Patrick Mahomes Is Back and the Chiefs Are Coming for the AFCNovember 15, 2021
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes didn't suddenly become bad at football. The former league MVP was simply waiting for the right moment to level up against the competition.
He did so Sunday night against the rival Las Vegas Raiders, as the Chiefs captured an impressive 41-14 victory at Allegiant Stadium.
Mahomes' performance wasn't perfect by any means, and some of the previously voiced concerns about decision-making and risk-taking did emerge on a couple of occasions. Still, the Chiefs' offensive leader completed 35-of-50 passes for 406 yards and five touchdowns in a typical Mahomesian effort.
In doing so, the Chiefs catapulted themselves back into the thick of the AFC race since no true standout has appeared through 10 weeks of play.
The progression from the game's best player to many wondering whether the league actually figured out Mahomes and the Chiefs offense was always a weird discourse. Just like every other player at his position, Mahomes sees different looks from opponents as they try to confuse him both before and after the snap. In some cases, they're successful. In others, Mahomes adjusts and finds a way.
Sometimes these adjustments take a little time, and the quarterback admitted as much over the last few weeks.
"It's kind of been one thing here and there each and every week," Mahomes told reporters after the Chiefs' 27-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7. "It's not like a whole overarching one thing. [Sunday], it was probably me just pressing a little bit too early in the game—and then we kind of got down, and we were in that kind of mode where you no-huddle, which you don't want to be in in the NFL."
Later in that same week, he added, "I've said something to them that I've got to be better. At the same time, they have that mindset that they're going to try to build me up. It's a thing where you're not going to play your best game every single game, and that's when you have to rely on your other guys to kind of step up and make plays for you."
All the while, the 26-year-old franchise signal-caller knew what made him one of the most successful quarterbacks of all time at an early age. Did he need to adjust his game slightly? Yes. But he couldn't change his DNA.
"I mean, I'm gonna take shots," Mahomes said last week. "The last few years, I've taken those shots, and they've worked. I've taken those shots, and they haven't worked (as well this season), and we've still been able to find ways to score points.
"Whenever I've got a guy with a chance to make a play downfield, I'm going to give him a chance to make a play."
Both the previous greatness seen from Mahomes and a more refined version showed up Sunday. Everyone saw a more patient quarterback who looked more comfortable playing from the pocket and didn't always try to push the ball downfield.
So much has been made about teams basically relying almost solely on a Cover 2 shell to prevent those deep shots. The game itself is trending toward lighter boxes and with more defenders falling back in coverage. The entire point of the approach stems from the belief a defense can eventually force a quarterback into a mistake, whether through confusion or impatience. The latter had been the toughest to overcome for Mahomes since so much of his success has been predicated on chunk plays.
The Chiefs put together three drives of 10 or more plays against the Raiders. They scored touchdowns on all three. Mahomes' efficiency throughout the first three quarters showed a different side of his capabilities. Before the Chiefs' final scoring drive with the game already out of hand at 34-14, Mahomes completed 26-of-32 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns when attempting throws under 10 air yards, according to the NBC telecast.
He still made mistakes with a couple of turnover-worthy plays thrown into the mix, particularly a dropped interception thrown into double-coverage with the safety over the top followed by a wild scrambling YOLO pass to running back Darrel Williams, who had to make a miraculous play on the ball to score on a 38-yard wheel route.
Again, those moments where the outcome doesn't always match the process will always be a staple of Mahomes' game. They simultaneously make him something truly special because of the inherent risk found in throws that other quarterbacks won't even attempt, let alone throw and complete.
As great as Mahomes can be, Super Bowl LV taught us that he can't do it alone. Even the best the game has to offer needs a little help from his friends. He got it Sunday with the potential to see improvement in scheme, approach and performance from everyone around the quarterback.
"We're all adjusting our games," wide receiver Tyreek Hill told reporters.
Williams and Jerick McKinnon didn't post huge numbers, but they serve as threats as runners. Mahomes thrived in play-action situations, as NFL Next Gen Stats noted:
The offensive line held up its end of the bargain, too. Despite some struggles throughout the season, particularly at tackle, the Chiefs performed well against two of the league's best pass-rushers. They blanked Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue on the stat sheet with zero sacks. As a team, Las Vegas managed only three quarterback hits.
Kansas City's coaching staff did a nice job protecting third-string tackle Andrew Wylie with chips and extra blockers to slow Crosby, who entered the game with the league's most pressures. Andy Reid's playcalling kept the Raiders on their heels and never allowed those dynamic edge-rushers to pin their ears back and get after his quarterback.
The lack of pressure coupled with Mahomes' increased patience allowed the quarterback to excel even when the Raiders dropped extra defenders in coverage.
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Patrick Mahomes was patient vs the Raiders defense that only blitzed him on 6 of 50 dropbacks (12%). Mahomes generated +17.5 pass EPA vs four-or-fewer pass rushers, after struggling vs non-blitzes in his previous five games (-27.5 pass EPA). #KCvsLV | #ChiefsKingdom https://t.co/t60pw4g89H
With Mahomes' return to status quo and an improved approach on both sides of the ball—the defense has allowed an average of 300 yards per game during their three-game winning streak (compared to the season average of 381.4 entering Sunday's contest)—the rest of the AFC should be frightened.
At 8-2, the Tennessee Titans are the conference's best squad. They have plenty to be excited about, particularly on the defensive side of the ball with their dominant front. Two straight wins without Derrick Henry says a lot about the franchise's resiliency and how they're not entirely defined by the league's most dominant runner. How Mike Vrabel's squad performs in the postseason potentially without the King has yet to be seen, though.
The Buffalo Bills (6-3) have had a couple of bad losses this season, and quarterback Josh Allen hasn't played near last year's level. The New England Patriots (6-4) are led by a rookie quarterback, though Mac Jones has been the best of this year's crop. The Baltimore Ravens (6-3) just suffered a bad beat to the now-two-win Miami Dolphins. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers all reek of mediocrity.
The AFC is wide open for anyone to claim. The Chiefs are as good as anyone to do so, especially when Mahomes' demise was greatly exaggerated for weeks.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.