The Patrick Mahomes Show rolls into the stuffy old NFL playoffs Saturday. With his flashy and prolific breakout performance, Mahomes had the greatest influence on making the NFL fun again this season. The postseason doesn’t always do fun, however. It wears business formal attire.
Will Mahomes be dazzling in this environment? There’s no doubt he is capable, and for maximum entertainment, the NFL needs him to keep turning the game into his highlight haven. But as electrifying as Mahomes is, this stage has a history of presenting difficulty for teams led by mega-productive quarterbacks. Combine that with the Kansas City Chiefs’ 1-11 record in their past 12 postseason games, and there is reason to worry about the Super Bowl hopes of the AFC’s best team.
Quite frankly, it would stink if Kansas City doesn’t hang around for multiple playoff games, at the very least. The Chiefs’ offense is something to behold. And Mahomes just out-Marino-ed the 1984 version of Dan Marino and set a new standard for quarterback proficiency at age 23. He threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns. He joined Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the only members of the 50-TD club. In addition, Mahomes elevated the offensive genius of Coach Andy Reid and enhanced the profile of a former mentor, Kliff Kingsbury, so much that an NFL team hired Kingsbury — as a head coach — just weeks after he was fired for being a losing college coach.
Nonetheless, the NFL playoffs can be a harsh experience for teams so dependent on a dynamic quarterback. During the 2018 regular season, Mahomes and Ben Roethlisberger (who led the league with 5,129 passing yards) surpassed 5,000 yards. There are now 11 instances in which a quarterback has reached this mark. Members of that elite group have combined for zero championships in those seasons. They have a mediocre 8-6 playoff record. Three of them — Manning in 2013, Brady in 2011 and Marino in 1984 — lost in the Super Bowl. There are actually more instances in which the 5,000-yard quarterback failed to reach the playoffs. That has happened four times, three of which belong to Drew Brees.
In general, a 5,000-yard quarterback signifies a level of imbalance difficult to overcome in a game that requires contributions from so many players. Their postseason history is irrefutable proof of the limitations of a single star in football, no matter his level of greatness.
The Chiefs have plenty of top-end talent, including tight end Travis Kelce and speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill. They were a playoff team before Mahomes took over for Alex Smith, who was traded to Washington last offseason. Six Chiefs made the Pro Bowl this season. They had a league-best four players on the all-pro team, which is the most prestigious honor. But of all those individual accolades, linebacker Dee Ford was the only defensive player to make the cut.
Kansas City allowed 405.5 yards per game this season, making the Chiefs the second-worst defense in the NFL. They allowed 26.3 points per game, which ranked in the bottom third of the league. Some of their awful defensive stats are the result of their fast-paced offensive style and the fact that some of their games turn into low-intensity scrimmages because they are nursing big leads. But there’s ample evidence that they are as bad as those numbers suggest.
It’s a dangerous proposition to go into playoff games needing to win 35-30. And the team doesn’t have star running back Kareem Hunt anymore to play more of a ball-control style at times. If the defense doesn’t play at a higher level starting against Indianapolis on Saturday, if the Kansas City running game is a non-factor, the Chiefs will put a lot on Mahomes’s shoulders.
He won’t have a problem being productive. He’s going to throw his touchdown passes, and he’s going to make plays that make your eyes eject from their sockets. But in the postseason, turnovers tend to happen more frequently for pass-heavy teams.
Mahomes’s inexperience will manifest itself in some way. Kansas City hopes it will be subtle. If he throws a couple of interceptions, the atmosphere at Arrowhead Stadium could become tense.
Yet the young quarterback is unbowed. In his first year as an NFL starter, he had one of the greatest seasons in history. Kansas City hasn’t won a home playoff game since Jan. 8, 1994. Mahomes wasn’t born until Sept. 17, 1995. But it’s not like he has been desperate to win a game like this for his entire life. This is his first crack at it. And unlike the limited, journeyman quarterbacks who have failed in Kansas City over the past quarter-century, he’s a homegrown superstar, a player the Chiefs drafted, developed and then unleashed.
Mahomes won’t manage the game and hope the team can pull through. He will attack and try to win it.
“I know the history and stuff like that, but at the same time, we’re a different generation,” he said confidently this week.
Even though he is new to this, it’s easy to trust Mahomes. He might not play perfect football, but he will show up. Here’s the most important question, though: Will that inspire the rest of the Chiefs? To win a title, to make a deep playoff run, they have to show more versatility.
Shape-shifting teams always have had an advantage in the NFL playoffs or in any single-elimination tournament because they can adjust to anything. That skill might become even more important as the NFL transitions to an era in which teams employ more creative strategies. The notion of the classic pro-style offense or simple ground-and-pound approach is out. Innovation is in as the influence of college creativity starts to take hold. That’s why the league has been so interesting this season, and Kansas City has been a big part of the movement.
But in a one-and-done format, in a parity-based league, even the innovators must adapt. Because of their explosive offense, the Chiefs have the ability to overwhelm and dominate like few teams can. Sometimes, though, the postseason requires different pitches. Can the Chiefs change it up? If necessary, can they conform and still thrive?
Mahomes made the regular season sparkle. He’s the clear MVP, and he may continue to be the league’s brightest star in the playoffs. But the Chiefs won’t break through multiple layers of dubious history simply because Mahomes is special.
The entire team must divide this responsibility in a more equitable manner. Without that evolution, Mahomes will suffer the same fate as those other prolific, spectacular and wholly unsatisfied 5,000-yard quarterbacks.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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