Middle of the third quarter Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs were nursing a 23-14 lead and facing fourth and one at the Denver 23-yard-line. And for a moment, anyway, coach Andy Reid pondered kicking a field goal.
Something kicked in instead: the abundant reality around him that with every game is proving more and more to be a rare convergence — and that in this 30-23 victory illustrated anew that this offense only be stopped by itself and makes anything possible for this team.
While he deliberated, one way or another it occurred to Reid that he has at his disposal in Patrick Mahomes a quarterback who has produced more yards and touchdown passes in his first nine games than anyone in NFL history.
He has in his arsenal the fastest and most elusive player in football in the form of human pinball Tyreek Hill, who later left the game with a groin injury. At his play-calling whim is Travis Kelce, among the most dynamic tight ends in the game, and a dimension in Sammy Watkins that we saw fully engaged for the first time as a Chief on Sunday.
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And, oh, he holds another absolute ace in ferocious running back Kareem Hunt — aka “the Little Cinder Block,” as Mahomes calls him.
So Reid “debated on it” during a timeout. Then, as he put it later, he figured, “What the heck, let’s go. Let’s roll. Why pull back now?”
Especially with one more ingredient to consider: Reid’s visionary aptitude for scheming up an offense, which with Mahomes at the helm has thrown as many touchdown passes through eight games (26) as it did all last season and now stands four away from the team record set by Len Dawson in 1964.
“I had a play that I liked,” said Reid, who prefers to downplay things like this but smiled as he said it. “Sometimes you get to that point where you hesitate because it’s a 50-50 shot. Here I’m going, ‘We have a lot of options on it, and some pretty good players touching it.’”
So Mahomes lined up in the shotgun flanked by Hill to his right and Hunt to his left. And then just what was a suddenly defenseless defense to do when Mahomes took the snap and drifted to his right and faked a pitch to Hill only …. nah, to pitch it with his left hand to Hunt?
“He makes magic happen when it’s in his hand,” said Mahomes, testament to the adage of takes one to know one.
Suddenly, Hunt busted through a couple would-be tacklers and — stop us if you’ve heard this one — hurdled a prospective defender and lugged another along for a game-breaking 23-yard touchdown reception.
“It’s hard to believe,” Reid said, afterward, “anybody at that position is playing better.”
The stats don’t directly reflect that about any of the aforementioned players but Mahomes, who leads the league in touchdown passes and, incidentally, has thrown for an unprecedented amount of yards (2,810) in his first nine starts including last season at Denver.
While Hunt entered the day fourth in the league in rushing and Hill led the league in receiving touchdowns with seven, none of Mahomes’ targets is among the top 10 in receptions.
But that’s largely a reflection of the versatile embarrassment of riches that was atop the NFL in scoring and yards per play coming into the day, a team on which nine different players have caught TD passes and that prospers by the defensive guesswork that comes with the bewildering variety of possibilities.
“We’re all playing off each other really well; we’re making it easier on each other,” said Kelce, who had six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. “That’s the best thing that Coach Reid presents us: He’s giving everybody the opportunity to make a play and then have the opportunity to have those matchup situations that are in your favor.”
Which they just about all seem to be.
“We all know that we’re special players, the top at our positions,” Hunt said, matter of factly. “And we’ve just got to put all that together and make it look like that.”
The ridiculous thing is there was obvious room for improvement even Sunday.
Mahomes wasn’t consistently sharp, failing to feather a pass to Watkins that might have been a 40-yard touchdown and about knocking Hunt over with a short throw. He also threw a second-half interception while the offense otherwise stagnated late in the game.
Meanwhile, Kelce dropped a pass, and Harrison Butker missed an extra point after making the first 61 of his career.
“When you put the tape on, there were a lot of mistakes — two big ones by myself,” said receiver Chris Conley, who had two false starts. “We’ve just got to get better. Because we can be scary-good if we eliminate those mistakes. And the onus is on us.”
That’s true, at least in terms of the necessity of improving lest they stagnate or even regress.
But it’s also true that the burden is on the rest of the NFL to contain this team that on Sunday was making do with a makeshift offensive line featuring its third center of the season.
“I feel like we can make big plays any time of game, any drive, and not just one person,” Hunt said. “You can’t ask for more.”
In fact, there is more:
While the defense still is a point of concern, it produced five sacks and two takeaways against Denver after a fine performance in a 45-10 victory over Cincinnati. As it awaits the returns of linebacker Justin Houston and Eric Berry (we think), Dee Ford and Chris Jones are becoming stars and youngsters like Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon are emerging.
That’s also part of why the Chiefs are 7-1 and beat Denver for the seventh straight time, including 3-0 in the Mahomes era. They’re also 19-2 against the AFC West since the start of the 2015 season.
But this isn’t about winning a measly third straight divisional title.
It’s about an offense that will always give them not just a chance but an advantage and the sense of promise that comes with that — the earmarks of a Super Bowl team in the making even as the real work awaits.