It’s not just the arm strength.
Or the mobility.
Or the resourcefulness.
Or the competitiveness.
Or the leadership qualities.
When you look at Patrick Mahomes and try to figure out what makes him the best quarterback in today’s NFL — that’s right, the best — it’s all those things wrapped up into the 6-3, 229-pound body of this 24-year-old phenom.
Mahomes is the single biggest reason the Chiefs have legitimate hope of winning their first Super Bowl championship since the days of Len Dawson (remember the legendary photo of him smoking a cigarette and drinking a bottle of Fresca at halftime?) and Hank Stram (“matriculating the ball down the field, boys!”) in Super Bowl IV.
It has been a half-century since those iconic scenes, and the Chiefs have known little else but playoff failure in that time. They’ve never been back to the Super Bowl, they’ve had very little luck at the quarterback position — especially in the draft — and even Joe Montana’s magic couldn’t deliver a championship when he spent the final years of his career with Kansas City.
But Mahomes … man, this guy has made up for all those losing seasons and all those quarterback disappointments. He’s the reigning MVP, and while he won’t beat out Ravens phenom Lamar Jackson for the award this year, Mahomes has a chance to end his season in far more spectacular fashion.
This should have been the week we saw Mahomes face off against Jackson in what would have been an epic matchup between the Chiefs and Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. What a duel that might have been, the 2018 MVP against the presumptive 2019 MVP in an offensive show the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
Mahomes did his part to get to the game that will decide the AFC entrant in Super Bowl LIV, staging a remarkable comeback from a 24-0 deficit at home against the Texans by reeling off seven straight touchdown drives, including five scoring passes, in a 51-31 win at Arrowhead Stadium. But Jackson couldn’t hold up his end against the Titans, this year’s Cinderella team, in a desultory 28-12 loss in Baltimore.
So now the stage belongs to Mahomes, who must beat the Titans to keep his date with destiny. A win over Tennessee in Sunday’s AFC title game at Arrowhead would create new memories to add to those of Dawson, Stram, Mike Garrett, Willie Lanier and Curley Culp for those old enough to have seen them win the Chiefs’ last championship.
There is a lot resting on Mahomes’ shoulders, mostly the hopes and dreams of a fan base so used to heartbreak and a locker room full of teammates and coaches whose fate lies with him. But he seems to welcome the enormity of the moment, a player who understands that he will need to rise up when his team needs him the most.
Just as he did last week, when he gathered his teammates on the sideline after a shocking sequence of events put the Chiefs in a 24-point hole. He told them to remain calm and optimistic, then produced a performance for the ages.
“When you’re playing in these types of games, not everything’s going to be great, but you have to find a way to win, find a way to fight,” Mahomes said this past week. “What I rely on is going out there and competing. No matter what the score is, winning or losing, I’m going to give my best effort on every single play. That’s how I was raised. That’s how this team flows.”
Coach Andy Reid was smitten with Mahomes when he first started watching him during the quarterback’s time at Texas Tech. Mahomes, the son of former major league pitcher Pat Mahomes, was a star in the Red Raiders’ offense, throwing 93 touchdown passes and 29 interceptions in three years.
Some scouts wondered if his work in the wide-open “Air Raid” offense might not have prepared him well for the NFL, where defenses create much smaller windows and the level of competition is enormously higher.
But Reid smartly traded up for Mahomes, let him learn for a year behind Alex Smith and then committed to Mahomes from the start of the 2018 season. He was spectacular, finishing with a league-high 50 touchdown passes as a runaway winner of the MVP trophy.
He had the Chiefs in position to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead, producing a 24-point fourth quarter to send the game into overtime. But the Chiefs’ defense failed them yet again, allowing a touchdown drive and leaving Kansas City one agonizing loss away from the Super Bowl.
Now Mahomes is back for another try against a Titans team he knows will be a tough out.
“You have to be prepared for everything,” he said. “The Titans are physical, and they will challenge you in every aspect of the game.”
He is ready to do what he must.
“Whenever you’re in the playoffs playing against these great defenses,” he said, “you have to use everything you can. If that calls for me scrambling, I’ll do that. If that calls for me sitting in the pocket, I’ll do that. Knowing this [Titans] team and their coaching staff, they’re going to fight to the end no matter what.”
But Mahomes believes he can — and will — win that fight.
He is the Chiefs’ best hope — their only hope, really — to make it happen.