This is probably the 100th time you’ve heard the statistic — but Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has only started one game without the company of tight end Travis Kelce in the lineup: Week 17 of his rookie season. On Sunday, he had to overcome that for the first time since, and he barely broke a sweat en route to the Chiefs’ 36-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kansas City didn’t punt until the third quarter, scoring on the first four possessions of the contest — then again on the starters’ last two drives before they were pulled. By early in the fourth quarter, Mahomes had totaled 258 passing yards on a 77% completion rate, totaling three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 135.1 passer rating.
It was one of his best games of the year by the numbers and the eye test. It was his second-highest passer rating of the season and only the third time he’s thrown three or more touchdowns without any turnovers.
Head coach Andy Reid didn’t overlook the greatness of Mahomes’ performance.
“This was one of his great games, and he only played two and a half quarters,” Reid emphasized to reporters in his post-game press conference. “The way he was seeing things, and handling himself out there against one of the best pass defenses in the NFL — my hat goes off to him; he never flinched. He went in, got work done during the week with the receivers that stepped in. We were confident that if we didn’t have Tyreek or Travis — either one of them — that we’d still be efficient.”
Not only did he miss Kelce, but he also wasn’t able to practice with wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who was taken off the Reserve/COVID list on Saturday. An entire week of preparation left Mahomes without the players he leans on the most, yet there were no signs of it impacting his play.
“In this league, you’re not going to have every one of your guys every single week — so guys have to step up,” Mahomes noted in his press conference following the win. “That’s why we’ve built the receiving room, the tight end room, the running back room the way we’ve built it... I’m just going to go through the reads, find the open guy — and we have a lot of good players on this team that are going to make plays happen.”
Mahomes had no qualms spreading around his attention: he targeted 10 different receivers, completing passes to nine of them — all of which came in the first half. No Chiefs player had over 75 receiving yards, and only one player had over three receptions.
That player was wide receiver Byron Pringle, who has cemented his position as the second wide receiver on the depth chart. To make up for Kelce missing, Pringle led the team in targets (seven), catches (six), receiving yards (75) and touchdowns (two).
Knowing he would be needed to step up, Pringle tried to take the heightened responsibility in stride — consciously removing pressure off himself before the game. He shared that with reporters in his post-game press conference while also explaining how he stays prepared to make plays seemingly whenever his number is called.
“I fish a lot — and you never know when the fish is going to bite the bait,” Pringle answered, via metaphor. “It teaches you patience. Just go in and grind, don’t look at who’s in front of you. as long as we come out with that win at the end of the game, that’s all that matters to me as a player and as a teammate.”
Patience is something that has been important to possess when talking about Mahomes and his growth with the young, new offensive line for the 2021 season. The pass protection has been up and down this year — sometimes at the fault of the linemen and sometimes at the fault of the over-ambitious quarterback.
But in a late-season game, the offensive line passed one of its toughest tests. The Steelers’ defense entered the week with the second-most sacks in the NFL, led by the NFL’s leader: edge defender T.J Watt.
Even though Mahomes was sacked twice, it was never an issue — especially on the early touchdown pass to Pringle.
Mahomes had an extraordinary amount of time to read the defense and find the open receiver, and he utilized all of it. He didn’t bail from the pocket and abandon the throw. He didn’t turn his back from downfield and try to scramble around.
He stayed tall in the pocket for as long as the protection allowed him to — which happened to be historically long.
Mahomes had 7.2 seconds to throw on his TD pass to Pringle, which is third longest on a TD pass in his career— Adam Teicher (@adamteicher) December 26, 2021
The relationship between the quarterback and his five-man protection is more important than it looks on the surface at times — and Sunday was a perfect example. The offensive tackles had some rough moments with the edge rush, but Mahomes’ ability to step up in the pocket without removing his eyes from downfield negated many of those rushes.
Coach Reid knows the significance of the continually-improving pass-blocking unit.
“They all know each other better; that’s so important for a quarterback,” Reid pointed out. “The subtle movements in the pocket... How are you going to move yourself and still be able to make a viable throw for a receiver to catch — and not hurry your feet or do any of that... He’s worked extremely hard on that, his relationship with those guys is unbelievable, [the offensive linemen] have worked extremely hard on that with their consistency.”
The rise in the pass protection’s performance was a key reason Mahomes was able to have one of his best games, despite not having what is likely his most dependable, relied-upon receiver in Kelce.
It was the latest in a string of games where Mahomes just got it done, pretty or not. This outing could be enough to catapult him back into the MVP conversation.