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A Crowded AFC Is the New Normal for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs

Kansas City has the best quarterback in the NFL, but they also find themselves in a conference loaded with young, star passers. Building a dynasty has never looked more difficult.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Time seemed to move in slow motion in the final minutes of Sunday’s AFC championship game. From the sidelines, Patrick Mahomes stared in disbelief as Joe Burrow and the Bengals marched their way down the field to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVI. Earlier in overtime, the Chiefs quarterback had fired a pass downfield intended for Tyreek Hill that was tipped and intercepted. Mahomes was relegated to the boundary, forced to watch as another star quarterback led his team to the championship.

Sunday proved a stunning reminder for the Chiefs that, while they have successfully fleshed out a strong roster surrounding a generational talent at quarterback, the shifting landscape within the conference means that won’t always be enough. Kansas City is not the only AFC team fielding a young franchise signal-caller, a passkey to building a championship-caliber roster. The Bills, Ravens, Chargers and Bengals all boast young, superstar quarterbacks of their own.

The best way to keep championship windows open in the NFL is to have a generational quarterback. Mahomes might be the best in the league, but being the best doesn’t mean you always win. As long as Mahomes is around, the Chiefs’ championship window will be open. But passing through that window will never be easy.

Sunday could have been Mahomes’s coronating moment. The day before, reports of Tom Brady’s imminent retirement swirled, cueing the end of Brady’s 22-year reign as QB Supreme. The football world had spent the past week digesting the masterpiece that Mahomes and Josh Allen orchestrated, a game that signaled a shift in what’s expected from the quarterback position. Four championship-round appearances in four seasons made Mahomes the AFC’s Goliath. For nearly 30 minutes on Sunday, Mahomes lived up to that billing. But the Chiefs slowed down and never put Burrow away. That was all it took for the other team’s Goliath to take advantage.

The Chiefs’ collapse was breathtaking. They had scored touchdowns on each of their first three possessions. They led 21-10 and with nine seconds left in the first half, had a chance to extend that margin from the Cincinnati 1-yard line. Kansas City ran two plays. One pass fell incomplete. Then Mahomes threw a pass to Hill behind the line of scrimmage and the clock evaporated. It appeared to be a minor setback at the time, with the Chiefs set to receive the ball to start the third quarter.

But in the second half, Mahomes never snapped back into his superhuman form. Surprisingly, he faded away. On 22 second-half and overtime dropbacks, Mahomes produced 16 net passing yards. After earning a 98.0 first-half QBR, he earned a 1.4 grade in the span after—the sixth-worst second half and OT QBR performance by any passer this season. In terms of EPA per drive, the Chiefs had their worst second-half output ever in 74 games with Mahomes under center. Mahomes went from producing 15.8 first-half EPA to minus-18.7 in the second half and overtime. That minus-34.6 differential is the largest dropoff for a quarterback in the playoffs since 1999.

First, credit the Bengals, who adjusted their scheme in the second half to employ more three-man rushes, dropping eight men in coverage on a season-high 35 percent of Kansas City’s pass plays. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo initially used the leaguewide formula of sitting in two-high shells to prevent the Chiefs offense from producing explosive downfield plays, but in the second half instead took away the middle-of-the-field crossers that exploited the Bengals secondary through the first half. But even with that tactical adjustment in mind, it felt like the Chiefs gave the game away more than anything.

“I mean, when you’re up 21-3 at one point in the game, you can’t lose it,” Mahomes told reporters. “I put that on myself.”

If the Chiefs are a disappointment, it’s only because Mahomes has elevated the standard for his team. Kansas City has reached four consecutive AFC title games in the four years that Mahomes has been a full-time starter. In that span, the Chiefs have made two Super Bowls and won one.

If you were around to witness Tom Brady’s ascension to becoming the NFL’s unquestioned GOAT, or if you’ve recently watched his Man in the Arena documentary, then you’ll remember that the expectations for Brady—even after winning his first Super Bowl—weren’t astronomically high. He wasn’t comfortably considered in the realm of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks until his third season as a starter, when he was 26. Mahomes is that same age now. He’s signed to Kansas City through 2031, when he turns 36. Brady and the Patriots went through a 10-year Super Bowl drought between 2004 and 2014. New England reached two Super Bowls in that stretch and lost both to Eli Manning and the Giants. But then, from 2014 and 2018, the Patriots went on to collect three more Super Bowl victories. Championship windows aren’t ever really shut when you have the best quarterback in the league.

This isn’t meant to begin a like-to-like comparison between Brady and Mahomes. It’s mentioned because Brady has set an unfathomable standard for winning that underscores how we view any superstar’s success. It’s similar to the tired debates we’ve had during the past two decades surrounding Michael Jordan and LeBron James. We’ve anointed Mahomes as the quarterback expected to reach Brady’s level, which isn’t fair in terms of expectations, but it is a tremendous tribute to the talent he possesses.

The Chiefs can still build a dynasty. There are many ways to do so. The early-1990s Cowboys won three championships in four seasons, and their franchise hasn’t returned to a Super Bowl since. Sprinkled between the 49ers’ four 1980s championships were several early-round exits; their title in 1994 was preceded by back-to-back conference championship-stage defeats. Still, Sunday is a squandered opportunity, especially when you consider the landscape across the AFC.

In the AFC West alone, the Chiefs have already been tested by the Chargers and Justin Herbert. The Bills and Josh Allen put Kansas City’s season on the ropes. Burrow and the Bengals—who usurped Lamar Jackson’s Ravens for AFC North supremacy this year—managed to overcome Mahomes on Sunday. But it took Mahomes to have the worst meltdown of his career and an overtime frame for the Bengals to actually knock the Chiefs off their pedestal. It’s not just about having a better quarterback or a better team. Sometimes, it comes down to luck. When all of the quarterbacks and teams are talented, that’s what will often be the difference.

The margins of error are widened with a franchise-caliber QB. Teams put themselves in better position to capitalize on luck by having a passer capable of withstanding dire game scripts or producing moments of genius. Several teams across the AFC are confident their signal-callers have opened championship windows and will make the Chiefs’ path to immortality tougher. But the Chiefs are still confident they have the NFL’s best.

“I know things don’t seem great after a loss,” coach Andy Reid told reporters Monday morning, “but I think the future here is still bright. We look forward to the 2022 season and getting ourselves built back up.”