Mahomes rises to the occasion to bring Chiefs back to the Super Bowl
BALTIMORE --- The road to get here may have been different this time around but the Kansas City Chiefs have arrived at a familiar place.
Back at the Super Bowl, back where Patrick Mahomes will once again be the centre of attention, and back where he will rightly be compared to the greatest quarterbacks who’ve ever played.
Mahomes getting the Chiefs to the Super Bowl after what was the worst statistical regular season of his career only builds his legend, as there were times this season where Kansas City’s destiny was very much in doubt.
Not that there was ever much of that pinned on Mahomes himself. The Chiefs were widely recognized as a team that had tried to save salary at the receiver position, believing that Mahomes could get the best out of an average group while allowing Kansas City to keep winning.
However, receiver drops and players not being where they were supposed to be added up. By the end of the season, Travis Kelce was looking every part of his 34-years-old and the receiving unit as a whole was so unreliable that rookie Rashee Rice had ascended to the No. 1 role.
The Chiefs lost three of four games to begin December – two of which were at home. In each of those, they failed to score 20 points.
Not exactly the stuff of a Super Bowl-bound team.
For context, Kansas City had exactly one win during the regular season over a team that reached the playoffs, that coming over Miami in early November.
So heading into the AFC Championship game, there were reasons to doubt the Chiefs, even after two playoff wins.
Those two playoff wins themselves included some context. The Dolphins were banged-up and down key players in their wild card loss to Kansas City. And playing a team from Miami in the fourth-coldest game in NFL history comes with some advantages.
Against the Bills, they faced a team down several key starters on defence in a game they trailed at halftime and after three quarters. Kansas City’s defence - supposedly its strength - surrendered 24 points to Buffalo, which is the second-largest total they surrendered all season.
So no wonder the Chiefs went to Baltimore as underdogs, against a team that seemed to have no obvious flaws and which – unlike Kansas City – had beat a slew of quality opponents during the regular season.
Kansas City needed a game script where they could stop the Baltimore run game and grab a lead to force them to abandon it.
Which is exactly what happened.
Mahomes began the game flawlessly, completing his first 12 passes and complementing the attack with runs by Isiah Pacheco that kept the chains moving during the first half.
Against the No. 1 scoring defence in the NFL in hostile territory, he marched his offence into the endzone on the Chiefs’ first two drives, eating almost 15 minutes of clock in the process.
Meanwhile, Baltimore seemed to quickly lose faith in what got them there.
Aside from Lamar Jackson running four times for 27 yards during the first half, the Ravens had just 19 yards rushing from their backfield at halftime of a game the Chiefs led 17-7.
Among Super Bowl champions, lots of teams have manage to elevate their game in January to rise above expectations. But this marks the first time the Chiefs have had to do so.
All season long, Kansas City’s weakness on defence had been defending the run, including during the division round against the Bills. But against the Ravens, they managed to hold Baltimore to roughly half of their season average for a game, leaving them chasing the first-down sticks all night.
From a defensive perspective, it should have been obvious what Baltimore needed to do - limit Kelce and Rice – the only two targets Mahomes seemed to trust.
Which makes what took place that much more perplexing with Kelce catching all 11 passes sent his way and Rice catching eight of nine.
How the No. 1 defence in the NFL managed to allow the two most obvious targets on Kansas City to catch 19 of 20 throws is a question folks in Maryland will be pondering all winter.
The other factor is turnovers.
The Chiefs entered the AFC Championship game on a streak of 13 consecutive games in which they’d either tied or lost the turnover battle. Zero wins. They were tied for 27th in the NFL with a turnover margin of minus-11.
Baltimore, on the other hand, tied for the NFL lead at plus-12.
On Sunday, that was reversed, with the Ravens turning the ball over three times – once on a strip-sack, once on the Chiefs one-yard line and once on a ball Jackson threw into triple coverage in the endzone.
Give Kansas City a three turnover advantage in game and it’s hard to imagine anything but a loss. The final score said the Ravens lost by a touchdown but this felt like a game where they never really had a shot.
So it’s onto Las Vegas and a matchup with the San Francisco 49ers in two weeks time.
Regardless of what happens there, these Chiefs will never go down among the great NFL teams of all time.
But Mahomes is a man who rises to the moment, as he proved on Sunday.
Put him in the big game, with an elite defence on his side, and just dare him not to win it.