Vahe Gregorian

Chiefs breakthrough season breaks down in end. But Mahomes is still start of new era

Patrick Mahomes meets with media after overtime loss in AFC Championship

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes meets with the media following the Chiefs 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.
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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes meets with the media following the Chiefs 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.

As the trophy bearing his father’s name was being presented to the New England Patriots on the field after their dizzying 37-31 overtime win over the Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt wore a look of subtle, solemn anguish as he made his way around the locker room shaking hands.

Symbolizing the unfathomable postseason follies of the franchise since it won Super Bowl IV 49 years ago, the Lamar Hunt Trophy that is awarded annually since 1984 to the AFC champion never had so much as been in residence in Kansas City before Wednesday.

Then it was tantalizingly within the grasp of his team … only to be unceremoniously yanked away after what proved to be a fleeting, cameo appearance. This was rough stuff for Hunt, Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, and anyone who cares about this franchise.

“The fact (the Patriots) get to do that right here,” Reid said, “is really tough.”

And now wasn’t really the time to be thinking about consolation or perspective as much as it was about embracing the pain and absorbing the moment and filing it away for future use.

“You have to take in the hurt,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “You have to accept that his hurts. I mean, it’s supposed to hurt.”

Darn right. Because this was in their grasp despite getting straitjacketed in the first half and falling behind 14-0.

And because of what could have been if Dee Ford didn’t line up offside to negate an interception by Charvarius Ward that would have effectively ended the game. Or if they hadn’t lost a coin toss that resulted in the Patriots ending the game by marching the length of the field (converting three third and 10s along the way) in overtime.

It has to hurt because it had been a quarter-century since the Chiefs made it this far, and there’s no guarantee when they’ll be back. And, for once, everything had seemed to be lining up their way – including the “super blood wolf moon” that was to turn “Chiefs red” Sunday night.

The Chiefs had purged the haunting images of 25 years of postseason pain and suffering at Arrowhead when they muzzled the Colts 31-13 the week before.

They entered the game healthier than they’d been all season – and far more so than they’d been when they lost 43-40 at New England in October. Justin Houston and Daniel Sorensen and Eric Berry missed that game with injuries, you’ll remember.

Then there was the mere fact the game was being played here instead of New England, where it would have been if not for nearly simultaneous twists of fate on Dec. 9: Mahomes’ fourth-and-9 pass to Tyreek Hill against Baltimore and Miami’s miracle final play to beat New England went together to give the Chiefs the No. 1 seed.

That figured to make a meaningful difference against a Patriots team that was 20-3 in home playoff games but just 3-4 on the road.

But the Patriots were terrific on Sunday, and Tom Brady reminded that he’s not only arguably the greatest quarterback ever to play the game but that even at 41 years old he’s perfectly capable of leading his sixth Super Bowl victory for the Patriots.

So hold off a moment on that changing of the guard and passing the torch to Mahomes theme, especially after Mahomes struggled plenty (16 of 31 for 295 yards).

He still made a number of plays only he can make, and he was harassed plenty on a night he was sacked four times, but the difference between the polished Brady and Mahomes was evident.

But here’s the underlying takeaway from this season and Sunday, even though it’s too soon for anyone to want to hear it:

The 23-year-old Mahomes, the likely and rightful most valuable player in the NFL, still makes all of this the beginning of a new era for the Chiefs, whose season-ending loss this year deserves to be filed away as something different than the status quo.

It was brutal, of course, but this shouldn’t register as devastating like the absurdities we’ve so often seen.

At least a year ahead of any realistic schedule, they broke through one barrier, one that says they don’t have to lose at Arrowhead in the postseason, and ran straight into another: a dynasty that still stands.

There is deep disappointment in this, but not shame or embarrassment. They fell short of what they could have had, and certainly you can say that the No. 1 seed underachieved if it doesn’t reach the Super Bowl.

Just the same, most forecasts for this team were between 8-8 and 10-6 with a kid quarterback who surely would both succeed and fail spectacularly and a defense that was suspect from the start and never got back the fully healthy Berry most reckoned they’d need in place for it to prosper.

But Mahomes was more than anyone could have expected, already, and he’s the future of this team and an emerging face of the NFL.

The Chiefs have plenty to clean up, and it’s hard to understand the case for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to keep his job. But they also have a lot to like here in the form of Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Justin Houston, Chris Jones and others as they face major decisions about who they can hold on to.

“We will get over the hump, the big hump here,” Reid said. “That’s this game right here.”

It remains to be seen, of course, especially since Reid is now 12-14 in the playoff and 1-5 in this round. Even he was wrestling on the edge of some serious emotion as he spoke about the future.

“There’s a lot of things to be optimistic about,” Reid said. “I’ve just got to get through … You’ve got to give me a little time here.”

In the end, though, this season still is more like a foundation than another sinkhole.

“Right now, it’s the end,” Mahomes said. “But hopefully it’s just the beginning of a long time.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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