KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The back of Patrick Mahomes’s right heel was 37 yards from the goal line. He was set to pass the ball, scanning the field for an open man, but he didn’t see any.
Freeze this frame. How do you think the play would end?
With Mahomes this kind of question is destined to be a brainteaser. Since the Kansas City Chiefs drafted him No. 10 overall in the 2017 NFL draft, and since he became the starting quarterback in Kansas City two years ago this month, all he’s done is change expected outcomes. The Chiefs hadn’t won a home playoff game in a quarter-century until he got here. The Chiefs hadn’t advanced to the Super Bowl in a half a century, until he got here. Andy Reid had only reached one Super Bowl as a head coach, until he—the 24-year-old phenom—got here.
This was Mahomes’s second year as a starter, his second AFC Conference Championship Game, and after a 35-24 win against the Titans, he’ll be playing in his first Super Bowl. That’s the macro. It’s possible because of the micro—like what happened when that frame unfroze.
“Magic Mahomes,” is what tight end Travis Kelce calls his QB, because of plays like this one. “Everybody knows he’s got an MVP arm,” says receiver Demarcus Robinson. “But he showed his MVP legs today.”
The power of Mahomes is so influential that once he became the Chiefs’ starter, punter Dustin Colquitt, who is also the holder for extra points, started storing the gloves he wears for PATs in his jersey at all times. He’d never done that in his 15-year career, but a Reid offense run by Mahomes can score in a split-second, and Colquitt couldn’t risk being caught without his equipment. Last week, Mahomes rallied Kansas City out of a 24-0 deficit in a single quarter. This week, when the Chiefs fell into a 10-0 hole against the Titans, they didn’t even need a fiery sideline speech by their young QB.
On Kansas City’s last possession of the first half, the team started at their own 14-yard line, trailing by three. Just get one first down, is what Reid tells his players—they got one, and then another, and then a third. Eighty-eight seconds later, they were at the Tennessee 27-yard line. On first down, under pressure, Mahomes threw it away. What came next was one of the most memorable plays of the season, of Mahomes’s short career, and maybe even the NFL 100 celebration that has lasted all season.
Second down was “a pass play, all the way,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski says—or at least, it was supposed to be. But as we said, Mahomes changes outcomes. He took a deep drop, 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. With no one open, Mahomes started side-stepping toward his left. Remember: at his farthest point, he was 37 yards from the goal line, with an obstacle course of Titans defenders in his way.
The first defender to miss was Derick Roberson, who dove at Mahomes’s feet, barely even affecting his gait. Defender No. 2, Rashaan Evans, cartwheeled past Mahomes, rolling onto the sideline. At first, Mahomes’s linemen thought he was going to just run out of bounds. Mahomes thought about it, too. But he saw too much open field ahead. Now back at the line of scrimmage, he darted up the sideline, as defender No. 3, DaQuan Jones, chugged behind him. Wisniewski ran upfield, too, “trying to help out if I could, but he didn’t need me.”
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At the 10-yard line, Mahomes cut inside. “I knew we had two timeouts, so I was like, I might as well cut it back,” he says. He switched the ball to his right arm and tried to use his other limb to stiff arm Defender No. 4, Tramaine Brock, Sr., who attempted to go for the swipe. “I almost got it,” Brock insisted. “I saw it almost come out.” But as he did that, Mahomes spun off defender No. 5, Amani Hooker, and fell across the goal line. “We are supposed to keep him in the pocket,” Brock lamented. “He got out of the pocket.”
Unfreeze that frame, and the result is a 27-yard rushing touchdown for Mahomes and a 21-17 lead. The Chiefs would never trail again en route to Super Bowl LIV. You could say it was unexpected, but with Mahomes, is anything?
“That just kind of encapsulates everything we know about him,” right tackle Mitchell Schwartz says. “When he puts his mind to something, he won’t be stopped. That’s Pat.”
One year ago, the Chiefs were stopped just short of reaching the Super Bowl by the NFL’s greatest dynasty. The Patriots got the ball first in overtime and scored a touchdown on their opening drive, never letting Mahomes even touch the ball. Afterwards Tom Brady sought out Mahomes in the Chiefs’ post-game locker room. “The biggest thing Tom said to me was to just stay with the process and keep being who I am,” Mahomes recalls.
That is what Mahomes would do, except he committed to being an even better version of himself. When he returned this past offseason to Fort Worth, Texas, resuming work with the same trainer he’s worked with since he was in fourth grade, Bobby Stroupe, he zeroed in on a different ending to this season than last. He was coming off a 5,000-yard MVP season, but was left with the bitter taste of the 37-31 season-ending loss in Arrowhead Stadium.
“The goal was never anything statistically,” Stroupe says. “The goal was the Super Bowl since the day he lost last year. The Super Bowl is all he wants; it’s all he cares about.”
In particular, Mahomes felt like he wasn’t in his best shape at the end of last season. He gained some weight and wasn’t able to use his miraculous creativity to get out of sticky situations as well as he’d like. Despite early-season injuries this year—an ankle sprain, and the dislocated kneecap that kept him out of two games—Mahomes was right where he wanted to be at the end of this season: lighter, better physically and mentally in his second year, able to make plays like that 27-yard TD run that bridge the narrow margin between stopping by the Super Bowl to pick up your NFL MVP award vs. competing in the game for your first ring.
“Having to watch the Super Bowl and not being in it was something I could barely even do,” Mahomes says. So, this year, Mahomes made sure that did not happen again. He changed that outcome for himself, for his coach, for this franchise.
About an hour after the game ended, Mahomes was sitting at his locker, pulling on red-and-leopard print sneakers onto the feet that had led his team to the Super Bowl just as much as his arm had. A few young fans, who’d entered the locker room with actor Paul Rudd, approached him. Mahomes offered to take a picture with each kid, not in the least bit acting like the superstar the rest of the world sees him as. Nor was he nearly as impressed by the performance for which these fans, and 73,000 more like them at Arrowhead, were offering him congratulations.
“I appreciate it,” Mahomes said, simply. “Got one more to get.”
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