It is difficult to enhance a legend without adversity.
The Kansas City Chiefs had a dramatic build-up to their third straight AFC championship game at home when the status of Patrick Mahomes — the best player in the world — was shrouded in a little mystery. The quarterback was put through the concussion protocol during the week stemming from the Divisional round. The more concerning issue, however, was the turf toe he developed one quarter before he was taken out of the game.
Mahomes showed some early struggles last week after the injury but looked much more comfortable out of the halftime locker room before his night ended early. The reports on the severity of the toe injury varied, but the drama built all the way to kickoff. How was Mahomes going to look? Would he be able to do some of the things we’re so accustomed to in his game?
It might have just been a preview of what to expect 15 years from now when Mahomes is closer to 40 — a phenomenal player with just modest mobility.
If you want to keep adding to legend, you've got to keep adding adversity.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 25, 2021
We've never seen anything like this dude. pic.twitter.com/wofx6tg3Ym
For Mahomes to succeed against the Buffalo Bills, he was going to have to operate a little differently than he may have at full strength. His legs have been such a big asset for him in his playoff runs the last two years — notably his first AFC championship against the Titans. When plays would break down or the defense got Mahomes on a play, he would bail himself out with rare mobility and creativity out of the pocket.
For Mahomes to come out on top this year, he was going to have to play like an old veteran — showing his growth as a quarterback from year to year. Turf toe was going to limit his options to create, to resolve. In the most important game of this season to date, Mahomes did just that. It was a smart, surgical performance from the best player in the world.
He looked better than old veterans being forced to adjust their style due to age.
Mahomes wasn't as mobile but was still able to operate out of structure and utilize his arm talent. Great play going back across his body to put the Chiefs in an and goal situation. pic.twitter.com/1P4G4gOUUe— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 25, 2021
Mahomes wasn’t a complete statue in the pocket — but you could see some of the lingering issues. He still did a great job understand his limitations and working with what he could do. He wasn’t going to run around, but he was opportunistic moving out.
On this play, he did a great job stepping up against front-side pressure, rolling right and utilizing excellent arm talent to throw back into the field to an open Kelce. The Chiefs would punch it in shortly after, take the lead and never surrender it again.
Do you know what didn’t have turf toe? Mahomes’ arm.
Fighting through contact, dude on your arm, the vision, to see this through pressure and the arm talent to finish it. All on third down. pic.twitter.com/HaY4nBYsVO— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 25, 2021
The arm talent still shined in places throughout the game. Combined with some savvy plays to make people miss in the pocket — he still was plenty great enough to carry his team to victory. On this third-and-6, Mahomes pump-fakes the free rusher to buy himself a second to step up and through contact. With (the previously undefeated this season) linebacker Matt Milano hanging on him — Mahomes delivers a strike despite contact to his arm and being brought to the ground. That he was able to keep his eyes up, see the field cleanly and find his tight end in Travis Kelce on a key down was a significant play to extend a drive that would end in a touchdown to stretch their lead.
Mahomes put the experience from being his third AFC championship game in as many years on display in the second half. It’s easy to get sped up in a game of this magnitude — see Allen, Josh — but not for a guy who has been here in this situation.
The temptation to play above his head — beyond what the defense is giving you. Not Mahomes. He was willing to make the easy play up and down the field and was surgical in doing so. This thread of underneath throws was uber-productive and a thing of beauty.
Mahomes was surgical, decisive with the short passing game in the second half.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 25, 2021
Off and soft? Mahomes was content to give the Bills death by papercut. Doesn't hurt when Tyreek Hill is running after the catch.
Still, the patience to attack short was awesome to see. pic.twitter.com/Oplfa4Nbyw
For good measure, Mahomes closed the game out with an outstanding throw in the face of pressure on a beautifully-designed play in the red zone.
Mahomes sealed the game with a beautiful touch pass against pressure on a well designed play.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 25, 2021
Late leaking Kelce is wide open, Mahomes just has to hold on long enough against closing pressure. He does. And there was much rejoicing. pic.twitter.com/PeAKneSYLb
The Bills tried to bring a blitz, but Mahomes faded away long enough to let the late-leaking Kelce get across the field. He lofted the ball up with a lot of air underneath it to space — allowing the best tight end in football to gather it for the final score of the game for the AFC champions.
The bottom line
Mahomes was in command despite the injury.
He stayed within himself and was exceptional the entire day — beating pressure and getting the ball to his playmakers with outstanding consistency. Hopefully, we see a more mobile Mahomes in two weeks but regardless of if we do, the poised, veteran version of Mahomes we saw on Sunday is still the best quarterback in Tampa.
If he plays like he did Sunday, the Chiefs will complete the Run It Back tour on their own terms.