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*Sorry, I can’t help myself.
Look, I’ll spare you all the details of how bad the Steelers have dominated the Chiefs of late. But just know Chiefs coach Andy Reid entered Sunday’s contest with a 1-4 record against the Steelers since 2013, a tally that includes:
• An embarrassing 29-point road blowout in prime time in October 2016.
• A deflating 18-16 home loss in the divisional round in January that, in retrospect, signaled the beginning of the end of the Alex Smith era.
• A 19-13 home defeat last October in which the Chiefs were beat up so bad physically that it precipitated a streak in which they lost six of their next seven games.
It was against that backdrop on Sunday that the Chiefs’ wunderkind second-year quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, delivered the type of jaw-dropping road performance in a 42-37 win at Heinz Field that not only made fantasy owners rejoice, but an entire city celebrate.
That’s not hyperbole, either. Few franchises were as starved for a homegrown, franchise savior at quarterback as the Chiefs, who have been on the other end of so many bad playoff losses to first-round, homegrown franchise quarterbacks.
The Chiefs’ list of playoff torturers is long and distinguished. Dan Marino, John Elway, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, Marcus Mariota and Joe Flacco are all among the first-round quarterbacks – who were still playing with the teams that drafted them, no less – who have eliminated the Chiefs from the playoffs over the past 25 years.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs – who hadn’t taken a quarterback in the first round since 1983 prior to Mahomes’ selection with the 10th overall pick last year – were bringing the football equivalent of a rusty knife to a gunfight by trotting out other teams’ castoffs like Steve DeBerg, Elvis Grbac and Matt Cassel.
Hence the city’s excitement over Mahomes’ ridiculous day Sunday, when the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder guided the Chiefs to their first win in Pittsburgh since 1986 by completing 23 of 28 passes for 326 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions. What’s more, Mahomes now has 10 touchdown passes on the season for the 2-0 Chiefs, more through the first two games of the season than any quarterback in NFL history.
And get this – it doesn’t look like a fluke.
Mahomes has shown it all in wins against the Steelers and Chargers, including a rifle arm, moxie and the ability to throw under duress and from different platforms. The Chiefs needed every last drop of his talent to come out with the win on Sunday, as Mahomes managed to outduel Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh’s future Hall of Famer, who completed 39 of 60 passes for 452 yards and three touchdowns.
Mahomes’ numbers already look ridiculous on the surface, but his performance is even more impressive when you consider it came against a Steelers team whose reliance on a fire zone pressure – where five defenders rush the passer and while the others (including defensive linemen) drop into coverage – has vexed the Chiefs in all of their previous five meetings under Reid.
To be fair, the Steelers’ zone blitzes – which often take away hot reads and require both poise and field vision to defeat – vex many quarterbacks, even veterans like the Chiefs’ former starter, Alex Smith.
While Smith’s overall numbers in four games against Pittsburgh from 2015-17 were solid on the surface – 60 completion percentage, 956 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions – they do not accurately reflect his tendency to drop his eyes amidst the Steelers’ rush and miss out on potential throws that were schemed open downfield. Those missed opportunities contributed to the Chiefs’ 1-3 record against the Steelers during that time span, opportunities that must be taken advantage of to win in the playoffs.
And while Mahomes is only two games into what could (and perhaps, should) be a long and distinguished NFL career, what’s also true is that he has already shown a willingness to take and make those type of tough throws under duress, which – when completed – are the type of narrow-window all-coverage beaters that serve as the NFL’s ultimate trump card.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more deflating to an NFL defender than when his coordinator dials up the right play and the defender executes it reasonably well, only to get beat for a chunk gain anyway because the other team’s quarterback – the guy with the ball in his hand every single play – completed a tight-window throw that 93 percent of guys wouldn’t be able to make.
It’s a trait that has been possessed by many of the greatest quarterbacks of all time – think Elway, Marino and Brett Favre – and while no one is putting Mahomes in the same sentence with those guys, it’s fair to say the Chiefs’ brass hopes that in the future, perhaps he’ll be mentioned in the same graph.
And while the Chiefs have done all they can to slow down the Mahomes hype train this preseason – and boy has the bandwagon grown mighty big since I named him to my 2017 All-Juice Team at The Kansas City Star – his performance on Sunday will only add fuel to that fire.
Time after time against the Steelers, Mahomes’ ability to keep his eyes up under pressure, scan the pocket and deliver lasers from different platforms and launch points made the difference. The Steelers even became so weary of seeing Mahomes defeat their blitz packages that by the end of the game, they’d started dialing back on the blitzing in lieu of dropping more men into coverage.
Do not underestimate the importance of this. It is the ultimate show of respect, one reserved almost solely for quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, guys who can use their brains and rocket arms to destroy the zone blitzes that naturally leave defenses thin on players in actual coverages.
None of this is to say Mahomes is even close to a finished product. He’s started three games in his entire NFL career, so there will almost certainly come a point this season – likely around October or so, when defensive coordinators have four-plus games of his to dissect and study his weaknesses – when he starts seeing things he never has, and he starts struggling. Depending on how quick of a study he is, that adjustment period could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
But the good news for Chiefs fans is Mahomes has some things going for him that should shave time off whatever troubles lie ahead. For one, he’s being coached by one of the NFL’s best offensive innovators and quarterback handlers in Reid, who will not only teach him how to properly defeat whatever new wrinkles he sees, but also scheme things for Mahomes in a way that will speed that process along.
And, secondly, it must also be noted Mahomes is surrounded by a ridiculous surplus of offensive weapons, as tight end Travis Kelce, receiver Tyreek Hill, receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Kareem Hunt would all be the No. 1 option for several teams throughout professional football.
That means that when defenses face the Chiefs, they will have to pick their poison. Any team can take away one skill player. The good ones can take away two. Historically great ones can take away three. No defense can take away all four, especially with a strong-armed gunslinger like Mahomes under center.
The amount of skill-position talent is the most positive indicator yet for a Chiefs offense that – yeah, I’ll say it – looks a little “Greatest Show On Turf-ish” through two weeks. Whether this type of production continues into the future will depend on the health of said skill players and the continued maturation of Mahomes, who has a chance to become the type of homegrown, generational player the Chiefs haven’t seen since Derrick Thomas.
So, yes, even though Mahomes has so many more games to play and much more to prove, there’s an undeniable sense of hope in Kansas City. And based on what he’s shown in the season’s first two weeks – with the latest being a skeleton-vanquishing win over a longtime tormentor in Pittsburgh – there’s rightful reason to think that finally, mercifully, when the Chiefs reach the playoffs again, it might actually be time for their own elite, first-round quarterback to start inflicting the same sort of postseason pain on others that the franchise itself has endured for so long.
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