We saw the future, and the future appears to be awesome.
But, now come the playoffs.
We saw Patrick Mahomes start his career highlight tape, complete with an absurd throw in the face of pressure against his body and splitting at least three defenders along the sideline on what turned out to be the game-winning drive.
(Hold on. Let’s all exhale. OK.)
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But, now the playoffs.
We saw the Chiefs’ backups — Alex Smith, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Marcus Peters were among those who didn’t play — beat Denver’s starters 27-24 here on Sunday, and after so many years of looking up at the Broncos it’s hard not to find some meaning in that.
But, now playoffs.
We saw a fun game, not just Mahomes’ magic act but Anthony Sherman’s turn as a featured back and Tanoh Kpassagnon’s overpowering sack and Dustin Colquitt’s 77-yard punt downed at the 3.
This was the drink before dinner, or the small talk before negotiations. A fine way to pass the time, but not the point of the evening. We can spend all offseason talking about Mahomes, and probably will, but for now he is still the theoretical quarterback for a season that is still more than eight months away.
Because: NOW, PLAYOFFS.
“There’s a certain urgency that comes with single elimination games,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “So you’ll feel that.”
This Chiefs team was always going to be fully and fairly judged on the playoffs, but that’s especially true after a wild regular season in which they were the NFL’s best team for five weeks, then the NFL’s worst non-Browns team for seven, and then in some ways better than ever for the next three.
All of that would be true even without the baggage this group brought from four years peaked at the division round, and even without the sorry history of a franchise that last played in the Super Bowl when the current chairman was 4 years old.
This group will play with the undeserved advantage of a pseudo bye week, with fresh bodies, against a Titans team that won on Sunday for the first time since Dec. 3.
If you watched this team for the first five weeks, or the last three before this glorified exhibition, you know it is fully capable of beating anyone in the league.
But if you watched this team for the seven weeks in the middle, you also know it is fully capable of falling on its collective face, and that’s even without the well-earned skepticism fans have built up over decades of being disappointed.
These guys seem to understand, and accept, their place. This leadership group and core of productive players saved the Chiefs from the shame of the Scott Pioli years. That’s not nothing, but if you’ve lived in Kansas City long enough to remember The No Punt Game, it’s hard not to notice a familiar aroma around this team — good, but not good enough.
The men who make it up seem to mostly agree, too. There has to be more. Five years in, this can’t be another early playoff loss with a catchy-but-cruel name and have it defended as anything other than disappointing.
“For it to be satisfying, yeah,” said receiver Albert Wilson. “If you get to a destination once, getting there again is not cool.”
This team has obvious strengths, and a load of weaknesses. They are among the league’s most productive offenses, with an incredible balance of big plays (Alex Smith entered the week third in the NFL with 38 passes of more than 25 yards) and bankable ball security (fewest turnovers in the league).
The Chiefs have the NFL’s leading rusher, a legitimate star receiver, and the second-best tight end in the world.
On the other side of the ball, cornerback Marcus Peters played perhaps his two best games of the season after coming back from a one-game suspension, linebacker Reggie Ragland improved the run defense, and the defensive line has shown more juice recently.
“I think we’ve shown that when all parts of the team are working in tandem ... this team does really well,” tackle Mitch Schwartz said.
The weaknesses, though. The line can be pushed around at times, the pass rush is inconsistent at best, and there’s been so much focus on the Chiefs’ poor run defense that their poor pass defense (22nd in passer rating against entering week 17) has gone largely unnoticed.
This group will be judged together. Reid is in his 19th season as a head coach, with just one Super Bowl appearance. Smith is known mostly as a guy good enough to lose in the playoffs.
Together, they lost one playoff game while scoring 44 points, and another without giving up a touchdown. They are creative, and consistent.
Reid will coach this team into a future that looks a little brighter after what Mahomes did here on Sunday, but Smith, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and others will likely be somewhere else next season
They have made their reputation together. Good, but not good enough. That would be a generous way to describe the franchise they represent, too. They have one last chance to change that, together.
Because they’re in the playoffs, again. That’s good. Just not good enough.