FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Patrick Mahomes walked briskly through the Gillette Stadium tunnel late Sunday night, the elated roar of over 66,000 fans trailing him like a harsh winter wind.
Mahomes’ latest, greatest test had just ended, and those red-and-blue-clad New England Patriots fans were cheering his team’s failure after a thrilling 43-40 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs in front of a nationally televised prime-time audience. But what those same cheering fans did not know — what they could not see, since he was already out of their view on the way to the locker room — was how much this young gunslinger had enjoyed the previous three hours, how much he was yearning to return to this place and conquer it.
Although the Chiefs fell to 5-1 with the loss — which kept the Patriots (4-2) in the mix to win the AFC’s top seed for the third straight season — Kansas City’s 23-year-old quarterback’s chin was up, so much so that as he bolted to the locker room, he paused for a second to acknowledge an observer with a grin and a head nod before hustling to the front of his teammates so he could be one of the first to the enter the locker room.
This was no ordinary game for Mahomes, the consensus quarter-season MVP whose swashbuckling style of play has drawn comparisons — from crusty, hardened football men, no less — to Brett Favre. Not only was this his first taste of “Sunday Night Football,” it was also his first chance to square off against true greatness, both in the form of a counterpart (Tom Brady) and a defensive mastermind who also happens to be the greatest head coach of his era (Bill Belichick).
“Oh, you learn a ton,” Mahomes said after the game. “I’m just proud of my team and how we fought to get back in the game.”
Especially after the way they started. To keep the previously undefeated Chiefs from running away with the conference — and earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — this was a game the Patriots needed to win. As such, Belichick, who is famous for scouring the edges of the earth for tactical advantages, dialed up some defensive looks Mahomes struggled with in the first half, with one resulting in an interception that led to the Patriots’ first touchdown.
With the Chiefs facing a first-and-10 at their 23-yard line, linebacker Dont’a Hightower laid in the weeds at the line of scrimmage, acting like he bit on a run fake before poking out and jumping Mahomes’ hot read over the middle, which he snagged and sprinted to the 4-yard line.
“I just didn’t see him,” Mahomes said.
Mahomes’ second interception, which came in the red zone just before halftime, was the result of the QB trying to do too much, as he slipped away from pressure and threw to tight end Travis Kelce in triple coverage, only to have safety Duron Harmon intercept the tip.
“Just got a little too greedy,” Mahomes explained. “I thought I could throw it a little higher and Kelce could go get it and I kind of got hit as I threw and just left it short.”
The pick sent the Patriots, who were ahead 24-9 at the time, into the locker room with all the momentum in the world. At that point, Mahomes had missed several open receivers under fire, completing 14 of 23 passes for 164 yards and two interceptions. His quarterback rating was a paltry 46.3, compared to Brady’s 116.8.
According to teammates, many were struck by how quickly Mahomes had moved on from his rough first half, and how excited he seemed to get back out there and start slinging it again as he spoke to the team before they returned to the field.
“He was live,” defensive end Allen Bailey said with a chuckle. “You could feel the confidence and energy coming from him. There wasn’t any concern at all. That’s how he always is, and that confidence spreads like wildfire on both sides of the ball. Anytime a quarterback does that … we’re ready to freaking ride or die.”
The NFL is a performance league, so all that fired-up emotion means nothing if a player doesn’t get his job done. Mahomes, the son of a former professional baseball player, knows that, so on the Chiefs’ third play from scrimmage, he launched a 67-yard missile — on the move — to running back Kareem Hunt for a touchdown that got the Chiefs back in the mix.
While Mahomes was on the way to an outing where he completed 23 of 36 passes for 352 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, the incomparable Brady — who finished 24-of-35 for 340 yards and a touchdown — was also rolling. And on a night when neither defense gained much footing, unfortunately for Mahomes, it was the 41-year-old future Hall of Famer who had the ball last, which made all the difference. Mahomes’ 75-yard strike to receiver Tyreek Hill knotted the score at 40 with three minutes left, but the Chiefs never saw the ball again, as Brady completed two clutch passes on a six-play, 65-yard drive that was capped by a 28-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal as time expired.
The Chiefs’ players weren’t angry or outwardly frustrated after the defeat. Defiantly confident would be a good way to describe it, actually. The way their young quarterback had responded in front of an entire nation strengthened their belief in him and their sense that they’re destined to face the Patriots in the playoffs.
“We’ll see these cats again,” Bailey said afterward, with a confident chuckle.
Mahomes’ teammates weren’t the only ones impressed. A few hundred feet away, a few members of the defending AFC champions sat at their lockers, explaining that, stakes aside, they’d just played in a game that in terms of pace and excitement wasn’t all that different from their Super Bowl thriller against the Philadelphia Eagles this past February.
“I’ll tell you the truth, man: We knew coming into the game it would be a playoff-like atmosphere,” Harmon told Yahoo Sports. “Two good teams battling it out, “Sunday Night Football,” everybody watching. We knew what it was gonna be, and it lived up to the hype.”
“There was one combined punt, just like the Super Bowl,” special teams star Matthew Slater told Yahoo Sports. “Against a team like that, that’s been rolling so well, to be able to win like that is encouraging.”
In the week leading up to the showdown, the Patriots’ coaches had the whole team watch clips of the Chiefs, and Slater said many of his teammates made audible gasps of appreciation at some of Mahomes’ throws.
“We watch the film as a team, and his arm strength is elite — it really is,” Slater said. “We saw him throw a ball like 70 yards in the air against Atlanta and hit Tyreek on a deep route. I mean, you don’t see that every day. The guy is remarkable.”
That’s why the Patriots’ secondary wasn’t surprised by the way Mahomes responded to his first-half struggles Sunday.
“Some people can throw far, but he can throw far and his accuracy is great,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “We saw it on film.”
“Oh no, man, we knew,” Harmon said with a chuckle. “That guy’s the real deal, man. You see it on film each and every week, man … we proved it again tonight. They’ve got a heck of a quarterback over there.”
And here’s the thing: Mahomes knows it. He believes in himself and his arm, so much so that he doesn’t really get down on himself when he has a bad half, as he did Sunday. It’s a gift that not only allows him to keep tossing the rock, guilt-free, but also makes him look forward to challenges … like facing the Patriots again in January, for instance.
Only this time, he’ll be armed with the knowledge that he stared down greatness before an entire nation, absorbed a punch and nearly prevailed in spite of it.
“We ended up not coming out with the win,” Mahomes said. “But just that fight, it’s something you can carry onto the rest of the season.”
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