In a very on-brand turn of events, the Kansas City Chiefs will enter the fourth quarter of the regular season without two of their best offensive players.
For completely different reasons, Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins will not be playing football in Kansas City during December. Watkins, at least, might return before the New Year. But in Hunt’s case, it’s almost certain he will never again don the red and gold.
The Chiefs — clinging to a one-game lead for the number one playoff seed in the AFC — now face the daunting task of playing the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers in a five-day stretch, with victories in both games critical to their placement in the playoffs.
Andy Reid has said many times how much he likes the fight in his team. Well, during the rest of the calendar year, we’re going to find out how real that fight is. And we’re going to learn a lot more about the leadership chops of Patrick Mahomes.
This week, we received new insight on this intangible in Terez Paylor’s report about Mahomes speaking to the team before the Oakland Raiders game on Sunday. Early returns are positive. But the opportunities to face adversity aren’t slowing down. Instead, they’re increasing. Now the Chiefs face a significant five-day stretch that will drastically affect the odds of a Super Bowl run.
Being without Sammy Watkins — someone who is capable of separating against man coverage — is a significant loss to the Chiefs. This will be especially true against Baltimore’s excellent pass defense this Sunday. Chris Conley has done an admirable job during the last few weeks, but he is not as capable of getting open as Watkins has been. Watkins’ absence was significant before the Hunt news came out. It is even more significant now.
The developmental plan for Mahomes was to surround him with as much offensive talent as possible, so the Chiefs could stress defenses and always have a favorable matchup for Mahomes to exploit — and to take pressure off Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. That luxury is gone. Without Watkins and Hunt, last week’s game against the Raiders was up and down; Mahomes dragged his team through the game when things were clearly off.
So the real test starts now.
Mahomes has been battle-tested in primetime... while short-handed... with poor defensive performances... and through adversity both on and off the field. Through it all, he’s somehow passed with flying colors. But now, the pressure starts to mount as teams jockey for the pole position in January, and the grind of the season starts to wear down the players.
Mahomes has to be the energy for this team — and he must do so in a week where nothing good has happened. It would be easy for his team to see who’s not on the field right now, but his job is to help them not to notice — and to get his team rally around him, and play with the kind of toughness Reid thinks they have. The return of Eric Berry could help, but until he runs out of that tunnel, Mahomes needs to elevate his play, keeping his team focused on making the AFC’s run to the Super Bowl come through Arrowhead Stadium.
It might be unrealistic to expect Mahomes to be able to continue to carry this team the way he has — but so far, everything about him has been unrealistic. For his team to reach the expectations they have set for themselves, he’s going to have to continue to clear the high bars no one expected him to even attempt just 12 games into his first season as a starter.
The home stretch — and the playoffs — are a different beast than what he’s seen so far. And he’ll have to face this challenge without the benefit of a safety net. If he succeeds, the floor and ceiling for his career will rise beyond our wildest expectations.