How Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs found a cheat sheet for the playoffs

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  • Kansas City Chiefs
    Kansas City Chiefs
  • Patrick Mahomes
    Patrick Mahomes

The opening script is established days before kickoff, and among several concepts that comprise the final potion, one key is to keep it fresh.

So when you see Chiefs coach Andy Reid clenching that laminated play sheet in his hand — with everything from first-down calls to short yardage, red zone and third-down options — know that the words he’s reading are different than a month or even a week earlier.

The real similarity as the Chiefs season has progressed is what hasn’t been on the sheet. Or at least what hasn’t been called, not lately.

The home run.

The Chiefs are singles hitters now, in case you haven’t noticed, a station-to-station football team that led the NFL in opening-drive points anyway.

There’s a bit of exaggeration to that, but not much. In the season finale against Denver, the Chiefs’ initial possession covered 91 yards over 17 snaps and resulted in a touchdown. The only play to travel more than 20 yards was a pass caught behind the line of scrimmage. Two weeks earlier, they went 14 plays for 73 yards against the Steelers on the opening drive. Longest play: 13 yards.

A week before that, they marched 95 yards in 11 plays, none covering more than 20 yards.

This is the new Chiefs because this has to be the new Chiefs. A team with the same star players as the past two Super Bowl appearances embarks on a journey to a third straight operating quite differently.

What began as a mode of survival has become a method of domination once more. The Chiefs are playing like one of the very best offenses in the NFL again while asking their MVP quarterback to play unlike this configuration:

“I have that aggressive nature,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “I want to make everything happen.”

He can’t.

Not anymore.

A defensive scheme has been built to keep Mahomes in the ballpark, a strategy showcased in front of nearly 100 million people last February. A year ago, in Super Bowl LV, the Buccaneers got the Chiefs with a two-deep safety shell, a scheme so successful that just about every other NFL team decided they needed to copy it.

And why wouldn’t they? The deep shells shut the Chiefs down for an extended stretch this season. Kansas City started 3-4, then relied on the defense to carry the load in a couple of games while the offense figured it out.

But as team after team shared their notes on the secret to slowing Mahomes — even once prompting a question as to whether the league had “figured him out” — they unwittingly did him a favor along the way.

They gave him a cheat sheet to this postseason.

A look, through Mahomes’ eyes, at the big picture

The Chiefs returned from an an October trip to Nashville with the offense in disarray, an afternoon so unpleasant that Mahomes remarked his evaluation would need to stretch beyond the mistakes of one game.

He needed the 30,000-foot view.

It provided an answer he already knew. The Chiefs were seeing the same defense week after week after week — teams would drop their safeties deep into the defensive backfield, refrain from blitzing Mahomes and beg him to take the underneath throws and prove he could nickel-and-dime his way down field.

Or, to put it more simply:

“Everybody,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said, “is taking a look at what Tampa Bay did to us in the Super Bowl.”

This is the overarching theme of the Chiefs season — from the most significant struggles of Mahomes’ professional career to how they earned the AFC’s No. 2 seed anyway. And it comes with a distinct beginning and middle and alternative ending. The conversation grew loud in those first two chapters. We’ll get to more on the potential upshot, but first a look at how we arrived here, because it’s an important part of this story.

Back in St. Joseph in July and August, when Bieniemy and head coach Andy Reid would meet with Mahomes in training camp dormitories, they warned him of what awaited — while they would continue to work on his fundamentals, his footwork and his pocket presence, his biggest adjustment would be a mental exercise, not a physical one.

Teams weren’t going to allow the Chiefs beat them over the top any longer — not after what Tampa Bay had put on tape for the world to see — and so his days as a self-described gunslinger would require adjustment. They didn’t want Mahomes to lose the aggressive mindset that had prompted such success, but rather he would need to couple it with some patience.

The Chiefs struggled with it. They led the league in turnovers for nearly two months. Mahomes produced six of the worst eight quarterback ratings of his career from Weeks 5-12 this season. And some national talk shows wondered if the Chiefs were broken but just nobody wanted to admit it.

The truth: The Chiefs were moving the ball just fine, even out-pacing some 2018-20 numbers for awhile, but that was erased by mistakes. Which is precisely what teams banked on — if you make them run additional plays on their trek to the end zone, that’s more opportunities for a mistakes. Drops. Fumbles. Passes that forced the issue.

Teams were betting on impatience and cashing in the tickets.

But the payout was short-lived.

What they didn’t anticipate — or didn’t bother to consider — is that if you give Mahomes, Reid and the Chiefs enough practice, they just might figure out how to make perfect.

The Chiefs’ payoff

The Buccaneers caught the Chiefs by surprise last February. To a person, the Chiefs will insist they expected some form of the cover-2 scheme they saw and they should have been better prepared for it.

But a strategy that included such few blitzes (7) and such a dramatically deep shell (with the mixture of looks underneath) put them on their heels. They couldn’t be entirely sure what awaited that day.

But 11 months — and 17 games — later, the Chiefs have seen it. Seen a lot of it.

The element of surprise is gone.

That’s the larger point here. Despite encountering the most frustrating weeks of his career — heck, because he encountered the most frustrating weeks of his career — you could argue Mahomes is more prepared for this postseason than he was a year ago, when he won 14 of 15 starts.

The Chiefs have already played five of the other six teams in the AFC playoff field. They’ve played two of the top-seeded teams in the NFC, too. The opposition has telegraphed its strategy — and allowed Mahomes to play against it week after week.

What did they unleash?

“You want to be the best going into the playoffs, and I think offensively we’ve gotten better and better as the season has gone on,” Mahomes said. “We’ve played against a lot of different defenses, so we’ll be ready for anything coming ... into the playoffs.”

The proof is there if you look for it. While the Buccaneers received all of the credit for the shells, the Broncos (under recently-fired head coach Vic Fangio) ran plenty of it against Mahomes, and they did it quite well.

The first Broncos-Chiefs meeting this season arrived at the end of the Mahomes slump, and he completed only 15 of 29 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. His 57.3 quarterback rating stands as his season-worst.

Five weeks later, even with his top receiver limited, Mahomes completed 27 of 44 throws for 270 yards and two touchdowns (93.9 rating). Offered one fewer possession in the second meeting, the Chiefs still gained 123 more yards than they did in the first.

The mistakes are less frequent — most notably the drops and fumbles. But the approach is different, too. Mahomes said he’s less inclined to force a deep pass for the sake of throwing a ball he had become so accustomed to throwing. He’s never thrown to his running backs so often in his life, he estimated, a point backed up the statistics.

“Just making sure he’s taken what is given — I think he’s done a great job with that,” Bieniemy said. “I think if you just look at the back’s numbers as (far as) receptions, that’s shown you, hey, you know what, (Mahomes) is conscious of what’ taking place at the back end.”

It’s not flashy. It’s not as exciting. Not as memorable. And therefore not as discussed.

But it is effective.

The Chiefs still gain first downs at a rate better than anyone in football. Football Outsiders ranks their offense as the third best in the league — and both of those statistics include the midseason turbulence.

More obvious are the changes in Mahomes’ output. After six of the eight worst quarterback ratings of his career, he’s responded with these five weeks: 139.2, 105.8, 135.1, 113.9, 93.9.

And if you’re wondering, no, the defenses haven’t changed. He’s still seeing shells. Still watching safeties drop deep into their backfields as he calls for the snap.

He’s prepared for it.

Same as the Chiefs should be this postseason.

“I think the biggest area of growth is that I’ve just learned to be patient. I’ve learned to take what’s there — take the underneath stuff,” Mahomes said. “I have such an aggressive nature and want to push the ball down the field, but defenses have forced me to learn how to drive the length of the field, and I think we’ve done a great job of that as the season’s gone on. ...

“Finding that right balance, I think that’s been a big growth for me to learn to take what’s there but keep that aggressiveness.”