FOXBOROUGH — On the left side of the visitors’ locker room at Gillette Stadium were the stalls of mostly defensive players. Entering the room late on Sunday night, minutes after the Chiefs’ 43-40 loss to the Patriots, this side of the room was very quiet. But over on the far right, where the offensive players were changing and packing up their travel bags, there was a bit of a different vibe.
The defense had surrendered 500 yards of offense, given up a brief fourth-quarter lead and then let Tom Brady lead the Patriots to a game-winning field goal. The offense—well, they have Patrick Mahomes.
“It was nothing we didn’t already know,” said tight end Travis Kelce, nodding in the direction of their second-year quarterback.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that just 13 months ago Mahomes was in the very same corner of this locker room, but back then he was a rookie, a back-up, still an unknown commodity to most of the NFL. Today he had just gone toe-to-toe with the quarterback who has won five Super Bowls. No one on offense was excited they had just been dealt their first loss of the season, but there was a sense that this game could have gone a different way; a confidence that if—when—they have this opportunity again, this 23-year-old QB could beat the one he grew up watching.
The perfect illustration is the difference between the first and second halves. Mahomes came out a little overhyped—not nervous, his teammates made sure to note—for the primetime game against the defending AFC champions. On his first two drives, he missed three throws that could have gone for touchdowns: to Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Instead the Chiefs kicked two field goals, an ominous outcome here in New England. Mahomes threw two bad interceptions, too. One was deep in Chiefs territory on a play when Don’t’a Hightower faked blitzing and then dropped into coverage, leading immediately to a Sony Michel TD. The second was right before the half, in the end zone, a play on which Mahomes thought he could get the ball in high to Kelce despite the double coverage.
The Chiefs trailed, 24–9, at the half, but Mahomes didn’t let the place, the opponent or the situation overwhelm him. Since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002, quarterbacks age 25 and under had a record of 1–41 in regular-season games played here (the lone win was earned by Colin Kaepernick), according to a stat shared by NFL Network in the lead-up to Sunday night’s game. Mahomes would become the 42nd quarterback to lose, but only after turning that double-digit halftime deficit into a game of which team has the ball last against the greatest QB of all time.
“Yeah, I don’t think this is an intimidating place at all,” Kelce said. “I think it was just the excitement of it being Sunday night against a great team; I think he got excited. I don’t think it’s intimidating for him at all. I think he rises for the moment when it’s presented, and sure enough, I think he handled himself great.”
Perhaps the best part about watching Mahomes is imagining how high his ceiling can go. The Patriots threw confusing pressure packages at Mahomes, disguising who was coming and who was dropping, like Hightower did on his first-quarter interception. They flexed their personnel, using Hightower and Kyle Van Noy as DT/DE/LB and Patrick Chung as a S/CB/LB/EDGE. But Mahomes filed each new look into his memory bank, informing his decision-making on future plays.
“He’s a very quick study. He sees something the first time, and he recognizes it the next time,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. “They ran a lot of zero pressures where they were bringing one more than the protection can hold, and maybe we caught onto that, and so he was able to either drift away from pressure and get the ball out or go to a guy a little earlier than he would have otherwise. On those ones, especially, that’s where he’s really good.”
You could see Mahomes getting better in real time, from the first half to the second, making it a fun exercise to extrapolate what he’ll be like in January, and in his second season as a starter, and … Beyond his remarkable arm and exceptional ability to roll out of the pocket and throw darts across his body, he has the ideal make-up for a young quarterback, one for whom his mistakes are not fuel for self-doubt but rather an opportunity to learn.
“Early on I missed some throws, even when there was pressure, that we could have scored on,” Mahomes said. “I felt as the game went on, I kept making the reads and throwing the ball and I started connecting on the ones later.”
Out of halftime, he hit Hunt for a 67-yard touchdown, and that was followed by three TDs to Hill. The second of those three gave the Chiefs a three-point fourth-quarter lead, on a throw that looked like it could have been caught by either Hunt or Hill in the corner of the end zone. “A magician never reveals his tricks,” Mahomes said slyly in his post-game press conference. The third was a 75-yard throw to Hill on which Mahomes took advantage of the fact that the lone deep safety, Duron Harmon, was turned the wrong way. That tied the game at 40-all, with just 3:03 to play, but Brady used up the rest of the clock for the Patriots’ game-winning field goal drive.
“We ended up not coming out with the win,” Mahomes said, “but just that fight, it’s something you can carry on to the rest of the season.”
After the game, the 41-year-old sought out the 23-year-old for a post-game exchange of mutual respect. Brady congratulated him on a good game, Mahomes said, and “of course I did the same to him.” He added that he hopes to see one of his quarterbacking idols again this season.
After that thrilling game, we should all be so lucky. This was the primetime version of Tom vs. Time, the G.O.A.T. vs. the young gun—and Mahomes proved to be a worthy opponent. After the game, wearing a sharp blue suit at his post-game press conference, Mahomes said he believed that the Chiefs’ fight, and competitiveness, showed their “true team.” It also showed their true QB—even more than we had already seen the first five weeks of the season.
A few minutes later, after Mahomes had changed into his sweats and was heading out of the stadium toward the team buses, he encountered a line of people wearing Chiefs apparel and waiting near the tunnel to greet him. To each person, he introduced himself, repeating, “Hi, I’m Patrick” and extended his hand. When he got to the end of the line, he stopped and looked around, unsure where to go next. A team security member quickly pointed the way. If there was ever a silver lining to a loss, it was this: Mahomes is still young enough to feel like he has to introduce himself to fans and need directions out of the stadium, and he had also just gone toe-to-toe in a passer’s duel with Tom Brady.