ON SATURDAY, THE Kansas City Chiefs opened the postseason the same way they had in every one of quarterback Patrick Mahomes‘ previous five seasons as their starting quarterback: With a game at Arrowhead Stadium.
But how they arrived there was much different.
The Chiefs didn’t bring with them their usual passing attack and high-scoring offense that was capable of intimidating opponents. Instead, they finished the regular season 15th in scoring.
The Chiefs led the league in dropped passes (38), were second in offensive penalties and ninth in turnovers. Mahomes has always been asked to shoulder a heavy burden, but never as much as this season.
Mahomes had some signature moments this season, none better than his 424-yard, four-touchdown game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 7. He conquered the sub-zero temperatures, gusty winds and the Miami Dolphins defense last weekend in the wild-card round, throwing for 262 yards and a touchdown in leading the Chiefs to the divisional round.
But the late-game magic he is famous for never materialized this season. The Chiefs lost five games by one score, and they had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in four of them.
They failed every time. Those failures weren’t often on Mahomes. Dropped passes and penalties ruined many of those comeback attempts.
The Chiefs won enough games to claim an eighth straight division championship, but this season that in and of itself was a meager accomplishment. No other team in the AFC West finished with a winning record.
The Chiefs finished the regular season at 11-6, the worst record of Mahomes’ career. His QBR (63), passing yards per game (261) and yards per attempt (7.0) were lows. He threw a career-high 14 interceptions, but two were well-placed passes that wide receiver Kadarius Toney deflected to a defender.
Mahomes has had to adapt to problems around him in a way he hasn’t before. He’ll play in the first road playoff game of his career Sunday when the Buffalo Bills host the Chiefs at Highmark Stadium (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS).
“He’s smart enough to understand that every year is different,” offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. “And with that comes the ability to adapt.
“He completely understands that now [that] we have an exceptional defense that is keeping teams out of the end zone and doing really good things. So let’s play complementary football. We’re so used to the 40, 45 points at will all the time and that’s the goal. But we also have to understand through the course of the season how we’re going to win.”
McAfee still in awe of Kelce’s lateral that didn’t count
Pat McAfee describes how impressive Travis Kelce’s lateral to Kadarius Toney was, even though it didn’t count.
WITH JUST OVER a minute remaining in the fourth quarter of Week 14 and trailing the Bills 20-17, the Chiefs needed to lead a winning drive to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time since Week 3 of the 2021 season.
On second-and-10 at the Bills’ 49, Mahomes completed a 25-yard pass to Travis Kelce, who then sent a cross-field lateral to Toney that ended in a touchdown. It was exactly the late-game magic the Chiefs needed, except it didn’t count.
Toney had lined up offsides, negating the go-ahead touchdown. Mahomes’ frustration spilled over as he chased down three officials and was caught venting to Bills quarterback Josh Allen after the loss.
Mahomes was visibly frustrated this season like he rarely — if ever — was earlier in his career. He was despondent after Toney deflected a catchable pass to a defender for an interception in a Week 15 game against the New England Patriots when the Chiefs held a sizable lead and were trying to kill the clock.
When the Chiefs were struggling to contain pressure from the Las Vegas Raiders‘ defense the next week, Mahomes was seen shouting at the offensive linemen on the sideline.
But Mahomes was also willing to take blame.
“You have to be critical with yourself,” Mahomes said late in the regular season. “You have to be true to what’s on the film and what’s happening. I think a lot of people will make excuses and that’s why they don’t take that next step or become better because of it. But you got to see the film. You look at the film, you made a lot of mistakes that you can’t make in this league.
“There were times that there were throws there and I didn’t make them. There were times where I went through my reads, maybe didn’t get to the last one. That’s just stuff that I have to be better at. I think if I’m better at that, it’ll make the whole offense better.”
Mahomes talked at times during the season that he felt he was being greedy, trying to force throws for big plays when none were there. He threw two interceptions in a Week 4 win over the New York Jets after the Chiefs took an early 17-0 lead.
The plays helped the Jets get back into the game, though the Chiefs eventually won.
“I’ve had spots in my career where I haven’t had the best few weeks in a row and so I have to make sure that I can go back to the fundamentals and try to be better for the team and then rely on other guys to make plays,” Mahomes said. “I think that’s somewhere where I can be better is just getting the ball out of my hands and let these other guys make plays.
“It’s something that I have to continue to get better and better at throughout my career. Sometimes when stuff may not be going well or if I want to get that deep shot going, I’ll try to force it whereas there’s just times where I have to just throw the ball away or take the check down. It goes against my nature, but it’s something that you have to do at this quarterback position in order to have success.”
COACH ANDY REID, Nagy and quarterbacks coach David Girardi were careful not to try to take away Mahomes’ aggressive nature. They instead preached a balance between that and doing things a different way.
The Chiefs have a struggling group of wide receivers — the wide receivers accounted for 25 of the team’s 38 dropped passes, the most by a team’s receivers since 2012 — but the best defense they’ve had since Mahomes arrived in 2017.
“He wants to make the plays,” Girardi said. “[The coaching points] are more time and place. That’s the big thing. When can you take those shots? When can you be aggressive?
“You don’t want to take that aggressiveness away from him. It’s really about the time and place. Do we have points on the board? Where are we at in field position? How is the game going?”
Reid said, “He knows better than anyone when [he forces a throw]. He came up afterwards [against the Jets] and just said, ‘Hey listen, I’ve got to check it down there or run it.’
“My point [to Mahomes] was, ‘Listen, you do what got you there, and that’s attacking. If you need to check it down as part of the attack, check it down. [If the defense is] settling deep, just check it down and keep firing, keep going. A lot of game left to play. He’s positive that way. He knows that and he’ll normally say something to me before I say something to him.”
The challenge for Mahomes if the Chiefs are going to make another deep run in the playoffs is not to outscore opponents like they have been in the past. Mahomes and the Chiefs scored 35 or more points in at least one postseason game in each of the past four seasons. They beat the Philadelphia Eagles 38-35 last year to win Super Bowl LVIII.
This season’s Chiefs haven’t been equipped to win like that. They reached 35 points just once this season.
So the quest for Mahomes is to lead the Chiefs to wins even if they have a couple of unproductive quarters, as frequently happened this season. The Chiefs successfully defending their Super Bowl championship may depend on it.
“Not everything is going to be easy,” Mahomes said. “You have to find different ways to win.
“It’s always good when you find ways to win. You can win pretty but you have to win ugly too in order to win Super Bowls. Even though I hate it while it’s happening I feel like it makes you better in the end if you win games when not everything is going perfect.”