Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is really going to test the notion that first-year starters have to endure their fair share of frustration. It’s not that he’s not capable of struggling at some point. It’s just that we haven’t seen him actually experience that yet. At this stage, it’s worth wondering how long it will take before he eventually reveals something that might resemble growing pains.
The Chiefs catapulted a huge monkey off their backs in their 42-37 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, especially considering that Pittsburgh has dominated Kansas City during the six years Andy Reid has served as head coach. The Chiefs also proved that anybody who wants to tangle with them had better have plenty of firepower and a penchant for handling epic pressure. That’s the dilemma Mahomes already can create for an opposing team. Anybody who wants to hang with the Chiefs had better be ready for an all-out sprint.
Mahomes now has thrown 10 touchdown passes (something no quarterback in league history has ever done in the first two games of a season), including six against the Steelers (tied a franchise record). He hasn’t thrown an interception yet this year, while leading Kansas City to two huge road wins. It’s fair to say Mahomes isn’t the only reason for Kansas City’s early success, but as Chiefs tight end Travis Kelcesaid, “I see Pat doing this all season long. He’s got the confidence and as long as we give him time and get open as wideouts, tight ends and running backs, he’s going to get the best of everyone.”
There was a time not too long ago when such comments sounded like the predictable hyperbole that tends to accompany young quarterbacks tasked with being franchise saviors. There isn’t a promising signal-caller in the league who hasn’t inspired some type of breathlessness with their potential. The thing about Mahomes — who spent last year sitting behind Alex Smith after being the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft — is that his success is coming at breakneck speed. It feels more like the Chiefs are unleashing him on the league than simply finding a way to acclimate him to life as a professional quarterback.
The Steelers had won six of the last seven games played against the Chiefs. Pittsburgh pummeled Kansas City the last time these teams met at Heinz Field, winning by a score of 43-14 during the 2016 season. None of that history mattered once the first quarter ended in this latest contest. By that point, Mahomes had three touchdown passes and the Chiefs were boasting a 21-0 lead.
Pittsburgh ultimately rallied to tie the game at 21 at halftime, and the Steelers made plenty of their own plays against a Chiefs defense that allowed 475 total yards and 33 first downs. However, what became obvious the longer this game went on was that the Chiefs’ offense couldn’t be contained and the Steelerssimply couldn’t keep up. That had everything to do with the man under center.
“He’s exactly what we saw on film,” Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic said. “He’s a guy who can do a lot.”
“They can’t stop everybody,” said Mahomes, who completed 23 of 28 passes for 326 yards. “So for me it’s just about getting it to the guy who has man-to-man coverage or who has the open area. Those guys were getting open today. The offensive line was blocking great and it was making my job a lot easier.”
Anybody who follows the NFL understood the Chiefs were going to be difficult to defend this season. They ranked fifth in the league in total offense and sixth in scoring last year. Along with returning dynamic playmakers like tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and running back Kareem Hunt, they also added speedy receiver Sammy Watkins in free agency. This was a team built for shootouts from the minute the Chiefs traded Smith in March and gave the job to Mahomes.
Mahomes’ rapid ascent is so critical because it gives Kansas City a legitimate chance to win the AFC West for the third consecutive year. Even with a flawed defense — a unit that now has allowed 1,016 yards and 65 points through two games — the Chiefs will never be out of any game. Their success so far has come largely from their ability to start fast. Their game plan literally feels like what you would see happen if you gave Usain Bolt a head start.
The Chiefs scored on their first three possessions on Sunday. The game would’ve been over in the first quarter if a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Orlando Scandrick hadn’t nullified a five-yard fumble return for a touchdown by defensive end Chris Jones, which would’ve made the score 28-0 at the time. Yes, the Steelers came back and they did have their chances. What they couldn’t do was keep pace with Kansas City when the game mattered most.
Mahomes worked the ball down the seams to Kelce (seven receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns). Mahomes also found an early rhythm with Watkins (six receptions for 100 yards) and then connected with Hill (five receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown) in the second half. The only glaring mistake Mahomes made came late in the game, when he dropped the snap and recovered the ball before running precious seconds of the clock. That also speaks to the kind of start Mahomes has enjoyed: Even his errors aren’t resulting in painful consequences.
“You never expect to have 10 touchdowns at this point in the season,” said Mahomes, who will enjoy his 23rd birthday on Monday. “But I knew with this offense and the weapons that we have — and the scheme coach Reid can draw up — that we had a chance to be really, really good. We can come out every week and score points. It’s all about me getting the ball into the playmakers’ hands.”
Mahomes is smart enough to already know what comes with all the plays he’s made thus far. He’s going to see more challenges, more creativity by opposing defenses, more teams eager to punish him every time he drops back. Mahomes also can look at other young quarterbacks around the league to see how easily good times can fade away. Dak Prescott, Derek Carr or Deshaun Watson could tell him a few stories about how quickly he could go from being beloved to being berated.
Reid continually has reminded people that the biggest test for Mahomes will be how he deals with his own adversity.
“The key to this thing is that you keep growing,” Reid said. “The more that these defensive coordinators have to study it, you have to keep answering that bell. So that’s his challenge. Is everything going to be roses? No. But he’s seeing things and doing a nice job.”
That really is all that matters for the Chiefs at the moment. They knew the first six games of their season would be a wicked gauntlet that included matchups with the Chargers, Steelers, Jaguars and Patriots. The consensus was that the Chiefs would be in good shape if they managed to come through that stretch with a 3-3 record. Now it’s worth wondering if they could take all six.
That is what happens when a blossoming star begins to hit his stride. Yes, it’s early, and there are ample issues the Chiefs might face with their woeful defense. Those also are questions that can be discussed at a later date. At this stage, the only thing truly worth asking in Kansas City is what Patrick Mahomes is about to do next.
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