Patrick Mahomes and the Promised Land, Part II

Enough has been written over the last four months about Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs that anything I could jot down on here would only be superfluous. Mahomes is the future of the NFL, the Chiefs are really good, and everyone understands that. On September 22nd, 2018 — after a mere two professional starts — I called the shot, and made the declaration:

The only downside to Mahomes perceived greatness — I have to keep stressing it’s only been two weeks — is that making the playoffs may no longer be good enough. In the business this is known as one of those “good problems.” Of course that means fuck all if Pat has to go through New England and Pittsburgh to make it to the Super Bowl, but the fact that it’s even on the table, as something the Chiefs could accomplish under ideal circumstances, has completely reinvigorated my love for the sport.

Patrick Mahomes finished the regular season with 50 touchdown passes and over 5,000 yards through the air, something that’s been done only twice in NFL history (Tom Brady with the 2007 Patriots, and Peyton Manning with 2013 Broncos). It should come as no surprise that those happen to be the only two offensive units, ever, to score more points than did Pat Mahomes and this year’s Chiefs. And even less of a surprise: the 23 year-old field general is the heavy favorite to be voted league MVP when the award gets announced in a few weeks.

I got way ahead of myself when I wrote that original article, mainly because it isn’t my style to freak out over short-term results. Every time I write about baseball and do my armchair-GM thing it’s always analyzing players over a large sample size, since that is usually the most accurate means I have to forecast the future. When I write about politics it’s almost entirely focused on a politician’s track record — or voting record — since that is typically the most reliable indicator of how they will vote looking ahead. (Or more accurately, which corporations and industries that politician accepts campaign donations from — that’s besides the point.)

With that said I’m about to sound like an anti-intellectual, superstitious Joe Football Fan right now, so bear with me: I knew Patrick Mahomes was going to be great from the very first game he played.

The Chiefs were playing the Chargers (-3) that day in Los Angeles. Mahomes’s first touchdown pass came out of a shotgun formation, where Pat faked the handoff to Kareem Hunt before slinging from a three-quarter arm slot a bullet to wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who was running a slant off the right flank. Hill beat his man and Mahomes zipped the pass seemingly in the blink of an eye, and the receiver known as The Cheetah did the rest. Kansas City led 14-0 and never looked back.

The pass that had me hooked — that really made me a believer — came near the end of the third quarter of the same game. With the Chiefs leading 24-12, Mahomes perfectly placed a ball to the fullback (!), who was running a wheel route up the left sideline. The Chargers defense was playing their typical zone and the defender was parked right underneath the ball, timing his jump for an interception. Only when he did jump the ball was just slightly out of the reach of his fingertips. It fell, of course, into the hands of Kansas City fullback Anthony Sherman, who proceeded to take it to the house and extend the lead.

In the 20 years or so that I’ve been following football, the only NFL quarterback I thought was capable of making those two throws was Aaron Rodgers. It’s one thing to have the arm strength to force a ball in to a receiver running a slant, and it’s another thing to possess the type of pinpoint accuracy it takes to fit a ball — behind the linebacker but in front of the safety in Cover Two — to the fullback shuffling his stubby sausage legs. To be able to do both, over the course of about an hour and a half no less, is at worst uncommon, but most likely special.

I’m not an expert when it comes to the NFL, but I knew from the jump that I had never seen anyone like Patrick Mahomes. His combination of accuracy and arm strength was something I would have expected from someone playing against the Chiefs, a playmaker for which there are no answers to. For a fan like me of a franchise that has never won anything — at least not in my lifetime — I truly felt like I was having an out-of-team experience.

Somehow the clock never struck midnight. The Chiefs were underdogs against the Vegas spread only four times during the season — Week 1 at the Chargers, Week 2 at Pittsburgh, Week 6 at New England and Week 11 at the Rams — and went 2-2 in those games. The other 12 weeks they were favored (according to Vegas) to win and went a resounding 10-2.

Having finished the regular season 12-4 Kansas City secured the top seed in the AFC, earning them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. After the 6-seed Indianapolis Colts defeated the 3-seed Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round, it set up a matchup of the Colts — the hottest team in the NFL having won 10 of their previous 11 games — against Mahomes playing in his first ever postseason game.

Heading into the contest there were some strange parallels between the Colts and Chiefs. Indianapolis began the season 1-5 and ended up making the playoffs; the last team to do it was the 2013 Chiefs, who ended up losing in historic fashion to… yep, Andrew Luck and the Colts. In the 2003 playoffs, in what was also considered a famous game (due to the fact that neither team punted the ball the entire game), the Peyton Manning-led Colts beat the Chiefs 38-31.

So some demons got erased when, on Saturday, Kansas City pretty easily squashed the Colts, 31-13, in a game where Patrick Mahomes for only the second time this season failed to register a touchdown pass. The real story was the Chiefs’ defense, which for most of the season has been regarded as the league’s worst unit from top to bottom. Kansas City’s defense finished the game with three sacks, and remarkably held Luck and Indianapolis to zero conversions on third down (0-9 in the game).

Usually during the postseason I like to bet on whichever team the Chiefs are playing, partly because of the Chiefs atrocious playoff history and partly because if they lose I’ll at least make a little money. I didn’t do that against the Colts, though. Something was telling me that the Colts recent 10-1 stretch was a bit overstated — based off their weak schedule during that time — while the Chiefs had truly ran a gauntlet during the regular season. Below are all the teams Kansas City played:

  • Chargers (twice)
  • Steelers
  • 49ers
  • Broncos (twice)
  • Jaguars
  • Patriots
  • Bengals
  • Browns
  • Cardinals
  • Rams
  • Raiders (twice)
  • Ravens
  • Seahawks 

Now, just five of those teams (in bold) made the playoffs, and the Chiefs went only 2-3 in those affairs. While that isn’t anything to write home about, it’s worth mentioning that they played the Steelers before their locker room went to complete shit; they played the 49ers when they still had Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback; they played the Jaguars before their season went off the rails; they played the Bengals when they were still in the thick of the AFC North race. And they played the Browns directly after they fired Hue Jackson — when the Browns started looking like a playoff-caliber team.

The point is, I’m not sure if there’s a team left in the playoffs who had to face the type of competition Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs played. That doesn’t mean a lot now that Kansas City is facing perhaps the greatest quarterback of all-time (Tom Brady), the greatest head coach of all-time (Bill Belichick), and modern standard-bearer of the NFL (New England Patriots). But it does show that Mahomes and the Chiefs are, as the sports pundits like to say, “battle-tested.” They aren’t going to be afraid of anybody that’s left in the field.

Before the season the Chiefs had doubters all over the place. Mahomes was, naturally, unproven, and it’s difficult to be all-in on a team with a question mark at the most critical position on the field. Even I, noted NFL know-nothing, believed Kansas City was going to finish 5-11 and Andy Reid’s job was going to be in jeopardy.

Then the Chiefs made the playoffs, and had to face Andrew Luck, who already had 7 playoff games under his belt. The narrative heading into that game was the putrid Kansas City defense wouldn’t be able to stop the Colts balanced offensive approach, which was flanked by the fact that Mahomes was inexperienced in postseason games.

Experience should never be considered overrated, but I don’t know how much it applies when you are dealing with a guy who could be a generational quarterback talent. He went from being an unproven commodity to one of the best at his position in a matter of, what, two or three weeks? Then he went from having no playoff experience to holding his own, and winning. And now Mahomes is faced with his most daunting challenge yet: beating the Patriots, the organization with all the experience, and all the championships, for the right to play in the Super Bowl.

This is the first time the Chiefs have played in an AFC Championship Game since I’ve been a fan. With that being the case, I can’t compare the feeling to anything. As close as I can get is probably back in 2010, when the Texas Rangers (my favorite baseball team) took on the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

Making the World Series is hard, just as making it to the Super Bowl is hard, but there was something poetic that it happened to be the fucking Yankees that the Rangers played. As only sports can do, the Rangers won that series 4 games to 2, and the last out was recorded via strikeout, and the guy at the plate was Alex Rodriguez — whom the Rangers traded to the Yankees six years prior.

The 2019 Patriots are the 2010 Yankees. They are both the most popular and most hated team in the sport, and they have won more than any other franchise. (Technically not the Patriots, but certainly over the last 20 years.) If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. One way or another, all roads to the Super Bowl go through New England.

I don’t know if Patrick Mahomes has some more magic left in the tank, or if the Chiefs (who are favored by 3 points) are going to slay the dragon and get a berth in the Super Bowl. I do know it wouldn’t surprise me if Kansas City put up 38 points and won by double digits, just as I won’t be surprised if the Patriots control the game and do what they almost always do in these big games. Either way I can’t be mad, because I know Mahomes is going to be leading this franchise for the next 10-15 years.

(But I’d really appreciate a win, guys. Thanks.)