Perhaps the most compelling storyline of the upcoming conference championship games is the status of Patrick Mahomes’ right ankle. The Kansas City Chiefs’ superstar quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain in Saturday’s 27-20 divisional round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he has already vowed that he’ll play this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals on a no-matter-what basis.
The question then becomes, what kind of Mahomes will we see? Probably not the one who’s able to make ungodly plays outside the pocket, but it’s not as if Mahomes is overly reliant on second-reaction plays. This season, per Sports Info Solutions, no quarterback has thrown more touchdown passes from the pocket than Mahomes’ 34. Interestingly enough, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow ranks second with 32 touchdown passes from the pocket.
Mahomes has completed 391 of 552 passes (70.8%) from the pocket for 4,598 yards (8.3 yards per attempt), 1,953 air yards, those 34 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a passer rating of 109.6. Only San Francisco’s Brock Purdy (114.6) and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts (111.7) have better passer ratings from the pocket this season, so maybe there’s still something to being able to make big plays from the pocket.
So, that’s not a problem. Of course, as Mahomes said after the Jaguars game, there is the matter of planting on, and throwing from, an unstable base and an injured ankle. He’ll have a week to get actual treatment to prepare for that, but that’s where things could get interesting against a Bengals defense that has messed with his head consistently as few other defenses have through his NFL career.
“There were a couple throws here and there where I tried to plant off that foot and it didn’t let me plant like I usually do, and so, [there were] a couple throws I didn’t make. I told [head] Coach [Andy Reid] I want to still throw it downfield, and so we were able to make some throws there after the first few drives. I think he got a little confidence that I can protect myself. So credit to our defense holding us in that game, especially after the start of that second half when I wasn’t able to get stuff going. They held us in the game, made some big plays at the end, and we were able to score enough points to win.”
True, but Mahomes will now face that Bengals defense — the same one he’s struggled to beat time after time. How can he turn that frown upside down if he is indeed landlocked in the pocket?
Lower-body mechanics matter.
(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
This cross-body shot to Travis Kelce with 11:49 left in the game may have been one of those errant throws Mahomes was talking about. As he also said in his understated way, Mahomes has a pretty decent history of making off-platform throws in and out of the pocket. But it’s different when that’s the plan, as opposed to when you’re having to manage your mechanics around an injury.
This swing pass to Kadarius Toney out of motion right after the Kelce play may have been another example of Mahomes trying to adapt, and coming up short. He had to whip quickly to his right on this pass, which put extra weight and torque on his injured plant foot, which made the incompletion understandable.
Now that we’ve established that a quarterback might be negatively affected by a serious injury to his plant foot (this is the analysis you need, folks!), let’s do a more comprehensive review of how Mahomes has won without running this season — and let’s start with Kansas City’s Week 13 game against these very same Bengals.
Riding the tiger.
(Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports)
In that 27-24 loss to these very same Bengals, Mahomes completed just 16 of 27 passes for 223 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 98.2. From the pocket, he completed 14 of 24 passes for 196 yards, that touchdown, and a passer rating of 107.4. Not only was Mahomes more efficient when in the pocket, both of his explosive passing plays against the Bengals came from there.
There was this 42-yard shot against Cincinnati’s Cover-0 blitz on third-and-7 with 14:15 left in the third quarter. The Chiefs picked up this seven-man blast very well, which allowed Mahomes the time to let Valdes-Scantling run free though dropping defenders Vonn Bell and Eli Apple for one of his “Holy [Expletive]” throws.
Mahomes also had four deep incompletions from the pocket against the Bengals… not that they were all his fault.
But this incompletion to Kelce with 6:13 left in the first half was very much about defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo winning the numbers game and compressing the pocket — which the Bengals can do in a lot of different ways. Here, it was a 4-on-3 overload to the offensive right side, and let’s just say that the protection response was lacking.
Pocket movement will be the key for Mahomes.
(Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports)
Pocket movement will be key for both quarterbacks in this game, and Joe Burrow has already proven that he’s all about it. On Sunday in the divisional round, the Buffalo Bills suffered over and over from Burrow’s dominant ability to get free and make big plays in short spaces.
Back to the Jaguars game — here’s the injured Mahomes stepping up in the pocket to throw a timing touchdown pass to Valdes-Scantling with 7:13 left in the fourth quarter. That put the Chiefs up 27-17, and essentially decided the outcome.
If Mahomes can navigate the pocket thusly, and doesn’t default to air balloons and super-quick reductive passes against whatever manner of heck Anarumo and the Bengals throw at him this time around, the Chiefs have a chance to break this losing streak against this particular team.
If not? It could be a case of fourth verse, same as the first.