The playoff dominance of Patrick Mahomes
Michael Jordan comparisons are flying this week, but for good reason.
Hyperbole ceased to exist 15 minutes and 57 seconds into the AFC Championship Game. It was third and 5. Tied up at seven apiece. The Kansas City Chiefs had the ball at Baltimore’s 27-yard line.
Patrick Mahomes stared down the NFL’s No. 1 defense, on the road, with a severely underrated home crowd reaching its fever pitch. Moms and Dads know you don’t bring your kiddo to M&T Bank Stadium in the postseason.
The pocket was clean. Mahomes had time to scan the field but options were limited. So, he danced. And danced. And faded left before scurrying right when linebacker Patrick Queen swooped in. He slithered in a looping pattern back outside to avoid Jadeveon Clowney — buying as much time as he possibly could — and riiight before getting drilled in the midsection by linebacker Kyle Van Noy, Mahomes fluttered a 10-yard completion to a horizontal Travis Kelce.
The play was modern art. The best 12 seconds money can buy in this sport.
Andy Reid turns 66 years old in March. Around for all 113 of this quarterback’s career starts, on the heels of coaching the likes of Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick, the head coach should be the homicide detective who’s completely desensitized to such stupefying athletic feats. All Mahomes and Kelce do is reinvent offense and rewrite record books.
But he’s not oblivious to the ridiculous.
Be it Mahomes, and the legacy the quarterback builds in real time:
“We see it every day,” Reid said this week. “We don’t take that for granted. We respect the job that he does, and we appreciate it. We know we’re seeing something special. And he’s still young in this business. That’s a great thing for the Chiefs, that’s a great thing for the city.”
Be it Kelce, the 34-year-old contorting his body at an angle impossible for most 24-year-old tight ends:
“The fact that he laid out like that,” Reid said, “I’ve seen him do a lot of things. I really haven’t seen that right there where he had to be in that position parallel with the ground and two inches off the ground to make the catch. That’s tough without the ball hitting the turf. It’s a great job by him and something he’s left in the pocket for a while.”
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That last point from Reid hints at what makes the Chiefs special. Through three straight playoff wins, this offense has looked strikingly different than anything we witnessed through that 11-6 lethargic slog of a regular season. Almost as if the quarterback and tight end central to the operation were playing possum all along. Obviously, we know the Chiefs weren’t sandbagging on purpose because Mahomes was so animated through the discombobulation. He looked like a man ready to go full Malice at the Palace on the officials in his team’s loss to the Bills on Dec. 10. Honestly, what was the quarterback’s master plan when it took multiple teammates to restrain him back at Arrowhead — Full Nelson? Clothesline? Drop kick? I guess we’ll never know. Mahomes gave his helmet a ceremonial smashing on the sideline and merely ripped the officials to shreds afterward.
This was an offense mired in a state of dysfunction as late as Christmas Day when the Las Vegas Raiders embarrassed the Chiefs, 20-14, at Arrowhead. There was zero flow, zero magic and (most assumed) zero hope for another Super Bowl run. The fact that Mahomes immediately rocket-launched his play in the playoffs, to the point of dropping jaws with that great escape in Baltimore, again explains why he’s in a stratosphere of his own. The NFL content machine churns 24/7/365 — be safe out there. The web already reeks of mock-draft excrement. It can seem like the takes flying in September or March equal those in January. All of us should remember that how teams and players and coaches perform in the playoffs matters 100x more than any other time of year.
Aaron Rodgers put it best early in his pro career. The ex-Packer once said players truly forge their legacies in the playoffs.
Everything about the sport changes: the speed, the intensity, the strategy. So, patterns develop.
At his best, Lamar Jackson is the most electrifying player in the sport. Next week, he’ll become the 11th player in NFL history to win multiple MVP awards. Yet, he’ll also be the only one who has not won a conference championship. His 98.0 passer rating plummets to 75.7 in the playoffs. A new OC, new scheme and new weapons didn’t change anything in 2023. Sean McDermott’s regular-season defenses consistently rank high in most statistical categories. Yet, four of the coach’s six worst games since 2020 based on defensive EPA/play have occurred in the last four playoff losses, as noted by The Athletic’s Matthew Fairburn. Excluding kneeldowns, the Bills’ defense has surrendered 16 touchdowns and eight field goals on 32 drives, while forcing only six punts and creating one turnover. And this is all after allowing 9.9 yards per pass attempt in wild-card loss to the Texans.
Dak Prescott earned second All-Pro honors before imploding against Green Bay in the wild card. He has won two playoff games in eight seasons. Mike Tomlin’s streak of 17 seasons without a losing record is impressive. He won one Super Bowl (2008) and reached another (2010), but has gone 3-8 in the playoffs since.
Then, there’s Mahomes.
This is the stuff of Brady/Jordan/Tiger at their peaks. Because the higher the stakes, the better he performs. Those who know the QB best point to the same raw competitiveness found in those three. When it’s do-or-die — when one mistake can send your entire team home — Mahomes doesn’t tense up. He has now effectively played a full 17-game “season” of playoff games. Here are his numbers: 67.4 completion percentage, 4,802 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, seven interception. Mind you, there aren’t any cupcakes mixed in to pad these stats.
He’s facing the best of the best with seasons on the line every third down.
With America watching.
Even his Hall of Fame peers endure stretches of poor play. Peyton Manning, a five-time MVP, completed 62 percent of his passes for 4,831 yards with 27 touchdowns and 18 interceptions through his first 17 playoff starts. Aaron Rodgers, a four-time MVP, faded sharply in his last four elimination games — including that Lambeau no-show vs. Detroit in 2022.
Mahomes, conversely, is a diabolical presence.
Those numbers are sterling, yet fail to capture Playoff Mahomes.
Once per game, this quarterback is bound to morph into your 2-year-old son scooping up the remote control in the basement. He zigs, zags and tip-toes around all toys with bizarre ease. Not only does Mahomes throw from funky arm angles — he runs different, he seems impossible to tag. Probably because defenders aren’t used to chasing down anybody like this. Mahomes burnt the Ravens for 11 yards on one such scamper.
On another play, a third and 1, he clowned first team All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton with an exaggerated lob to Kelce that resembled more of a beer-pong flick.
On another play, Ravens star Justin Madubuike appeared to bend Mahomes’ body at an angle that’d send a slew of trainers onto the field. Instead, the QB broke his fall with his hand and spun around. His personal quarterbacks coach, Bobby Stroupe, then showed how they trained for that exact moment.
He finds a way. Always. Let’s not forget Mahomes won his last Super Bowl on one good leg.
OK, it’s a different NFL. It’s true that life for quarterbacks has never been sweeter inside the pocket. We’ve exhausted a lot of ink at Go Long bemoaning the league’s search for a utopian middle ground that does not exist. But it’s also worth noting that there’s been hardly any handwringing over the officials this postseason after so many phantom roughing calls during the regular season. The physicality in most of these games has been exceptional. The NBA is facing a very real points problem — Bill Wennington would’ve gone off for 30 and 15 on a Tuesday night this season. Defense, however, can still rule in the NFL. The reason Kansas City won its division for the eighth straight season was its Steve Spagnulo-coordinated defense. Asked if this is the best defense he’s ever had, Reid didn’t want to slight any of his past units in Philly or KC. But he confirmed it’s right up there.
And Mahomes’ performance vs. the Ravens went beyond the 17 points in the box score. He took their best shot.
Ahead of the playoffs, the Ravens website championed its 2023 defense as one of the greatest ever and, honestly, it wasn’t a Kool-Aid claim. Baltimore was the first team in NFL history to earn “triple crown” status, finishing No. 1 in points allowed (16.5), sacks (60) and takeaways (31). In this title game, the unit eventually settled in and forced Mahomes to work for everything. They smacked him over the head up, closed off passing lanes and surrendered 2.8 yards per carry. Nothing came easy.
Whereas Jackson’s mistakes doomed, Mahomes’ prudence and patience helped the Chiefs’ preserve their lead.
When it was winning time, he supplied the dagger shot: a third-and-9 bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
All of this is why I love hearing how podcast co-host Jim Monos grades quarterbacks. To refresh, our resident personnel man who worked in the front offices of the Eagles, Saints and Bills uses a scouting approach in his film study. A “good” play gets you +1 while a bad play gets you -1 throughout the course of the game. In extreme cases, a +2 or -2 is applied. Simple as that. He’s relying on his scouting judgment. This number is then divided by the number of pass/run attempts.
On this week’s Go Long Show, Monos said Mahomes’ AFC title game might’ve been the highest he ever graded a quarterback. That clip:
Now, Mahomes faces a vulnerable San Francisco 49ers defense that nearly slipped into a 31-10 hole against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship. It’s hard to believe that the Chiefs are underdogs for a third straight game. This offense has experienced a total eclipse since its Christmas Day stinker.
Thinking back to that Raiders loss, Reid cited this team’s “great spirit” carrying them through the hard times. Coaches didn’t need to rip players. Reid said the players took it upon themselves.
“There’s a certain toughness they have to where they don’t get down on each other,” Reid said. “They challenge each other. They support each other. And it’s been that way through the highs and lows. Nothing’s changed.”
It’s true that the wide receivers around Mahomes started making plays, the “Spags”-fueled defense was always legit, and Kelce turned it on. But the reason these Chiefs look like a completely different team than the one we saw most of the regular season requires no overthinking.
It’s Mahomes. It’s always been Mahomes. He’s leaving a trail of Malones and Ewings and Mournings in his path.
Playoff Mahomes knows his legacy is on the line in Super Bowl No. 4.
I joined Patrick Moran of “Talking Buffalo” this week to discuss our three-part series on Sean McDermott and the Bills. We got into the reporting process, and a lot more. It was a pleasure. Moran does an excellent job, so Western New Yorkers should be sure to add his Substack to the rotation.
Here’s our conversation: