The Kansas City Chiefs find themselves at home wondering what could have been a week after winning one of the greatest games we’ve ever witnessed. This one hurts, and it’s going to be a while before the sting subsides.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this — not at home, not against the Cincinnati Bengals, and certainly not after the good guys took a commanding 21-3 lead in the first half.
So, what happened? And how do they prevent it from taking place again?
That’s the task at hand this offseason for Andy Reid, Brett Veach and everyone else involved in the decision-making process at One Arrowhead Drive.
One thing we know to be true is the Chiefs have a clear identity.
This team will go as far as Patrick Mahomes can take it. That’s part of what has made this run so special over the past four years. This isn’t the New England Patriots with Tom Brady. It’s not the New York Giants with Eli Manning.
Mahomes’ Chiefs more closely resemble the New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees or the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning. This is his team, for better and for worse.
We watched the upside of such an identity last week when Bills fans realized 13 seconds was too much time to give Mahomes. “Mahomes Magic” is why the Chiefs have hosted four straight conference championships and why they’ll be the betting favorite next season to once again represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The downside is what we saw on Sunday when we watched Mahomes come up short in a big moment for the first time in his playoff career. The Chiefs didn’t have a changeup, and it came back to bite them.
It started at the end of the first half with the pass behind the line of scrimmage to Tyreek Hill. It continued in the second half when Mahomes threw a middle screen to Demarcus Robinson, which landed in the outstretched arms of Bengals defensive lineman B.J. Hill.
I don't think I'm ever going to understand what happened here. pic.twitter.com/t735ZMD9wq— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) January 31, 2022
It spiraled downhill from there.
ESPN’s QBR metric puts Mahomes’ strange game into context. “QBR” is short for “total quarterback rating,” a metric ESPN created to replace the standard “passer rating.” The metric is based on a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 representing a perfectly average performance.
Mahomes finished the first half with a QBR of 98. His QBR for the second half and overtime was 1.4. That accounts for the largest gap in a player’s QBR by half in the postseason since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2006.
(Note: To translate that to English, Mahomes just had the widest gap between first and second-half performance in a playoff game in at least 15 years)
What that stat doesn’t tell you is how or why Mahomes performed so poorly. For that, we have to go to the tape. I wish I could tell you it was one thing. It wasn’t.
Hill and Travis Kelce each had drops on back-to-back plays early in the third quarter. Mahomes threw an interception on a ball he should have thrown into the dirt, then he overthrew Clyde Edwards-Helaire on an easy swing pass early in the fourth quarter. If that wasn’t enough, he targeted Demarcus Robinson on the Chiefs’ first two plays of overtime. Both resulted in incompletions on what appeared to either be bad throws, a miscommunication on the routes or some combination of the two.
A half that bad will bring out some strong takes. Some suggest the Chiefs made a mistake by throwing as often as they did. I don’t share said sentiment.
Whether it was the responsibility of Reid or Bieniemy or Mahomes or Ed Podolak, the fact that McKinnon and CEH averaged 5.6 yards per carry (18-101) yet carried it just EIGHT TIMES in the second half with a double-digit lead is something the Chiefs should ponder in the offseason.— Kurtis Seaboldt (@KSeaboldt) January 31, 2022
The Chiefs ran 12 offensive plays in the second half with a lead. Five of those 12 plays were designed runs. The problem wasn’t their lack of running the ball; the problem was the lack of plays.
Third down suddenly became a nightmare for Mahomes. The Chiefs opened the game 4 for 4 on third down, with Mahomes accounting for two first downs and a touchdown. That flipped in the second half with the Chiefs starting 0 for 4 on third down with Mahomes throwing two incompletions and taking two sacks.
The Chiefs have a rocket ship quarterback who plays the position better than anyone I’ve ever seen. We saw what his peak looks like for the first 29 minutes of the AFC Championship Game. And then it all went to hell.
The Chiefs didn’t lose on Sunday because the refs called a lousy game or because Reid failed to call enough designed runs. They lost on Sunday because the passing game Kansas City built its team around short-circuited, and there wasn’t enough time for a hard reset.
This offseason presents the opportunity for such a reset. The Chiefs are going to go as far as Mahomes can take them, and it’s time to lean even further into that identity.
Fowler: Look for Chiefs to pursue OBJ in offseason https://t.co/5oQwCR4YSX— NBC Sports EDGE Football (@NBCSEdgeFB) January 28, 2022
That means upgrading at wide receiver from Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman. It might mean finding a better third-down running back who adds some juice to the passing game. It could require a shakeup on the coaching staff.
Last offseason was about keeping Mahomes upright. The Chiefs accomplished that goal. This offseason is about adding more reliable weapons and becoming less predictable in the passing game.
The Chiefs went as far as Mahomes could take them. This year, it just wasn’t enough.