With each snap, the Chiefs’ raw vulnerability revealed itself. Hidden for the better part of three years, as this offense, its quarterback and its cadre of talented play-callers conjured points by the barrelful on even the sleepiest of afternoons, they were unprepared for what life would look like when their intimidating façade was stripped away.
By the end of the third quarter, their all-world quarterback Patrick Mahomes was limping. Having already run a marathon’s worth of backfield twists and pirouettes to fend off a relentless Buccaneers defensive line passing right through his clapboard tackles, there was nothing he could do with all his singular talent anymore. Nothing he could do to scare the Buccaneers’ defense back onto its heels. When the league’s best player is forced to make his throws while parallel to the ground, with a broken toe, as he’s being roped around his plant foot by a charging defensive tackle, he is no different than a faceless, replacement-level player. He has been neutralized.
This might be what the casual observer will point to as the Chiefs’ ultimate downfall on Sunday in a loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV; a 31–9 blowout that throttled more than its share of bettors and stunned those who had watched as the Chiefs spent the last few months assembling the foundation of a dynasty that many expected to torture the NFL for a decade to come. Mahomes never had time. He was constantly under duress. It’s true, there is little even the best offensive coordinators and coaches can do when there is merely a flapping saloon door between a pair of Pro Bowl edge rushers and your most critical asset. You cannot game plan for constant chaos. You cannot run the league’s most beautiful offense in the equivalent of a four-lane highway at rush hour.
The reality was that this game was lost long before Mahomes started limping. Before he started running for his life. The Chiefs began to unravel on the game’s biggest stage from the opening kickoff on Sunday, resulting in the kind of loss that, yes, bolstered the legacy of the game’s greatest player, Tom Brady. But it also forced us to question so much of what the rest of the NFL had feared about the Chiefs for so long. We’ve already seen some of the most brilliant schemes and players get dressed down in the Super Bowl, never to regain the full strength of their powers.
Are the Chiefs next, now that they’ve finally been subject to the kind of physical and mental drubbing reserved for the rest of the league’s middle and lower class? Or was Sunday simply a cosmic injection of negative energy that had eluded the franchise for so many wonderful weeks, appearing at the worst possible time?
You could see it after every missed catch and missed tackle, after every missed block and blown coverage assignment. Players were shaking their heads, venting, hollering or simply exhibiting the kind of body language one might expect from an offense routinely backed up to third-and-forever.
Super Bowl comeback fairy tales are often built around those moments when doubt and inevitable demise somehow get psychologically evaporated. Mahomes, Tyrann Mathieu, Andy Reid and Travis Kelce are the kind of people who could zap the direst circumstances by the weight of their big-game cool. We saw it in last year’s Super Bowl against the 49ers. We saw it in the 2020 divisional round game against the Texans, when they trailed by 24 points before roaring back from nothing. We saw it at various points during the 2020 season, when they were getting their best shot from each team in the league—Tampa Bay included—but managed to glide through unbothered, like some of the plays were being run in their sleep.
But on Sunday, it was hanging heads and unbuckled chinstraps. It was penalty after penalty, committed and enforced, 11 total for more than 100 yards. It was dejection. It was something so completely unfamiliar to the Chiefs.
“I think he got a little tired of hearing how unstoppable they were,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said, specifically of his defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, but it’s a sentiment likely applicable to many other DCs around the league as well.
On a second-and-four with a little more than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Mahomes evaded the rush again and sprinted toward the Buccaneers’ sideline as he bought time for a receiver to flash open downfield. As he passed the far hash, he began looking backward, anticipating rushers that had yet to arrive. He was looking not only at the dwindling vacant space in front of him, but two or three possible escape hatches he would need in the future just to get a throw off.
It was the perfect encapsulation of how bad things had gotten, that Mahomes couldn’t even throw the ball away in peace.
That drive ended with a Mahomes fastball that landed right in the hands of Buccaneers linebacker Devin White. Tampa Bay’s sideline erupted. Arians bear-hugged his offensive consultant, Tom Moore, and struggled to affix his glasses back onto his face. Brady threw up a pair of fists on the sideline. And Mahomes, like the rest of the Chiefs, trudged back to an unfamiliar reality, where everything is uncomfortably quiet—the start of a 2021 season when maybe the rest of the world won’t be as afraid of them anymore.