It was still the first quarter.
Hill, superlative quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs scorched the field where the next Super Bowl will be played, holding off a vintage Tom Brady-led comeback for a 27-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An offense often described as explosive became downright volcanic as Mahomes threw for 359 yards in the first half alone, on his way to a 462 total. Hill had three touchdowns on scores of 75, 44 and 20 yards. The “Cheetah” ran and ran and ran, finishing with a whopping 269 receiving yards — good to tie for 15th all-time in a single game.
“I want to be the best receiver in the game,” Hill said afterward.
In one sense, he already is: Hill led the league in touchdowns as of Sunday night, with 13.
The Chiefs (10-1) looked like an NBA all-star team from the very first series, sending Hill in motion and having Mahomes loft a spiral at him as if it were an alley-oop. The quarterback quickly noticed that Hill was left alone in man coverage, and he made the home team pay dearly.
“We don’t get that a lot, especially with that guy and his ability,” Mahomes said. “When we do, we try to take advantage.”
On the Chiefs’ first drive of the game, another long pass to Hill brought Mahomes close to the goal line, where he himself went in motion and nearly caught a pass from tight end Travis Kelce. A simple draw play probably could have worked there — and the Chiefs would end up having to settle for a field goal — but when you have Mahomes, risk often brings its own reward.
“Me and Travis made it up,” he said of the play. “I talked him into it.”
The Bucs (7-5), on the other hand, scuffled like a used Mazda before revving up in the second half. Brady, who has struggled to unleash the long ball with his usual accuracy, fired several throws over the heads of his receivers. At one point an incomplete throw to Antonio Brown resulted in a stray boo wafting from the socially distanced crowd.
Yet Brady, 43, is never completely out of it. Before the end of the first half, he faked to running back Ronald Jones, who then jogged out into the flat and caught a pass before hurdling a safety, dashing upfield and into the end zone. It was a dose of dazzle for a talented offense that has seemed staid in spots this season.
The first half ended 20-7, but it felt like a wider margin. It often does when Mahomes is on the field.
The highlights only continued after the break, with Mahomes faking an option pass that easily unmoored two Bucs before the quarterback scooted 17 yards. Only a moment later, Mahomes zinged another 20-yard touchdown toss to Hill, giving him 261 yards on the day. By that point he had caught 12 of 13 targets from Mahomes.
It’s sometimes hard to recall that Hill wasn’t always a true wide receiver — at least the way he is now in a dynamic Andy Reid offense. In his first season, back in 2016, Hill rushed the ball 24 times. The following year, he had 17 rushing attempts and then 22 the season after that. Yes, his receptions ramped up rapidly, but it would take a Super Bowl play to change and cement his reputation on the field.
That was the famous “Wasp” play in the latter half of the Chiefs’ win over the 49ers. Hill ran a knife’s edge route, darting away from the San Francisco coverage, and he brought down a long Mahomes pass to jolt the momentum of the game. If it wasn’t clear before, by that point the whole league knew that Hill was too fast and too quick to handle in single coverage.
“It’s a tribute to him,” Reid said, “and the hard work he’s put in — becoming a better overall receiver. He was always good; he’s taken it to the next level.”
The only thing Hill can’t do is play defense, and there were several gaps in the Chiefs’ coverage that Brady exploited in the second half. He lofted an arcing 31-yard strike to Mike Evans that closed the lead to 10 in the fourth quarter. Then, after a messy, penalty-filled Chiefs drive, Brady found Evans again with a seven-yard touchdown with less than five minutes to go to close it to three. Things got interesting — and quite familiar for Brady followers.
But Mahomes, a former MVP who will be one of the favorites again this season, rarely seems addled. Much like Brady himself for so many years, Mahomes’s poise usually overrides his problems. And when he needed to run out the clock, he did — with a combination of precise throws and the occasional scramble that kept Brady from getting a final chance to give Tampa Bay the lead.
The Chiefs’ defending champion offense may be better than ever this year, with the addition of rushers Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell. But those guys weren’t crucial in this game as Mahomes and Hill turned a soft turf into a paved runway.
“It’s very frustrating,” Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians said, “because very few guys I’ve ever seen in this league — or any league — can backpedal eight, nine, 10, 11 yards in the pocket and throw a dime 25 yards down the field.”
Beyond that, it can be difficult to figure out a plan for Hill specifically. It’s not as if Mahomes’s other targets are slouches. “We tried to get a safety to him if we could,” Arians said. “You’ve got Kelce on the other side, too, so there’s a lot of weapons.”
It all can be exhausting. The Chiefs threw 50 passes Sunday in a game that started in 81-degree heat.
“Not that he wasn’t always tough, but it’s a long season and this kid runs miles,” Reid said. “He’s like a midfielder in soccer. That can wear on you.”
The Bucs need some recovery time as well heading into their bye week, yet there were some signs of late-season energy. They rallied from a deep hole, and Brady’s downfield issues evaporated as the game went on. That’s not a small consolation, especially considering there has been an undercurrent of worry here in Florida about whether Brady and Arians are meshing. Brady ended his news conference relatively quickly after this game but not before waving off any possible friction as “external noise.”
“Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August,” Arians said. “You don’t just throw guys out there with names; you’ve got to practice. You’ve got to learn to get in sync with each other. That takes time.”
The Bucs are in the thick of the NFC playoff race, holding the sixth seed if the season ended this week. But the goal for this season wasn’t just to make the postseason; it was to ride Brady deep into the playoffs.
“I think football is so much about being in that rhythm and staying in rhythm and finding your rhythm,” Brady said. “I think as we keep going forward, we are learning more and more about ourselves, about what we need to do. Going to get back to work and try and do a lot better of a job the last quarter of the season.”
Both teams have legitimate designs on a Florida Super Bowl — if the pandemic allows — but only one team is humming at this point.
“Once the sun went down,” Mahomes said, “it felt like I was back in Texas.”
He and Hill might very well be back here in February.