Sam Mellinger

Patrick Mahomes faces a (so far) rare challenge: adversity. So how will he handle it?

The following sentence is absurd, but the entirety of Patrick Mahomes is absurd so perhaps it’s fitting:

The least impressive game of the Chiefs quarterback’s career is the time he threw for 321 yards, an all-time magic trick touchdown and no interceptions against a playoff-caliber team.

One more paragraph just to emphasize the obvious: absurd!

But this is the world that Mahomes has created, and anyone who watched the Chiefs’ loss against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday night knows that the basic premise is true. Some disclaimers exist. The same way Mahomes has shined extra brightly because of a strong support system of playmakers and coaches, he is now fighting with an extraordinary breakout of injuries and a game plan that has not been able to beat man coverage.

The injury breakout includes the re-aggravation of Mahomes’ ankle, which served as something like a line of demarcation in his performance against the Colts: With two healthy ankles, he was Mahomes; and with one, he was (gasp) human.

All of which presents at least two truths.

First, if it’s true that more is learned through adversity than success, we are about to see something new and revealing from Mahomes. He will be playing on an injured ankle, behind an injured line, with his two best receivers out or playing their way back from injuries of their own.

Mahomes will be doing all of this as the Chiefs’ offense has appeared vulnerable for the first time, with a basic opposing game plan of man defense finding success against them two weeks in a row.

“That’s not a good enough effort to win in this league,” Mahomes said.

The second truth: Unless the Chiefs continue to issue injury reports long enough to fill a restaurant’s party room, and unless a head coach who’s built 20 years of success by finding new solutions to new problems suddenly doesn’t, then every drip of freakout this week is going to look mighty silly in hindsight by the end of the season.

This is true even as Sunday’s matchup with the Houston Texans carries some extra weight. The Texans enter Sunday’s game 3-2 and, particularly with a win at Arrowhead Stadium and the accompanying tiebreaker over the Chiefs, they could climb their way to a top seed in the AFC.

But the truth is that the Chiefs are more flawed than their 4-0 start indicated, and less broken than their loss to the Colts would suggest.

In other words, the important stuff isn’t what we’ve seen so far.

The important stuff is what we see now.

Mahomes’ Chiefs have been remarkably free of drama and relatively free of doubt. His ascension to superstar came at least a year or two earlier than even his most optimistic supporters expected.

The Chiefs lost five games last year, including the playoffs, and none of those defeats could be honestly blamed on him — he threw 18 touchdown passes in those games, and the Chiefs actually averaged more points in their losses than their wins.

The evidence of Mahomes’ behavior in the face of adversity is limited, then. We just don’t know how he’ll respond. He played his way into the 2017 draft’s No. 10 pick despite losing more often than he won at Texas Tech. Maybe that’s something.

Twice last season, Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots neutered the Chiefs in the first half. Both times, Mahomes’ offense scored 31 points in the second half. Maybe that’s something.

The Denver Broncos confused and beat up Mahomes enough that the Chiefs required a fourth -quarter comeback highlighted by a left-handed completion to win. The Detroit Lions played well enough to push Mahomes to fourth and 8 with less than 2 minutes left. Maybe that’s something?

But, mostly, this is different. Mahomes’ offense has never been squashed like this before.

Thirteen points? Consider this:

In 23 previous starts, Mahomes’ offense scored more than 13 points in 33 different halves and 25 different quarters.

Mahomes’ status as the reigning MVP means the shorthand analysis will always focus on him — good or bad. But there are a thousand factors outside his immediate control that are influencing the Chiefs’ results.

His ankle, his offensive line, injuries to receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins and — this hasn’t been talked about as much — the play-calling.

Another interesting point brought up by retired star receiver Steve Smith on Inside The NFL: Chiefs receivers are running to certain spaces on the field, but aren’t necessarily doing it with routes. They’re headed to landmarks, but not with enough precision to beat man coverage.

Maybe some more crossing routes or can’t-call-them pick plays could help here.

“It’s mostly us beating the guy flat out in front of you,” receiver Demarcus Robinson said. “But I think the play-calling could help, too. I’m not saying our play-calling sucks or anything like that. I’m saying, yeah, if you’ve got man coverage, a good play-call that beats man coverage is really helpful. Then you still gotta execute that play.”

This Chiefs season has never been about October. It’s always been about the playoffs. Much of the focus has been about the defense’s progress (or lack thereof the last few weeks) and whether this team can be healthy in January.

But because of a storm of coincidences that gathered quickly, the Chiefs are facing a genuinely important moment in Week 6.

The opponent is strong, with some traits (disruptive defensive line, top-line receivers, effective run game) that directly oppose the Chiefs’ weaknesses. The result on Sunday could help determine playoff seeding, and the Chiefs are likely to again be playing without some of their stars.

Mahomes’ football adversity as a pro has been light and rare, but he has shown himself to be strong, confident and dangerous when the plot appeared to have flipped.

But this is clearly a grown-man moment for him, because so much of his success has been about a remarkable support system of coaches and teammates bringing out his best. There’s an old saying in sports: Sometimes you have to try easier.

That’s been among Mahomes’ many gifts. But now, as much as ever before, the Chiefs will need him to rise above the moment. One more smaller moment that will help define a career headed toward a place among the game’s best.

He is plenty capable. Let’s see.

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On Chiefs media day Wednesday, we hear from Patrick Mahomes about his ankle and Travis Kelce about his push and then hug of offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy during the game against the Colts. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com
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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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