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Patrick Mahomes made adjustments to burn the Saints

Mahomes’ Sunday stat line may not have been impressive, but his performance showed growth — and delivered a win.

Kansas City Chiefs v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs faced a tough, physical matchup against the New Orleans Saints in Sunday’s Week 15 game.

The Chiefs didn’t need to win this game in order to control their own destiny for the AFC’s first seed, while the Saints — coming off a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and needing to stay alive in the race for the NFC’s top seed — were desperate for one.

New Orleans head coach Sean Payton had reportedly designated the matchup as a “bat game,” hoping to ratchet up his team’s physicality and lay some hits on the Chiefs. Payton’s call to “bring the wood” was evident. Some of the hits Patrick Mahomes took were brutal — sometimes dirty.

In a game the Chiefs didn’t have to win, their toughness showed — and ultimately allowed them to close out a game against a team that some believed to be the NFC’s best.

And in this game, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was on it.

His stat line — 26 completions on 47 attempts for 254 yards and three touchdowns — was fine. But doesn’t tell the story of the kind of performance he had. In a game in which the Chiefs got the best shots (and a few extra) from one of the NFL’s best teams on their home turf, Mahomes was special; the Chiefs held a two-score lead for a large chunk of the contest.

Even better: as Mahomes builds toward another Super Bowl run, he’s still growing.

Breaking tendencies

This play looks like an example of the growth. Mahomes appears to have learned from taking a sack while trying to outrun a defensive end against the Miami Dolphins in Week 14.

Here — instead of getting more depth to try and get the edge on Cameron Jordan — Mahomes puts his foot in the ground and cuts inside of the defensive end, keeping his eyes downfield to find Sammy Watkins for a big play on third down.

This may look like a small thing, but it’s an indication of how bright Mahomes really is. He gets better every time he touches the field. It’s not just a mantra he uses with the media; for him, it’s a reality. In this game — perhaps in response to the previous one — he created opportunities differently than he normally does: by breaking his own tendencies.

As hard as it may be to believe, there are still areas in which Mahomes can grow and improve. He’s already the best player in the world — making difficult things look very easy — but there are still more aspects to his game that he can advance. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the NFL.

Almost great

There were a couple plays that could have made Mahomes’ stat line look better. There were some fantastic efforts that didn’t have positive results.

Mahomes is constantly hunting for the big play. He is uniquely capable of identifying open receivers anywhere on the field — and demonstrates the arm talent to get the ball to them.

We’ve already seen Mahomes challenge conventional quarterback wisdom by throwing back into the middle of the field. But on this snap, he’s throwing passes across both hash marks, trying to hit Sammy Watkins on the back side of the play. Watkins works back to the ball but misjudges the throw; it sails over his head.

Watkins should have caught the ball, but it’s hard to judge him too much; this isn’t the kind of play that happens all that often.

If Watkins’ play — and this nearly big play to Mecole Hardman — had converted, Mahomes’ would’ve had an even more impressive stat line.

This is another ridiculous throw that should be appreciated. The Saints are playing man coverage underneath, trying to stay on top of Tyreek Hill. With how the routes are distributed, this puts Hardman one-on-one with defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Mahomes gives his second-year receiver a chance by launching a laser of a throw 50 yards in the air to the field (wide) side of the corner route.

You can give some credit to Gardner-Johnson, but I also believe that play should have been made. It was another fantastic Mahomes throw — and an explosive play that just missed.

Classic creativity

Lately, the Chiefs have put a lot on Mahomes in the red zone. Against the Saints, he delivered — even in tight spaces.

In the red zone, the Chiefs have frequently moved Mahomes out of the pocket, allowing him to use his creativity to find solutions in tight quarters. Watching live, I questioned whether the throw was intended for Watkins or Hardman — but the more I have watched the play, the more I believe it was meant for Hardman.

The vast majority of quarterbacks would give up on this play well before Mahomes does — but he’s just built differently. Initially, he can’t find much of anything. But he continues to fall away toward the sideline, buying time to see if anyone comes uncovered. Under closing pressure, Mahomes throws a perfect ball to the back line of the end zone. Hardman rewards him — and the team — with a big touchdown.

It was a fantastic play in a congested area. In order to create something, Mahomes just doesn’t need much.

Not just talent

We remain in awe of the ways Mahomes is able to throw a football. But it’s not just from his natural talent. It also comes from the work he puts in.

In his preparation for the season, he practices a variety of deliveries. He trains himself to be ready at any given moment to throw a football to any spot — without using his lower body to generate the torque necessary to make a throw with the needed velocity.

The work manifests itself in situations like this play, where he’s able to make this dig to Watkins without a traditional base. When he feels the pressure closing, he has to adjust quickly to make the throw.

Mahomes is always prepared to throw the ball athletically. If he has space, he’ll make you pay. If he doesn’t, he’ll still figure it out. Sometimes Mahomes can make life hard on his offensive line — but on plays like this one, he helps them.

The bottom line

Mahomes’ performance on Sunday was reflective of the kind of leader he has become. It had everything. He showed growth in his decision making. He gave players chances all over the field. He made plays when his team needed them the most. And all of this was in a game the Chiefs didn’t need to win.

The Chiefs closed out their regular-season away schedule with a perfect 8-0 — some of those wins against very good teams. Every time he steps on the field, Mahomes is holding himself to a high standard — and won’t let his team waste a gameday opportunity to get better and build toward the ultimate prize.