If the game peaks at the end of the first half, can you have an instant classic?
In all three phases of the game, the Kansas City Chiefs did remarkable things to come back from being down 24 points in the second quarter of Sunday’s Divisional round contest against the Houston Texans. They went from trailing by three scores — which generated boos from the stands — to leading at halftime.
After that, they never looked back.
It was really two games: a miraculous 28-24 comeback in the first half, followed by a ho-hum 23-7 cover in the second.
In some ways, this game was a representative of the gap between Patrick Mahomes and the league’s other young quarterbacks. In a season where the storylines have been about Lamar Jackson’s MVP campaign and Deshaun Watson carrying his team to the playoffs, Mahomes has been playing excellent — albeit hobbled — football.
For most (if not all) of the season, the Chiefs haven’t been the front-runner. Early on, it was the New England Patriots; later the Baltimore Ravens took the lead. Until Fitzmagic happened, the Chiefs were going to be playing as a Wild Card team.
Throughout the season, injuries hampered Mahomes’ ability to do all of the things he’s uniquely capable of doing — so the 2018 NFL MVP was hiding in the shadows while people poured praise on other young quarterbacks.
Sunday was a dramatic reminder: Mahomes is the best quarterback in the league — and there’s a large gap between him and every young quarterback.
People forget Mahomes has fewer starts than Watson and has appeared in as many games as Jackson. Yet at this point in their young careers, there is no comparison between his accomplishments and theirs. Only Mahomes is still standing — and he will be playing in Arrowhead on Sunday afternoon with a chance to pull farther ahead of the other two.
One of the places Mahomes flexed his muscles was in the red zone — an area where the Chiefs have struggled this season.
I know @danorlovsky discussed Kelce's execution on the rub, but I also love that the Chiefs pair Patrick Mahomes' arm talent with what I've been taught as a bullet route out of the backfield. Get the running back upfield and let Mahomes put a ball on them quick with velocity. pic.twitter.com/FlUpW9e1Xq— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 14, 2020
The great ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky spent some time discussing Travis Kelce’s execution on this designed rub play on Twitter — but I love Mahomes’ execution as well.
As the season has continued, the Chiefs have been utilizing the kind of concept shown here more and more often. The running back makes a free release of the backfield. Instead of running a wide, looping swing route into the flat, he goes vertical — expecting a ball to be thrown to him quickly.
Mahomes is more capable of making these kinds of plays than others because of his athleticism; he can get the ball to the receiver quickly — and with accuracy.
Mahomes sees the traffic on the rub Kelce executes to help spring Williams, so he puts the ball on Williams’ back hip, throwing it well before his receiver has turned his head. Williams doesn’t even have to break stride, making the catch and walking free into the end zone.
This was an excellent play design that was well-executed across the board.
The red zone calls weren’t all working — but even when they broke down, Mahomes and Kelce ensured that the Chiefs still found success.
The Chiefs fixed their red zone woes in a big way in the divisional round. Everything is sped up in the red zone and Mahomes was excellent here. Navigated the pocket, stepped up and out to his right but was ready to throw. He made an athletic, well placed throw to Kelce. pic.twitter.com/nC1IEoMZiA— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 14, 2020
Here, it looks like the Chiefs were trying to set up another rub play for Williams — similar to what they ran against the Ravens on fourth-and-goal in 2018.
This time, the traffic didn’t help spring Williams — but Kelce was working across the formation to the field. Mahomes does a great job working from the pocket. He feels the front side pressure and steps up. Seeing space wide to the right, he starts working to the wide side of the field. He finds Kelce working with him to the right and quickly pulls the trigger, making an athletic throw that is intentionally low to protect the ball on the front line of the end zone.
Mahomes and Kelce connected again on a similar out of structure play — this time on third down.
The Chiefs solving their red zone issues largely came from players making plays out of structure and the players trusting each other. Mahomes and Kelce connect here, improvising a little after the rub play didn't work. Kelce sits, Mahomes sees it, throws low and in on the run. pic.twitter.com/rqo68jePnT— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 14, 2020
Now the Chiefs are trying to spring Kelce on a sprint rub play. The Texans, however, pass off the routes well, putting Mahomes in a position where he has to make something happen.
The ball is supposed to be out quickly as the tight end clears the traffic — but Mahomes is left running out of space near the sideline. Kelce sits down after finding a little space at the goal line. As Mahomes runs toward the sideline, he places a throw that is low and inside — which leads the tight end into enough open space that he’s able to finish the play, running into the end zone for another touchdown.
The trust and connection Mahomes and Kelce have on the field allowed them to work together to solve this problem.
The last time the Chiefs played the Titans, they were frequently either close to the red zone or in it; they attempted five field goals. If they want to keep playing after Sunday’s game, they’ll have to be much better when they’re in Tennessee territory. If they keep making plays like these, they will be.