The curly haired wizard takes a break from saving the Chiefs from failure and panic to check his phone. He sits in front of his locker, head down, thumb flipping through his feed while the locker room laughs and struts through another success of his creation. Patrick Mahomes has bent the world around him and now he sees that the world is learning its lesson by going along.
“They lost at the end,” he said about the New England Patriots.
“What?” backup QB Chad Henne asked.
“It was crazy,” Mahomes said. “Last play. Gronk was the last one back.”
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The Chiefs beat the Ravens 27-24 in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium. Of all the baffling, crazy, WHAT!?!? moments that happened on Sunday, the dynasty of the 21st century losing on a hook-and-three-laterals play with the final touchdown run looping around a star tight end subbing as a Hail Mary defender hardly rates.
The Chiefs’ win and Patriots’ loss means Mahomes’ team now has a full-game cushion for homefield advantage over the only AFC team to beat them. They can lock down another AFC West title and turn homefield into a near formality with a win over the L.A. Chargers on Thursday.
This is all going so much faster than expected. Even the original believers, the men on the inside who pushed to trade up for Mahomes in last year’s draft, did not expect him to be this good this soon. He is the frontrunner for league MVP, for goodness’ sake.
The believers also could not have imagined how much they’d need him to be this good this soon. The defense has been even worse than a year ago, and the release of Kareem Hunt after a video surfaced of him pushing and kicking a woman left a stain on the organization’s credibility and a hole in how they try to win games.
This team is still flawed and the organization and league remain exposed for various failings. Mahomes can’t cover everything. In these moments, though, he covers enough that this room would be quiet and defeated without him but instead is loud and boisterous because of an otherworldly talent and supernatural creativity that can best be pictured with that magical moment on fourth and 9 with the game on the line against the league’s best defense.
“I saw him do his crow-hop thing, where he gathers his weight, and then I saw the throw,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said.
“I saw him launch it and I’m just looking at the ball, like, ‘Where is it going?’” guard Jeff Allen said.
The play was supposed to be a throw to the left, with Tyreek Hill as a decoy deployed to pull the Ravens’ safeties away from coverage. That all went to hell, the throw going to the right side of the field to Hill who, playing with a hurting hand and foot, outmaneuvered two defenders for the ball in perhaps the single biggest play of an afternoon filled with them.
“Just how we designed it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid joked.
Computer models gave the Chiefs a 7.6 percent chance of winning when the ball was snapped with 89 seconds left. Mahomes took the snap from shotgun and dropped back three steps in 2 1/2 seconds before Ravens linebacker Za-Darius Smith swiped past Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher and forced Mahomes to bail the pocket to the right.
“You want to get him down before he can get it off,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
But they didn’t, so at this point, every rep of the play and all the thought behind the design are crumbled into the garbage. This is now the wild west, players guided by instincts and the ubiquitous scramble drill that Mahomes’ combination of creativity and talent have given grand importance.
“It turns into backyard football,” Ravens cornerback and former Chief Brandon Carr said.
Mahomes is admittedly not fast, but he has what might be described as useful speed with a remarkable body control that turns these moments into highlights. Twelve steps of a sprint put him outside the pass rushers, then two more turned him upfield a bit, that unorthodox crow hop that Schwartz referenced starting a kinetic chain that puts the power of the world in that right arm.
“You see it on film, but the things he did, it’s just hard to practice that,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said.
Hill had done his best to clear the defenders, but once the play broke down he was isolated on a linebacker, looping around him and then back to the right. This is when he locked eyes with Mahomes, who saw the linebacker trailing with a shrinking space between converging defensive backs in front of Hill.
“He had seen me screeching down the middle,” Hill said. “He just lobbed it up for me.”
The ball was in the air a little more than 2 seconds, traveling 44 yards. Three pass rushers had their angles at Mahomes, and four defenders in coverage might’ve had chances at the throw. NFL’s Next Gen Stats gave the throw a 15.8 percent chance of being completed.
Somehow, with Mahomes, those calculations never seem relevant.
“Fourth down, you have to put it out there,” he said.
Hill made the catch, setting the stadium around him rocking. As the players ran down the field, the seconds ticked away with the Chiefs still down seven points. Schwartz turned to a teammate next to him — he’s still not sure who it was — and yelled “THAT WAS (EXPLETIVE) CRAZY!”
Mahomes turned toward the sideline, not even a smile on his face, took the play call and signaled it to his teammates with his hands. Four snaps later, the tying touchdown, again on fourth down. The Chiefs won in overtime, because of course they did.
Mahomes had happened.
“We didn’t flinch, and that’s a testament to Pat,” Allen said.
“Number 15 made a play,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “That’s what the difference was in this game.”
So much history
The rise of Patrick Mahomes is set to be the dominant story of Kansas City sports for the next decade or more. The lens through which that will be told and digested is his success or failure in changing one of the worst playoff histories in the NFL.
That has always been how quarterbacks are judged, and Mahomes’ challenge is bigger than most.
We are 49 years removed from the Chiefs’ most recent and only Super Bowl win. That’s an embarrassing gap filled by — deep breath — losing the longest game in NFL history, a concussion in Buffalo, three missed kicks by You Know Who, Elvis Grbac’s panic, The No Punt Game, The 38-10 Game, the time they lost at home despite not giving up a touchdown, and the time they lost in so many shameful ways that nobody can agree whether to remember it for weird calls, a blown 18-point lead, or the other quarterback throwing a touchdown to himself.
The Chiefs clinched a playoff spot with Sunday’s win, which means Mahomes is now officially on the clock for his challenge of history.
The Chiefs tripping over themselves in the biggest moments is one of the NFL’s most time-honored traditions, and you do not need much time to imagine the ways this season is fitting common themes.
Hunt’s release is the unexpected loss, a bizarre drama that hits on society’s central issue of the moment, a series of events that set the Chiefs back on the field and challenged them off it.
Receiver Sammy Watkins’ injury further shrinks the offense’s margin for error, and the interior of the offensive line remains a constant shuffle. Kicker Harrison Butker hit the go-ahead field goal in overtime, but the two misses that preceded it (including one on the last play of regulation) are a cold-blooded plot twist from the football gods.
Mahomes won’t just be playing against some of the NFL’s best teams. In ways that matter personally to so many in the Heartland, he’ll also be playing against those ghosts from the past.
The Royals met this challenge with a parade three years ago, but that was done collectively, by keeping the line moving. The Chiefs’ challenge will be disproportionately put on Mahomes, and none of this will make much difference if they’re on the wrong side of momentum in a playoff game. But think about what he just did.
He beat the league’s best defense, which emptied every crumb of ingenuity it had to confuse and pound him. He did this without a star running back, his No. 2 receiver, or a defense capable of stopping the run. His kicker missed. Twice.
But the Chiefs won anyway, because he ran away from pressure, fooled those defenders with no-look passes, and in the moment that defined the day was the best player on the field. The Chiefs have lost this game a hundred times before, with a dozen quarterbacks who were fine men but ordinary talents.
That’s a reality this organization no longer lives in. Finally. Amazingly. Who the hell knows how this will go, but for the first time in what is literally forever for most of their fans, the Chiefs have something nobody else does.