The Kansas Chiefs fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, and first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes joined the list of young signal-callers who’ve fallen victim of Bill Belichick schemes at Gillette Stadium.
And yes, despite the gaudy statistics, Mahomes was a victim by virtue of the first half struggles and ultimately having lost the game. The Patriots are now 24-0 at home in the regular season against quarterbacks younger than 25 years old, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information
In the first half, Mahomes went 14-of-23 for 164 yards with two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 46.3. His longest completion went for just 27 yards. After halftime, Mahomes turned things around and went 9-of-13 for 188 yards, four touchdowns (no interceptions) and a 151.4 QBR.
We’ll dive into the Jekyll and Hyde performance in his first meeting with the NFL’s evil genius.
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Off-target throws, particularly high, from Mahomes certainly accounted for part of what was relatively speaking a fairly futile offensive first half (nine points, two turnovers). He uncorked passes that sailed off-line intended for multiple receivers, including potential touchdown passes to Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt.
Gasp! Points left on the field: The play above came on third-and-8 with 10:28 remaining in the first quarter. The Patriots play man-to-man and the deep safety in the middle of the field was occupied by Hill’s route. The line created a solid pocket. Hunt ran a seam route right up the numbers and beat his man, linebacker Dont’a Hightower by 5 yards. However, Mahomes’ throw beat Hunt by another 5 yards.
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Too tall: On the same possession, Mahomes again identified a matchup that his receiver won, but he also sails a high throw out of the catch radius of the 5-foot-10 Hill. His defender never got hands on him at the line of scrimmage, which provided him a clean release and the ability to run away from his man from one side — he started outside of the far hash mark — to the opposite corner. Safety Duron Harmon (21) was at the 16-yard line at the snap and didn’t get deeper than the 15-yard line until after the ball was in the air and Hill well behind him, while the other safety Devin McCourty (32) didn’t react to the route or Harmon’s staying up until late.
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“I missed some throws — that happens in this league — but whenever you’re playing good football teams, you can’t miss those throws,” Mahomes said. “We left some points out there and so when you go back and look at the tape, you have to learn from that and try to do better whenever you get the next opportunity.”
Not seeing what you thought you saw
Both of Mahomes’ interceptions came on passes intended for tight end Travis Kelce. The first came deep in the Chiefs’ own end of the field and, following a return by Hightower, set up a 4-yard Sony Michel touchdown run — the first touchdown of the game for either team.
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Situation: First-and-10 from Kansas City 23-yard line with 5:12 left in the first quarter.
Alignment: The Chiefs broke the huddle in “12” personnel with Hunt as the lone running back and two tight ends, Demetrius Harris and Kelce, on the field. Mahomes set up in the shotgun with Hunt (27) to his left, Harris (84) off the line off the outside hip of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Kelce (87) split wide left on the line, while Hill (10) split wide right a couple steps above the bottom of the numbers. Sammy Watkins (14) split the difference between the numbers and the hash mark.
Prior to the snap, Harris went in motion across the formation to line up off the hip of left tackle Eric Fisher.
At the snap: Harris remained in as a sixth blocker against the pass rush and picked up edge rusher Trey Flowers (98). Hill and Watkins both ran deep routes, with the lone high safety staying over the top of Hill while Watkins ran across the formation deep in man-to-man coverage. Hunt took a play-action fake coming from his position to Mahomes’ left across the formation and continued into the flat on the right.
Kelce received a token jab from Flowers before he released into the pattern. Kelce made a cut and ran a slant with Devin McCourty (32) trailing him. The Patriots appeared at times to go with a single high safety and used Hightower as a “spy” on Mahomes. Hightower got pulled toward the line of scrimmage by the play-fake, but he continued to read Mahomes’ eyes as he dropped back into coverage having seen the ball not handed off.
“(Hightower) who did a nice job during the game, he bit on the play fake. He was all the way into the line of scrimmage, then they settled back out,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Patrick saw he had (Kelce), so he tried to get it off quick, when normally he kind of puts it up and over, and the guy filtered back out. He got him on that one. That’s a great one for him to learn from.”
Hightower was aware enough to undercut Kelce’s route and haul in the third interception thrown by Mahomes this season. Because, as Reid pointed out, Mahomes threw it quick and was planning to put the ball right on Kelce instead of letting him run under it, Hightower was perfectly positioned.
“Yeah, the first one, he had came into the line of scrimmage. I thought he was coming in on a blitz and I kind of ... I just lost him,” Mahomes said. “Kelce had beat his man so I was trying to get the ball on him as fast as possible to let him go to work with it. He had dropped back into coverage and I just didn’t see him and I ended up throwing it, he made a great play.”
Breaking the rules and paying the price
Mahomes garnered plenty of attention and praise earlier in the season for having gone against the conventional wisdom in order to make pivotal plays for his team. He threw across his body, threw back across the field, changed directions multiple times while scrambling and famously tossed a left-handed pass to convert on a third down in Denver.
With the Chiefs trailing and in field-goal position with just 17 seconds left in the first half, he paid the price for scrambling to his right and throwing back across his body late to a receiver dragging coming across the formation (Kelce).
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Situation: First-and-10 from the New England 15-yard line with 17 seconds remaining.
Alignment: The Chiefs broke the huddle in “11” personnel with Spencer Ware as the lone running back and Kelce at tight end on the field along with wide receivers Chris Conley (17), Watkins and Hill. The Chiefs shifted from a look with Mahomes under center and Ware in the backfield to having Ware split wide to Mahomes’ right and Hill in the backfield lined up next to Mahomes in the shotgun. Conley, Watkins and Kelce lined up to the left with Kelce on the line just outside the hash mark. Watkins set up inside the numbers, with Conley between the numbers and the sideline.
At the snap: The Patriots rushed three, and Hightower lined up over Kelce and jammed him at the line of scrimmage before he made a beeline for Mahomes. The offensive line settled into pass protection and seemingly lost track of Hightower, who’d appeared at the snap to be in coverage. Hightower slid to an opening in the pocket where Mahomes likely would’ve stepped up and applied pressure. He actually had a handful of Mahomes’ jersey when Mahomes let go of the pass while fading to his right.
“Patrick is going to try to make plays the best he can, but listen, he can take something from that one too,” Reid said. “There is a time and a place where maybe you are just throwing out bombs and you kick one. There is a time and a place for that.”
Ware ran a fade toward the corner of the end zone in man-to-man coverage with the linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53). Van Noy bumped out when Ware split wide, and cornerback Jason McCourty (30) kept outside leverage on Hill, who was now in the backfield. The safety on that side of the field Devin McCourty (32) also kept eyes on Hill and broke as soon as he saw an in-cutting route from Hill.
Kelce ran about 10 yards downfield and settled in between the hash marks, while Watkins ran to the end zone and started dragging across when he realized Mahomes had started scrambling. Kelce likewise cut across to make himself available to the scrambling Mahomes. Defensive back Patrick Chung (23) had coverage on Kelce, having lined up behind Hightower.
The other safety, Harmon (21), came underneath Kelce as he ran to get into Mahomes’ view as Chung trailed. Mahomes threw into a crowd that included Harmon, Kelce and Chung as well as Ware and his defender, Van Noy, who’d drifted into the path after Ware’s fade route.
“On the second one, just in the two-minute drill, we were rolling (and I) just got a little too greedy,” Mahomes said. “I thought I could throw it a little higher and Kelce could go get it, and I kind of got hit as I threw and just left it short. In those situations, it’s kind of a him-or-nobody (situation), and I just have to learn from that and know that. If I’m going to try to make that throw, then make it either Kelce can catch it or nobody else.”
Getting his best shot
While Mahomes’ ability to extend the play led to a red-zone interception right before halftime, he started the second half by making a huge play on the run to inject life into the Chiefs’ offense.
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Situation: Third-and-2 from the Kansas City 33-yard line with 13:39 left in the third quarter.
Alignment: The Chiefs in their 11 personnel grouping put Hunt in the backfield to the right of Mahomes, who was in the shotgun. Hill split off the line to the right, with Kelce lined up on the line in the traditional tight end spot next to right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Conley was to the left on the line of scrimmage between the hash marks and the numbers. Watkins lined up right at the top of the numbers outside of Conley.
At the snap: Mahomes looked to Hill and Kelce before escaping the pocket. The Patriots’ zone effectively bracketed both options. Hill released inside and was passed off from corner Jason McCourty (30) to the linebacker Van Noy (53), with Devin McCourty (32) not getting depth in order to keep squeeze Hill’s route from underneath as well as the top. Hightower lined up like an edge rusher outside of the left tackle, but he dropped into the middle and read Mahomes’ eyes and undercut Kelce’s route in the short middle of the field. The Pats’ safety, Chung (23), also didn’t get much depth in order to squeeze Kelce’s route from both top and underneath.
Mahomes scrambled right, and with the safeties both having stayed close to the line of scrimmage, that left Hunt running up the sideline man-ton-man with McCourty. McCourty kept his eyes in the backfield before he turned his hips and ran with Hunt. Hunt beat him up the sideline and Mahomes’ pass traveled from the KC 20 to almost the New England 36, where Hunt pulled it in and ran to paydirt.
“He came out in similar situations and made some huge plays,” Reid said. “ One to (Kareem Hunt). He was scrambling out of the pocket and hit Kareem down the sideline. There’s a time and a place for everything. With all his gifts and abilities and great play, he will learn that with time. You can’t fault him for trying his best. You know you are going to get his best. With intention there, too, I mean he’s not trying to do something where he throws an interception. You are going to get his best every snap. There’s something to that, too.”
The right mesh
Mahomes also made big plays on man-to-man coverage-beaters in the second half. He found both Watkins and Hill on crossing routes that looked like variations of the mesh route concept, with the underneath receiver (Kelce) dragging across the formation and forcing the defender trailing either Watkins or Hill to give ground or risk being picked off by the underneath route.
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On Hill’s third-quarter touchdown catch with 56 seconds remaining in the period, the play combined a corner route from the slot on the far side of the formation with a mesh between Kelce and Watkins. Watkins came underneath Hill’s route and crossed Mahomes’ vision at same time Kelce was dragging across from the traditional tight end spot on the opposite side of the formation.
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“Just being more composed,” Kelce said of the difference in Mahomes in the second half. “It is a big game going up against arguably the greatest of all time.
“I know he has a lot of respect for (Pats QB Tom Brady), and the team has a lot of respect for 12 (Brady). It being a Sunday night game, we knew it was going to be a special one. I think the emotions and the excitement got a little ahead of us. We just settled down and we saw (Mahomes) in the second half be more like himself and have a little fun out there.”