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Film review: Patrick Mahomes’ season ends with reemerging problems

The Chiefs’ star quarterback finished an up-and-down year at the lowest point possible.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Some have come to the conclusion that the only possible explanation for the Kansas City Chiefs’ second-half collapse at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship was that Kansas City threw the game — or that the result was otherwise rigged.

That accusation is obviously ridiculous — but the drastic difference between the first and second halves was so impossible to fathom, people were naturally trying to find an explanation. In the second half— compared to how he played in the first two quarters — quarterback Patrick Mahomes simply couldn’t have played any worse.

The downturn in performance actually started before halftime. The team had no timeouts to stop the clock for another play before time expired — and Mahomes inexplicably threw a pass short of the end zone. After the intermission, Mahomes and the offense never looked the same — and that contributed directly to ending the Chiefs’ season.

Failing to counter Bengals’ adjustments

In the last two quarters of the game, Cincinnati adjusted their defensive game plan to flood passing lanes with eight defenders in coverage — specifically on second downs, in which the Chiefs showed an unwillingness to run even when it was second-and-3 or second-and-4.

On this play from early in the third quarter, you can see how the extra coverage threw Mahomes off.

With eight players in coverage, Cincinnati is able to use two of them as robbers — meaning they are strategically positioned to help on a route they believe Mahomes will target. At the bottom of the screen, a quick out to wide receiver Byron Pringle is taken away — while over the middle, the other robber recognizes the threat of Tyreek Hill breaking across the field.

As Mahomes’ reads to the left are taken away, he looks right — where the defensive end dropping into the flat is occupying space in Mahomes’ line of vision towards tight end Travis Kelce on the out-breaking route. With every throwing window tightened up, Mahomes doesn’t feel good about any pass attempt.

Three drives into the second half, it’s safe to assume the Chiefs have noticed the Bengals’ strategy — and would be ready to counter it. Yet, this play on second-and-3 shows the Chiefs didn’t adjust.

On a run-pass option play, Mahomes forces the pass option — which is covered by the defensive end dropping into coverage. Even as the passing lane is completely clogged, Mahomes forces an attempt.

Uncomfortably operating the pocket

Mahomes never got used to dealing with the eight-man coverages — which the Bengals deployed more than they had in any other game this season.

It began to affect his confidence in the pocket. There were too many instances where Mahomes was acting like a sitting duck behind clean pass protection — moving and spinning everywhere to no avail. It also may have affected his accuracy.

There were multiple instances of missed throws — including some that were over the heads running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson — but this one was the oddest.

Whether Mahomes felt hurried or not, his unorthodox release on this play was not a move he typically brings out. Plus, the throw doesn’t need to be lobbed; Travis Kelce fronts his defender as if he was expecting a more direct throw.

Missed opportunities

For all the issues caused by the Bengals’ second-half adjustment, the Chiefs and Mahomes still had a chance to make it all go away with a game-winning drive to end the fourth quarter. They advanced to second-and-goal at the four-yard line with less than 90 seconds remaining.

On this play, wide receiver Mecole Hardman joins Hill on the same side — bunched together close to the offensive line. The press-coverage attention on Hill actually gives Hardman a step on his defender towards the left pylon.

It isn’t the easiest throw — the ball has to be thrown hard and to the outside — but Mahomes usually makes it in his sleep; the defender in coverage is trailing too far, focusing on keeping up with Hardman rather than being able to make a play on the pass.

In what could have been Mahomes’ game-winning moment, it was an uncharacteristically conservative play.

Then on third-and-goal, the Chiefs called one of their most commonly-used passing concepts: a high-low combination over the middle of the field that puts second-level defenders in a bind about which route to cover.

Here, the primary read should be Kelce. He breaks off his route at the goal line and passes by the underneath defender — who is a defensive end, static in no man’s land — to put himself in an absolutely-open spot in the end zone. Mahomes doesn’t pull the trigger.

The next read should be Pringle, who knows — once Cincinnati recovers and sticks to Kelce — that his throwing window has opened up; he literally jumps up and down in the middle of the end zone. Mahomes doesn’t see him — but once the scramble drill starts, he still has another chance at Pringle.

Whether or not he sees Pringle open at the front of the end zone is difficult to know — but the throw isn’t made. Eventually, Mahomes takes a sack — and in the process, nearly fumbles away the Chiefs’ chance to tie the game.

The bottom line

For a lot of the 2021 season, Mahomes was noticeably uncomfortable facing the soft-zone coverages teams were deploying against him; they were not allowing him many easy downfield passes. Down the stretch, he adjusted — but in the AFC Championship, the Bengals took it a step further. That caused the same lack of comfort in the pocket — and lack of confidence in his ability to throw into tight windows — to return.

It led to a season-ending half of football. It’s not all on Mahomes — the coaching staff deserves some heat as well — but at the end of regulation, the quarterback had a chance to overcome all of it by throwing a game-winning touchdown.

Instead, he came up short. In the NFL’s history — even for great quarterbacks — this isn’t uncommon. It’s just that with Mahomes, somehow it just didn’t feel possible.

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