Patrick Mahomes was bad. Finally. He was bad, he was confused, and he was at times overmatched in front of a national audience against the best defense he’s ever played. By far. Finally.
And then he broke the game.
And then the Chiefs won a game they absolutely should have lost, and would have lost with a normal human being employed as their quarterback.
The Chiefs beat the Broncos here 27-23 on Monday night because they had Mahomes at quarterback, and the Broncos didn’t.
Statistically, this was Mahomes’ least impressive game of the season — 28 of 45, 304 yards, and one touchdown.
In a lot of real ways, it was the most encouraging — beaten, rushed, and off for 3 1/2 quarters he led a comeback with absurd throws including one left-handed and another against a broken pocket on 2nd and 30.
This was everything. Mahomes needed to face adversity, needed to be down, needed to have his risk-reward calculus tested in the most stressful way the NFL’s regular season allows.
And he passed.
The struggle was inevitable. It was always going to happen, at some point. If not in against the Broncos, then maybe next week against a nasty Jacksonville defense, or perhaps the week after when Bill Belichick has a home game and half a bye week to pick apart weakness and tendency.
Those other struggles may still come, but if so, the Chiefs will face them with the confidence that their quarterback aced his first test.
In the minutes and hours and days that follow, a lot of us will try to find out and explain exactly what happened — when Mahomes and the Chiefs struggle, and then when they didn’t.
At least on the first look, it was a lot of things. Mahomes was rushed, unsure, confused. The Broncos did a good job disguising both coverages and blitzes. Sammy Watkins’ hamstring injury changed personnel and certain play calls. Mahomes was also just plain off.
Throws he needs to and is completely capable of hitting in stride were behind the receiver. Other times, he and his intended receivers seemed to have different ideas about where the ball would be thrown.
Kelce’s production was the most obvious difference between the first and second half. He caught zero of five targets before halftime, and his first seven targets after halftime. He’s always been a problem for the Broncos. They struggle covering tight ends in general, and Kelce specifically. Once he got going, it seemed to loosen everything else up.
Even when Mahomes was struggling, you could still see the moments of brilliance. The spin, away-from-his-body, toward-the-middle-of-the-field pass to Kelce. The ability to buy time and create throwing lanes with his feet. The calmness, the confidence to stay with a play until the last possible blink.
Then the last, clinching drive — the left-handed pass, the scramble and throw to Demarcus Robinson, the smart feet and calm pulse.
Also, yes — a missed delay of game penalty that ended up being a long conversion to Demetrius Harris.
The Broncos deserve credit. They were able to bring pressure, often without blitzes, and nearly always without sacrificing coverage. That is a blueprint that will be used and updated by defensive coordinators with enough talent to pull it off.
The Chiefs will have to adjust. Mahomes is so much better with protections and coverage recognition than he used to be, and he will be so much better a year from now than he is at the moment. He is learning at a rapid rate, and this is his greatest opportunity yet.
The test of the quarterback is not during the glory. The test comes with struggle, when a 23-year-old must lead a group of men through the darkness.
Mahomes faced that, in a small way, in front of a national television audience. More challenges will come, and he won’t meet all of them.
But four games into his time as the Chiefs starting quarterback, it’s hard to imagine him showing more reasons for excitement and optimism.