Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has never led a campaign in which the Chiefs didn’t end as division champions — a tremendous feat in itself — but given the adversity endured, I find the 2021 edition particularly impressive. 2018, 2019 and 2020 appeared to come easy to the 26-year-old phenom, whereas there were times during 2021 in which he seemed like he had lost himself.
Sunday’s performance against the Steelers was a rather clear indication he had found himself again. Coming off of a tremendous Thursday Night Football fourth quarter and overtime period — one that ended with a walk-off touchdown by Travis Kelce, who had 190 yards, Mahomes learned this week that he would not have Kelce due to the COVID-19 protocol.
The Chiefs received fortunate news toward the end of the week they would at least have wide receiver Tyreek Hill, meaning two of the three members of one of the league’s top offensive trios would be able to play in the potential division-clinching game. But in Kelce’s absence, it wasn’t Hill who shined. Instead, it was wide receiver Byron Pringle, who caught six passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns — including a slippery 16-yard score that put the Chiefs ahead 30-0. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman had an extra-effort touchdown on an 8-yard pass, and Darrel Williams and Derrick Gore picked up for Clyde Edwards-Helaire when he left the game due to a collarbone injury.
At that point, only one “logical” conclusion could be drawn.
The only logical conclusion we can make is that @tkelce has been holding this offense back. I’d try to get a conditional 6th or 7th round pick for him this offseason and build around @B_Bell10 and Noah Gray— Mitchell Schwartz (@MitchSchwartz71) December 26, 2021
The ex-Chiefs right tackle was obviously kidding — but inside the humor lies the fact that the Chiefs aren’t an offense of three, but one of many. Pringle shined, yes — but so did running back Derrick Gore. The offensive line looked the best it has all season, and it was easy to see how much confidence Mahomes gained from the added sense of protection.
The backyard ball that makes the quarterback extraordinary made its return to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday — and with the defense continuing its dominance of whatever test is in front of them, that is a very dangerous proposition for the rest of the NFL.
The Chiefs missed Willie Gay Jr., Chris Jones and L’Jarius Sneed in their win against the Los Angeles Chargers last Thursday, and their return to the field on Sunday gave the unit juice that was palpable from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. The starting front four for the Chiefs is relentless, and when the opponent is made up of a poor offensive line and an immobile quarterback, it’s going to have no chance. Ben Roethlisberger was never comfortable and Najee Harris could never really get going.
Steve Spagnuolo loves to rotate the members of his defensive line, and they pride themselves on there being no dropoff from Unit A to Unit B. No matter who the Chiefs ran along the line, the Steelers' offense was nonfunctional. Even when Pittsburgh tried to find a spark by using the screen game, the Chiefs defenders on the second and third level made sure to curb any glimmer of hope. Turk Wharton and Jarran Reed put the icing on the cake when they forced and recovered a Roethlisberger fumble to seal the game.
Sneed was excellent in the open field, and cornerback Charvarius Ward looked like a wide receiver in his first-quarter interception. Even having to play a punter and kicker off the street, the Chiefs survived — simply because of how complete (and deep) a team they have become.
Because of the way the AFC shook out on Sunday, the Chiefs can clinch the conference bye as early as next week, should they take care of business in Cincinnatti and Miami finds a way to beat Tennessee.
The 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons seemed to come easy to Mahomes and Kansas City. This one didn’t — and that makes it sweeter. And regardless of the road, the Chiefs are right back where they have been at this time during the last two seasons, years that ended with a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs are the best team in the conference — the one nobody wants to see.