The first quarter of the NFL season has not offered much in the way of clarity. Almost half the league is shuffling quarterbacks in one form or another. The Los Angeles Rams had been the clear NFC favorite, and then they yielded 55 points to Tampa Bay. The Browns have already looked chic, overhyped and like a juggernaut. The AFC is one big muddle, with 13 of 16 teams sitting at 2-2 or worse.
But the season’s first four weeks have established one rock-solid certainty: Mahomes is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as MVP. He dragged the Chiefs to a 34-30 victory over the Lions in Detroit, spearheading a 79-yard touchdown drive that ended with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Even after a sloppy game against a previously unbeaten team, the Chiefs are 4-0.
Mahomes had played on a different plane for the season’s first three weeks, shredding defenses for 1,195 yards and 10 touchdowns without throwing an interception, even after losing top wide receiver Tyreek Hill to an injury in Week 1. After throwing 50 touchdown passes in his first season as a starter, Mahomes showed that he was still evolving, meshing his extraterrestrial throwing arm with an improved understanding of Coach Andy Reid’s offense.
Sunday in Detroit was different. Lions Coach Matt Patricia dropped defensive linemen into coverage, alternated rushing patterns and mixed up coverages. Mahomes completed seven of his first 14 passes for 90 yards. The Chiefs didn’t score a touchdown on their first two trips to the red zone, and at one point in the second half they fumbled on three consecutive possessions.
Mahomes still found a way to be Mahomes. He ran for 54 yards, taking advantage of gaps when the Lions played man coverage and double-teamed outside receivers. On the Chiefs’ final drive, the middle of the field opened on fourth and eight. Mahomes didn’t hesitate, and his dash up the middle kept the Chiefs alive.
The Chiefs survived in part because cornerback Bashaud Breeland scooped a fumble at the goal line and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, essentially a 14-point swing. Mahomes still delivered with the most clutch regular season drive of his career.
“Just finding whatever way to win the football game,” Mahomes said. “That’s how you roll in this league. It’s not always about the touchdowns and the yards — it’s about finding a way to win. If that was running for the first down, if that was handing the ball off when I have my running backs work for me, I mean, I’m going to do that. If you want to be great as a team, as a player, it’s how you win the game. So for me, I’m just going to go out there every single week and do whatever it takes to win.”
Patricia, the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator, could have given his old boss some clues about how to slow down Mahomes, the same way he shed light on stopping the Rams last year in a regular season meeting before the Patriots strangled Los Angeles in the Super Bowl.
In every conversation regarding the Chiefs, the Patriots immediately become relevant. Until they played each other in the AFC championship game last year, the Chiefs and Patriots had a combined record of 25-9. In the playoff round prior, they won by a combined score of 72-41. At halftime of those divisional-round games, they had built leads of 35-7 and 24-7.
The Patriots and Chiefs created a chasm between themselves and the AFC last year, and they have already done the same this season. The Ravens may be worthy challengers, but they have lost two consecutive games in which they have surrendered more than 500 yards. Week 4 is going to end with only the Patriots, Chiefs and Buffalo Bills better than 2-2 in the AFC.
The Chiefs and Patriots have only further separated themselves in the AFC. Their coaches are way ahead of everyone else. Their quarterbacks are unfair in their own ways. The next four months are likely to be about those two teams circling each other and determining where the rematch will be played. They play Dec. 8 at New England, and they will probably see each other in January, too.
The Patriots are ever on the Chiefs’ horizon, especially for Coach Andy Reid. He has done everything in the NFL except win the Super Bowl, and the reason has most often been the Patriots. The one time Reid made the Super Bowl, with the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2004 season, he lost to Belichick and the Patriots. In his six seasons in Kansas City, two of Reid’s teams have won a playoff game. Both of them lost the following week to Belichick and the Patriots.
But he has never had a force like Mahomes. It’s easy to forget that, at 24, Mahomes is still checking off boxes. He had, somewhat incredibly, never played in a dome before Sunday. The Lions entered unbeaten, and Mahomes has rarely beaten quality opponents: The Chiefs went 3-5 against playoff teams last season. He didn’t have his best game Sunday, but that didn’t prevent Mahomes from winning — or from showing what makes him the MVP.
>>> The best player flying under the radar: Tampa Bay pass rusher Shaquil Barrett. In the Buccaneers’ bonkers 55-40 victory over the Rams, Barrett recorded one sack, his league-leading ninth of the season. In the first four years of his career in Denver, Barrett recorded 14 sacks. Trapped behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb with the Broncos, he signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay for $5 million. Entering Week 4, Pro Football Focus graded Barrett the sixth-best edge rusher in the NFL.
>>> The Lions have a real chance in the NFC North. Their defense ranks among the NFL’s best, especially if you discount the fourth quarter of their Week 1 tie in Arizona. But their case comes down to quarterback play. Matthew Stafford is playing some of the best football of his excellent career, and the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings both have significant issues. Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky left Sunday’s 16-6 victory over the Vikings with a shoulder injury. Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins remains a disaster against winning teams — he has looked borderline unplayable in losses to the Packers and, on Sunday, the Bears.
>>> One play in the Sunday night game between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints showed, again, why replay is the worst. Referees ruled that Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott had fumbled after he plowed forward for a first down on fourth and one. The officials made that call because it covered their backside — if they were wrong, they could always overturn it. Replay showed Elliott’s elbow hitting the ground as the ball came out. He was probably down. But because the replay wasn’t incontrovertible, the call of fumble stood.
So, replay persuaded the refs to make the wrong call on the field, and then it proved insufficient to correct that wrong call. Is that what anybody wants?