Patrick Mahomes made perhaps the best throw of his career in the worst game of his life. It was fourth-and-9. The Super Bowl was hanging in the balance. Down 22 points with less than 14 minutes remaining, the Chiefs needed to score a touchdown to preserve any chance of defending their title. But Mahomes was being chased from behind, from his left, from his right, and … well, who could keep track of all the defenders chasing him on Sunday night? The important part is that Mahomes got tripped up, and as he tumbled to the ground—while parallel with the field—he threw this pass.
It went 30 yards. It hit his intended receiver in the face. At the goal line.
That “Super Bowl LV” signage is so perfectly positioned behind Mahomes in the above screenshot that it makes it look like this is from a cheesy sports movie and not from an actual football game. This is how the Rock would throw a football if he was jumping out of a skyscraper.
Then there is the broadcast angle.
This screenshot captures all the ridiculousness of the moment while removing all the glory. The first one makes Mahomes look like Iron Man. This one looks like the thumbnail for a YouTube video titled “Patrick Mahomes Faceplant TikTok Challenge (10-HOUR COMPILATION).”
It is fitting that the close-up makes Mahomes look heroic, but zooming out to include his teammates makes his effort look futile. The Chiefs were throttled by the Buccaneers 31-9. Kansas City didn’t score a touchdown. Mahomes finished 26-of-49 passing with two interceptions, which is statistically the worst game of his career. More striking than the stats was this was the first time that Mahomes was no match for his circumstances.
For the better part of three years, Mahomes has felt inevitable, like the tides, or drunk people ordering late-night pizza. (These things are so reliable that ancient civilizations created calendars for them.) No deficit was too much for Kansas City to overcome, and no throw was too difficult for Mahomes to complete. Last season, the Chiefs became the first team in NFL history to win three games in which they trailed by double digits in the same playoffs. Mahomes had never lost a game at the NFL level by double digits until Sunday. He barely lost, period. Entering Sunday, Mahomes had won 25 of his previous 26 games. His only playoff loss came in a game in which he led the Chiefs to 31 second-half points but didn’t touch the ball in overtime because of a coin flip. Until this Super Bowl, a lead against the Chiefs was like a sandcastle: a beautiful but temporary fortress that would eventually wash away.
It turns out Mahomes is not as inevitable as the tides or drunk pizza. The Chiefs once again etched their name in the playoff record books Sunday, but this time in a miserable way. Mahomes was pressured more than any other quarterback in Super Bowl history. His teammates had the most penalty yards in a quarter in Super Bowl history. Head coach Andy Reid made one of the riskiest timeout decisions in Super Bowl history. Usually Mahomes is a football elixir that solves every problem. But for the first time in his career, he was merely a great quarterback who couldn’t compensate for his team’s myriad woes. Mahomes was not a myth, but a mortal who was unable to fix everyone else’s flaws.
“We battled to the very end,” Mahomes said in his postgame press conference. “That’s one thing you can say. I mean, we played not very good football, but we battled.”
It was a battle because Kansas City’s offensive line got worked. Mahomes was pressured 29 times on 56 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Bucs didn’t even need to blitz to make that happen. Of those 29, 27 came with Tampa Bay sending four or fewer pass rushers—the second most effective four-man rush of the past 10 years. “It wasn’t just one guy getting free,” Andrew Wylie, who started at right tackle because of injuries along the Chiefs line, said after the game. “It was a few of them.”
Too many Chiefs plays in the second half began with Mahomes retreating to buy time. The pressure was so relentless that Mahomes traveled 497 yards before throwing the ball or being sacked, the most in a game by any quarterback since Next Gen Stats started tracking this stat in 2016. He averaged 5.5 yards per attempt, the second-lowest mark of his career. His 52.3 passer rating was the lowest. Mahomes couldn’t work his magic while he was running for his life.
The Chiefs compounded their offensive line issues by repeatedly making mental mistakes. Kansas City committed eight penalties for 95 yards in the first half, the most penalties in any first half of a Chiefs game since they hired Reid in 2013. Almost all of those yards—90 of 95—came in the second quarter. That was the most penalty yards in a quarter by an NFL team since Week 1 of 2018.
Part of that falls on the referees. Carl Cheffers’s crew averaged a league-high 16 flags per game during the regular season. As former referee and current NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay noted, the officiating during Sunday’s Super Bowl was tighter than it had been during the rest of the playoffs.
Neither defensive hold called on KC comes close to the standard we saw the entire season for that call all season and certainly not what we saw in TB/GB.— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) February 8, 2021
But while some penalty calls were questionable, others were obvious. Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman (no. 17) lined up so ludicrously offside while trying to block a second-quarter field goal attempt that he might as well have been in the Gulf of Mexico.
Was Mecole Hardman offsides on the field goal? Who can be sure pic.twitter.com/B1uTswYYGq— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) February 8, 2021
Mecole’s mistake turned a fourth-and-5 for Tampa Bay into a first-and-10. Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the very next play. On the next Buccaneers drive, Reid inexplicably called two timeouts that gifted the Bucs the chance to tack on another touchdown before halftime. What should have been a 10-6 game instead was 21-6.
And Mahomes was also hurt by Kansas City’s drops. He hit two different receivers in the face at the goal line on deep passes; neither pass was caught. The first came on the Chiefs’ second drive, with Mahomes running to his left, turning right, and flicking a 40-yard rope to Tyreek Hill.
Hill finished with seven catches for 73 yards, just a bit off from the 203 yards he racked up in the first quarter of Kansas City’s game against Tampa Bay in Week 12. Mahomes made a number of David Blaine–esque escapes only for his receivers to ruin his magic tricks. Tight end Travis Kelce lost his footing at inopportune times and looked rattled early in the game. Hardman failed to turn around in time to catch Mahomes passes twice in the first half.
Mahomes’s line has failed him before, but his receivers are usually wide open, which negates the problem. On Sunday, Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles dialed up looks with two deep safeties more than he had at any point in the previous five years. The Chiefs—the first team to start two backup offensive tackles in the Super Bowl—didn’t respond well. The result was a picture of Mahomes we’ve never seen in the NFL before.
“When you play a good defense like that, you’ve got to be on the same page as an offense, and we weren’t today and that’s why we played so bad,” Mahomes said. “They were just better than us.”
The Mahomes GOAT conversation is now over before it began. In the lead-up to the Super Bowl, there seemed to be a chance that he could overtake Brady atop the quarterback pantheon one day—you know, if he won this game and then another four Super Bowls. But this result closes the door on even that long-shot chance. Mahomes is typically the player frustrating opponents. Sunday, he was the one who was frustrated.
Someone who has become a legend by making everything look easy tried extremely hard to no avail. According to research from The Ringer’s own Rodger Sherman, this was the fewest points that Mahomes has scored in a game since at least high school. These kinds of losses simply don’t happen to Mahomes—or so we thought.
“Obviously I didn’t play the way I wanted to play,” Mahomes said. “All you can do is leave everything you have on the field, and I feel like the guys did that. They were the better team today. They beat us pretty good. The worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time.”
The Chiefs needed Mahomes to be a superhero, and he couldn’t deliver. Meanwhile, the Bucs needed Brady to do the bare minimum, and he delivered 31 points. For years, it seemed like the only way to beat Brady was to have a four-man pass rush that could generate consistent pressure without blitzing. In a WWE-like twist, Brady won this Super Bowl because he teamed up with a consistently devastating four-man pass rush. While Mahomes was pressured more than any other quarterback in a Super Bowl ever, Brady was pressured just four times, the fewest in any of his 10 Super Bowl appearances. Brady now has seven rings, more than any individual franchise. He is bigger than every team in the ultimate team sport.
Sports history is littered with examples of transcendent players falling short against superior teams, but Mahomes was thought to be an exception. Last year’s Super Bowl seemed to prove that: The 49ers outclassed the Chiefs for three full quarters, but Kansas City won by 11 points anyway. Mahomes and the Chiefs were inevitable, a rising tide that came for every opponent sooner or later. On Sunday, they were swept away by an even larger wave.
Emerging research on climate change shows that human beings are changing the earth’s tides. Things we once attributed to the gods or the gravitational pull of celestial bodies are also being altered by our collective mistakes. Mahomes threw a virtually perfect pass while floating parallel to the ground. But even the tides are beholden to more than just gravity.