The little shreds of paper kept floating down prematurely, as if the confetti operator was too impatient to wait after all this time. Arrowhead Stadium was a huge undulating dash of color in the otherwise dun-colored tundra, the field frozen hard by a 5-degree wind chill. But the 24-year-old Mahomes kept animating it and heating the crowd into a frenzied boil with his escapades, until the beat of applause from their glove-padded hands and their bellowing roar of satisfaction was constant. He stood in the middle of it all with his arms upraised in triumph after a 35-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans, and the paper flooded down, and he was carried away in a tide of lights and cameras.
Again, Mahomes had brought the Chiefs from behind. Again, he was not only their leader but their leading everything — throwing for three touchdowns and running for another, that extraordinary 27-yard jaunt just before halftime that galvanized them after they had trailed by 10 points. Again, he was their vengeful soul.
"You could see the entire team looking to him when times were darkest," team owner Clark Hunt said.
Other players mattered hugely, of course. The Honey Badger, safety Tyrann Mathieu, who never stopped jump-jacking all over the field. Wide receivers Tyreek Hill, so fast he almost flickered, and Sammy Watkins, who exploded for seven catches for 114 yards, including that arching 60-yard score from Mahomes. Damien Williams, who gave the Chiefs a power running game of their own. A gang-tackling collective defense that shut down the Titans' monster running back, Derrick Henry. "It takes an army," pointed out Coach Andy Reid, the long-seeking savant who is in the postseason for the 15th time as a head coach but who reached just his second Super Bowl.
But none mattered more than Mahomes, whose spirit imbues the entire organization. Understand this about Mahomes's will to win and hatred of losing: In the two years he has been the Chiefs' starter, the team has never lost a game by more than seven points. That includes a year ago in the AFC championship game, when their 37-31 overtime defeat to the New England Patriots left them "bitter," as Reid put it. Mahomes had nearly choked on it and sworn he wouldn't let it happen again.
"To watch the Super Bowl and not be in it, that was something I could barely do," Mahomes said Sunday night, and you could hear how much it still bothered him.
If the Chiefs are an outfit that, as Reid says, "gives you four quarters of honest football on every single snap," it's largely thanks to the habits of Mahomes, who merely fought through a dislocated kneecap. Credit Reid for detecting Mahomes's internal drive and making him a first-round draft pick coming out of Texas Tech three years ago. "I was going to do whatever it took to win games," Mahomes said. Credit Reid even more for bringing this unconventional, winning-ravenous kid along so brilliantly and so patiently, literally sitting next to him on the bench between every possession for the past two years and talking him through it all like a kindly Little League coach.
Reid says of Mahomes, "He sees the whole picture." If so, it's thanks to his coach. Through the lens of Mahomes, it's finally becoming apparent to laymen and outsiders just why Reid is so respected by his coaching peers and beloved by players: He is simply one of the finest teachers in the history of the game. "I've been accepted to go out and be who I am," Mahomes said.
Who is he? For one thing, he is a mentalist who can see victory where others can't. This time it was a more modest 10-point deficit, as opposed to the 24-point hole he rallied the Chiefs from against the Houston Texans in the divisional round. Still, with a ball-controlling mauler like Henry allowing the Titans to mount drives such as the one that took up nine minutes of the first quarter, that could have been a deadly deficit. The Chiefs still trailed 17-7 with 6:39 left in the first half. But Mahomes turned it all into just a throat clearing.
"We don't care if we're down 10-0 or up 10-0," he said.
What a jolt Mahomes was to his team, how he vitalized it with those two straight touchdowns before halftime. First there was that absolute lightning bolt to Hill — who wasn't even open when Mahomes reared back and threw it; Hill came free just at the last step as the ball arrived. As retired defensive back Domonique Foxworth remarked on Twitter, it was as if Mahomes's passes "were catching receivers, not the other way around."
And then with 11 seconds left in the first half came the 27-yard run, the one that, some day when he is a Hall of Famer, will be in the highlight package. It all started when Mahomes dropped back and darted left to avoid pressure. He scrambled for the sideline — and then turned sharply, leaving linebacker Derick Roberson to dive vainly at his feet. He made the decision that turned the entire game. "I saw how much space was there and realized I could cut it up," he said.
As Reid said, it was one thing to read the defense. It was quite another to turn his eyes and body upfield and see a route to the end zone from that distance.
"For him to be able to see that in the heat of it is something," Reid said.
Mahomes shook off linebacker Rashaan Evans, skipped along the sidelines just a few inches in bounds, dashed inside, spun out of the grip of cornerback Tramaine Brock at the 5 and then powered his way into the end zone with lineman DaQuan Jones diving at his heels. He stood up and flexed his muscles, popping his fists to his biceps. As well he should have. The Chiefs would never be behind again.
"To see him slither and slide and run a guy over," Watkins said, "I mean, that guy's amazing. He's been leading this team all year."
And then Watkins added a final thought that the entire stadium agreed with.
"That's a guy you need on your team to win games and be in this position right now." In the Super Bowl.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.