to look a bit harder will be able to find a wealth of detail and nuance in this play. If Kelce simply caught the ball and tried to dive straight forward in hopes of rushing the score, he would likely have been stopped. But no, Kelce has been around long enough and know exactly how to both use his teammates while also influencing the players on the other side of the line.
This is what truly sets him apart from just about every other tight in the NFL currently.
2.) His back shoulder fade against All-Pro Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton in the AFC Championship Game
Despite being only a second-year player, Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton was named a First-Team All-Pro after a season in which he absolutely stuffed the stat sheet. His breakout season was key in the Ravens becoming the league’s number one defense in points allowed, sacks, and interceptions in 2023.
But on the Chiefs’ first touchdown of the game, Kelce showed that it doesn’t matter how older he seems to past these new young stars, he still has plenty of elite tricks up his sleeve.
The Chiefs lined up in a 2×2 set with two receivers in a close flex to the left and both Kelce and tight end Noah Gray connected on the right.
Hamilton lines up about five yards off the ball in front of Kelce. At the snap, Kelce takes an outside arc release before stemming vertical into Hamilton. Before Kelce gets up to Hamilton’s level, he takes a jab step outside with a head fake in hopes of getting Hamilton to bite before once again pushing vertical up the right sideline. Essentially an out-and-up route with a little more nuance from the crafty veteran.
The crazy thing here is that Hamilton actually plays this very well. He stays on top of Kelce the whole time and the closes the gap when he makes his final cut towards the end zone. Mahomes throws a picture-perfect back-shoulder fade that’s a bit lower and to the outside then normal since an interception here would be a bigger momentum-shifter than usual given the stakes.
Kelce executes his last-second snatch for the ball perfectly. He sticks his upfield foot into the ground to stop his moment and then drops his weight at the same time. The pass lands gently in his arms as the momentum carries both players into the end zone.
This is what the elite of the elite can do for a football team. Hamilton forced Mahomes and Kelce into a situation where the room for error was razor thin. If Mahomes throws it more outside, it’s likely incomplete. If he throws it too far inside, it’s potentially a back-breaking interception on the road in the final game to get to the Super Bowl.
Only a few players can make this play look so effortlessly. Guys like Davante Adams and Aaron Rodgers come to mind, but it’s even all the more impressive given Kelce plays the tight end position.
3.) The 22-yard touchdown against the Bills where Kelce imploded the coverage
This is probably my favorite touchdown of the three which is why I save it for last. It’s an awesome combination of the Chiefs’ ability to scout the Bills defense and Kelce’s knowledge of the play and how to leverage his influence against the Bills.
When the Chiefs initially line up, they’re in a 2×2 formation with Kelce lined up to the left bunched next to fellow tight end Noah Gray. Before the snap, Mahomes motions wideout Mecole Hardman over to give him three pass-catchers to his right. On the other side of the line, the Bills showed a look of having one safety potentially patrolling the middle of the field. That safety, however, was on the right side. When Hardman motioned over, it brought the left safety down into the box to cover either Kelce or Gray.
The Chiefs schemed the Bills up here. Buffalo had some communication issues, and KC used Mecole Hardman’s motion to make life difficult.
Ultimately, it’s a single-high look, a blown coverage and a walk-in touchdown for Travis Kelce. pic.twitter.com/UtJkbuuKBD
— Matt Verderame (@MattVerderame) January 23, 2024
At the snap, three Bills defenders lined up head on to the Chiefs bunch. Gray takes an outside release behind Kelce, stems vertical, and sits down about five to seven yards down the field just outside the hash. Hardman, who motioned to the outermost spot of the bunch, also took an outside release, pressed vertical, and then broke off on an out route to the sideline.
Meanwhile, Kelce takes an inside release to get between Gray and his defender. When he meets his defender at the second level, he breaks back outside hard to get outside leverage. From there, the defender seems to simply let Kelce go unguarded into the third level. Kelce notices this and then sees there’s no third level defender on his side of the field. He immediately straightens the break on his corner route towards the pylon which only burdens the single-high safety even more who already realizes it’s too late.
Kelce hauls in the easy pitch-and-catch from Mahomes.