Well, of course.
There are a handful of people in sports who can do extraordinary things, things you tell grandkids about, and it all makes sense. Everything that should not be happening happens, and at no point does it feel out of place. Tom Brady and Lionel Messi have done this in dozens of games over multiple decades. Patrick Mahomes did it on Sunday. He has spent two years throwing beautiful, often unguardable passes. He’s won an MVP. And now he has engineered one of the strangest wins in the history of football, a 51-31 win over the Houston Texans in which his Chiefs erased a 24-point first-half deficit.
It was not like a movie because a movie involves drama: This was a destruction that resolved itself so quickly that there was barely any time to process what was happening. The panic could barely seep into the Chiefs’ sideline and stadium before there was no need to panic.
One of my most ardent beliefs is that great quarterbacks are the Chekhov’s gun of football: If they are in the picture, they eventually go off. They will always end up mattering. The NFL playoffs had veered off course from what we saw in the regular season. The Tennessee Titans, led by running back Derrick Henry, knocked out the Patriots and Ravens with their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, never breaking 100 yards passing. The Niners bullied the Vikings with the ground game, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo doing minimal work. Those two teams this weekend accounted for two of the four most run-heavy playoff games in the past decade. Both teams pounded the competition and made their quarterback part of the supporting cast. The playoffs create narratives—mountains of evidence in the regular season can be undone very quickly with one playoff game—and the narrative on Saturday was that the running game is back. To some extent, it is. However, on Sunday, Mahomes reminded an entire league that the easiest way to do incredible things in the passing game is to have Patrick Mahomes.
Here it is, for posterity: The Chiefs trailed by 24 points early in the second quarter. They were up by the end of that quarter. They would not only keep that lead, but would relentlessly add to it. They will host the AFC title game next week at Arrowhead Stadium.
When such a monumental event happens, it takes contributions from everyone. It was not just Mahomes, his wide receivers, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid helping, it was also the Texans. Bill O’Brien kicked a field goal on fourth-and-inches from the 13-yard line with 10:54 left in the second quarter, and then put on a clinic of bad coaching. Perhaps regretting his earlier cop-out, he later called for a fake punt, which led to the Chiefs scoring a touchdown to cut it to 24-14. The Texans, apparently ready to accept their fate, simply decided to start making a series of ludicrous mistakes. They fumbled the very next kickoff; Mahomes threw a touchdown three plays later. The Texans ran six plays on the next drive before giving the ball back to Mahomes, who capped off a 90-yard drive with another touchdown throw with 44 seconds left. It was almost like the Chiefs set it up that way, like setting it to hard mode on a video game, by spotting the Texans 24 points. The Texans team that played the final 40 minutes of game time was completely unrecognizable from the one that scored 24 unanswered to start the game. If you felt like you’d never seen a game like that, it’s because you haven’t—the Chiefs were the first team in playoff history to be down 20 points and then win by 20 points. It’s been done only twice in the regular season.
Football is a complicated sport. Dozens of tiny events happen on any given play, and multiple events can stack up and lead to a 24-0 hole. The Texans blocked a punt for a touchdown. Tyreek Hill muffed a punt, leading to a Texans score. However, the easiest way out of a 24-0 hole is to have a stone-cold killer who can score points whenever he wants. The Chiefs have the no. 1 problem-solver left in the playoffs: the guy who can create offense that quickly. They needed him to solve some problems Sunday.
This does not happen without Mahomes. If there were a draft to select a player to erase a 24-point deficit right now, Mahomes would likely be first, even before Sunday. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been the game’s best player this season, but the Ravens were built to protect leads. The Chiefs are built differently. Mahomes will not lose this title anytime soon. According to Next Gen Stats, he threw a touchdown to a player lined up in every possible position on the field, becoming the first player to do that twice since the NFL started keeping track in 2016. The running and passing heroics of presumptive MVP Jackson are well established, but Mahomes still throws the purest passes in the sport, and he’s the best quarterback left in these playoffs. As FiveThirtyEight detailed last week, Mahomes’s statistical regression from 2018 to 2019 wasn’t nearly as alarming as it appeared. Going from 50 touchdowns to 26 seems dramatic, but he played two fewer games, battled multiple injuries, and his performance in “unstable” statistics, like red zone passing, suffered. But Mahomes was still Mahomes. Against the Texans, he threw five touchdowns and no interceptions and led the team in rushing with 53 yards. The Chiefs were doing beer celebrations in the crowd with 14 minutes to go.
Eric Fisher is a legend for the stone cold beer celebration. pic.twitter.com/VcqdB4oAEf— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 12, 2020
The Chiefs are now the betting favorites to win the Super Bowl. With the Patriots and Ravens out of the way, thanks to the Titans, their next opponent, they will not have to play the first or third seed in their conference. Quarterback wins are not a statistic, but it is worth noting that of the three best quarterbacks in football this year—Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Mahomes—all three found themselves in holes this weekend and only Mahomes crawled out of it. Or rather, he blasted out of it at 5,000 miles per hour. Last year, Mahomes’s MVP season was derailed in the AFC title game by Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, a nice Belichick game plan, and a mistake-prone Chiefs defense. Henry and this Titans team are not easy outs, but the Chiefs’ path is easier without having to face the best coach and quarterback of all time. Mahomes also gets help this season from new additions like pass rusher Frank Clark, who was everywhere on Sunday on an improved Chiefs defense.
The unlikely win changes so many things about the season: The narrative around Mahomes and Reid would have been that they can’t win the big one—hell, Reid is one of the best coaches of all time and that’s already the sports talk radio narrative on him. Conversely, O’Brien’s controversial trade of Jadeveon Clowney and trade for Laremy Tunsil would have looked brilliant had they led to a Super Bowl. Not hiring a general manager, as Houston has done, may have looked savvy. Deshaun Watson would have reached a new stratosphere of superstardom. Instead, Mahomes’s star gets even brighter. One game shouldn’t change the perception of all of these things, but that is how this works. This is a narrative league and this, in particular, was a narrative game.
Patrick Mahomes is the 1st player to throw 5 TD passes in a playoff game before his 25th birthday in NFL history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2020
Also, according to @EliasSports, the Chiefs are now the first team in NFL postseason history to score a TD on 7 straight offensive drives. pic.twitter.com/vZMVSgLD9k
The playoffs can be unsettling in their randomness: The Titans would never have vanquished the Patriots in the wild-card game if Ryan Fitzpatrick hadn’t worked miracles against New England in Week 17. The Titans didn’t wrangle control of a playoff spot until the Steelers lost to the Jets in Week 16. A 9-7 Titans squad is the hottest team in football, so much so that they dominated, on the road, the AFC’s top regular-season team and their MVP, making him, for the first time in months, look mortal. The one thing that was true all season and remains so is that Mahomes is a superstar. He now has a marquee game. It will not be the last of his career. It may not be the last one of this month.