Patrick Mahomes capped off what was likely his second MVP campaign with a humiliation of the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday. And yet, few expected him to be in this position four months ago. The AFC West was getting too crowded to be a monopoly, Justin Herbert was the NFL’s most gifted pocket passer, and the Raiders acquisition of Davante Adams made him and Derek Carr the division’s most dangerous duo. The proliferation of two-high coverages on early downs as the defensive trend du jour.
The increase of two-high coverage usage began as a counter to Mahomes and Tyreek Hill’s obliteration of NFL defenses. Mahomes became so associated with launching deep balls to Hill after improvising for six seconds, that “f**k it, Tyreek’s down there somewhere” became a running joke.
Including last season’s playoffs, Mahomes faced two-deep coverage on a league-high 389 dropbacks, completed 215-of-332 passes for 2,532 yards, nine touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a passer rating of 85.6, which ranked 10th in the league. There was a misplaced panic that these adjustments and the Chiefs’ catapulting Tyreek Hill to Miami would sap Mahomes of his superhuman ability.
Mahomes’ struggles with two-high defensive shells, plus the downgrade from Hill to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster fueled the growing chorus of NFL tastemakers who surmised that Joe Burrow or Josh Allen were better quarterbacks. Ironically, two of Mahomes’ three losses this season were to his AFC archnemesis’.
They’re still hot on his heels. But Mahomes created a cushion and quelled the doubts by leading the Chiefs to a 14-3 record and a first round bye in the AFC playoffs. How he did it is what made his readjustment so unique.
Eighteen weeks and 5,250 yards later, Mahomes leads the league in passing yardage, touchdown passes and is third in the league in completed air yards entering Sunday, but 19th in complete air yards per completion. Tua Tagovailoa’s Waddle-Hill combo were instrumental in him leading the entire league in air yards per completion. Twenty-eight of Mahomes’ league-leading 41 touchdowns were to either a running back or tight end and he connected with a league-high 12 receivers for scores.
Travis Kelce continued producing like an elite wide receiver, but in the void left behind by Hill, Mahomes developed a rapport with his versatile tailbacks. While Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling scored five touchdowns between the two of them, running back Jerick McKinnon caught at least one touchdown pass in six consecutive games and his nine touchdown receptions tied Marshall Faulk, Chuck Foreman in 1975 and Leroy Hoard in 1991.
Mahomes pulled magic out of his hat on a regular basis. Mahomes rushed for 358 yards and a career-high four touchdowns, but the NFL’s best sideways scrambler covered more distance than any other signal caller behind the line of scrimmage.
And yet, to win a Super Bowl, Mahomes will have to pull off one last trick and defy seven decades of precedent. No NFL quarterback has even been the NFL’s passing yardage leader and won a Super Bowl in the same season. The closest a quarterback has come to pulling off that double feat was Brady with the 19-0 Patriots. The last NFL quarterback to lead the league in touchdowns en route to an NFL championship was Johnny Unitas during the 1959 season.
Kansas City as a team were the NFL’s passing yardage leader in 2020, but Mahomes sat the final week of the regular season and wound up getting plowed by the Bucs in Super Bowl LV. Six quarterbacks before this season have finished one game short of the Super Bowl champs-passing yardage leader double feat before. Dan Marino in 1984, Kurt Warner in 2001, Rich Gannon in 2002, the aforementioned Tom Brady in 2007, Peyton Manning in 2017, and Tom Brady again in 2017.
Mahomes faces a Herculean task given the dearth of talent on Kansas City’s defensive end in comparison to the personnel Buffalo, Philadelphia, and even Cincinnati have at their disposal. Their postseason hopes rest almost sorely on Mahomes’ arms and legs.
Kansas City’s middling defense and the absence of a juggernaut in the backfield (although undrafted free agent Isiah Pacheco emerged as a punishing runner in the backfield) has forced Mahomes to keep his foot on the gas, but their pre-snap motions and Mahomes’ egalitarian distribution of throws in the red zone, will make this a unique challenge for opponents to game plan against.