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Faith, Fear, and Fandom in the Time of Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs QB was the story of last season. A year later, he’s finding his way after an injury scare. For Kansas City fans, Mahomes’s 2019 has been thrilling and terrifying—and a reminder of what happens when sports become spiritual.

Luca Romeo

I try to keep God out of sports. This is difficult, to keep two very important parts of my life wholly separate from each other, but it would feel unseemly to mix them. I pray for many things: for family and friends, for material and spiritual success, for world peace, happiness, and tranquility. A supplication for the ground ball to trickle past the shortstop, or the defense to make a stop on a third-and-short? It’d just seem sort of gauche.

It’s not that I think sports are unworthy of God’s attention; I believe that nothing is unworthy of God’s attention, as the Islamic concept of a Creator hears and welcomes all prayers, no matter how trivial. It’s that ultimately I can’t ignore that sports are a zero-sum game. Every home run for a hitter is a gopher ball for a pitcher; every time a receiver starts flossing in the end zone, a defensive back nearby is stunned that he didn’t break up the pass. Every win for one team is a loss for another, and who’s to say I have a greater moral right to victory than you do, unless you’re the Yankees?

I’m not saying I’ve never invoked God’s help during a sporting event; I may or may not still be honoring the terms of a promise made during the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series. But I do so as judiciously as possible. The world has enough problems to pray on. Sports are there to take our minds off those problems, not to compete with them for our devotions.

And yet for more than a year now I find a silent prayer on the tip of my tongue more often than I would like to admit, an unbidden benediction that escapes my lips almost every Sunday (not even my holy day!) and every other day of the week, as well. A prayer that anchors me to the joys of this world and reminds me of how ephemeral they can be.

Please, God, just keep Patrick Mahomes healthy.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes
David Eulitt/Getty Images

I’m not proud of this. I’m a 44-year-old man with a wife, a mortgage, four children, and a dozen employees. The world, as usual, is on fire. There are many other things more worthy of my humble petitions than the well-being of a man I’ve met once in my life. But over the past 14 months that man has brought me more joy than I thought any professional athlete could, particularly at this stage of my life.

Patrick Mahomes is the most gifted quarterback in the NFL. That’s to take nothing away from Lamar Jackson, who is having the best 2019 and has emerged as the MVP front-runner, or Russell Wilson, whose steady heroics have led the Seattle Seahawks to five straight wins. Through the first 29 games of his career, though, Mahomes is throwing the football like no one ever has, and putting up numbers that no one has ever seen. Two months ago, Ringer boss Bill Simmons called him “the best quarterback I’ve ever seen,” with the requisite caveat that “He’s not the greatest. I think Brady’s the greatest.” And while Jackson, especially, has taken the league by storm since then, Mahomes is still the guy who drew fawning comparisons to the sport’s all-time greats after just one season. “He might end up being the best ever,” an NFL executive told The Athletic’s Mike Sando over the summer. “He has got some of the best-ever superpowers.”

And he plays for my team. Mahomes is a Kansas City Chief, and God and Clark Hunt willing, he always will be. So long as he is, I will be filled with anticipation about what he might be capable of in his next game, on his next series, on his next play. He might throw four-plus touchdowns in a game, as he did seven times last year. (Only one quarterback has more such games in a season.) Or he might throw for upward of 440 yards, as he’s already done twice this fall. (No QB has ever hit that total more than twice in a season.) Or he might complete passes of heretofore unseen genius, whether he’s releasing the ball sidearm, left-handed, or without looking at his target. Heading into Sunday’s Chiefs-Patriots AFC championship game rematch in New England, his sublime talent is simultaneously a source of inspiration and an instigator of fear that it might be taken from us at any time.

I’m not just speaking for Chiefs fans when I say that. Mahomes’s meteoric rise to superstardom in 2018 was the best thing to happen to the NFL in years, and even football fans so divorced from the Kansas City area that they’ve never tried barbecue and think Arrowhead Stadium is in the state of Kansas are rooting for him to keep playing out of his mind. Mahomes isn’t simply a transcendent quarterback; he’s basically two quarterbacks in one, each of whom would individually rank among the best in the NFL.

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Pedro Martínez
Getty Images Archive

Growing up a baseball fan in the 1980s and 1990s, I was fascinated by a specific breed of pitcher, the one that succeeded without having top-tier velocity. This pitcher was typically left-handed, almost always a veteran, and had so mastered the subtle arts of his craft—the ability to change speeds, adjust eye levels, throw a breaking ball when the hitter was guessing fastball and vice versa—that he would get hitters out while rarely breaking 85 mph on the gun. Sometimes, this pitcher was a former fireballer who had learned to adjust with diminished velocity, like Frank Tanana or John Tudor. Other times, this pitcher found success only by embracing his true self after turning 30, like Jamie Moyer. Or maybe this pitcher was always acutely aware of this style, like Mark Buehrle. No matter what, all had one thing in common: When they pitched, I wondered, “What would it be like if there was a guy who understood pitching as well as they do but could also throw gas?”

In 1999, we all found out. Pedro Martínez, who had world-class stuff ever since he’d entered the league in 1992 and who had steadily ascended to the top of the pitching profession—winning the Cy Young Award with the Montreal Expos in 1997 before being traded to Boston—achieved total consciousness on the mound like no pitcher before or after. Total mastery of an upper-90s fastball. A curveball that, if it did not violate the laws of physics, at least approached them asymptotically. A changeup to make Bugs Bunny jealous. And a Nobel Prize–worthy pitching mind.

For two years, we saw what happened when you put the mind of a crafty veteran into the body of a flamethrower, what Greg Maddux would do with Roger Clemens stuff. In the height of the steroid era, Pedro went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and a 1.39 FIP. That latter figure may seem like a misprint: It’s 30 points lower than any other qualifying pitcher has had in the live-ball era. In 1999, no one else in the AL had an ERA under 3.44. In 2000, Pedro registered a 0.737 WHIP, by far the lowest of any qualifying pitcher in baseball history, and a 1.74 ERA—less than half that of every other pitcher in the league. Clemens, who finished second in the AL in ERA, had a mark of 3.70. The league ERA was 4.92.

Martínez’s stuff would begin a slow, inexorable decline after the 2000 season, and he’d never again reach such lofty heights. No one else has, either. For two seasons, though, we got a glimpse of what was possible when a pitcher checked off every box.

I often think of Pedro when I watch Mahomes, and not just because he is the son of an MLB pitcher and had first-round potential on the mound himself. He was a top-10 NFL draft pick because he has an elite arm capable of throwing as deep as anyone. He was sold to us Chiefs fans as, essentially, Brett Favre 2.0: the prototypical gunslinger.

And if Mahomes had simply been a quarterback blessed with a golden right arm who was average in all other aspects of the position, that’s who he would have been. He could have emerged as one of the best passers in the game, perhaps talented enough to take his team to the Super Bowl.

Yet Mahomes’s arm is far from his only gift, and might not be his most important trait. From the day of his NFL debut in Week 17 of the 2017 season, on the road at Mile High Stadium, he displayed preternatural instincts for all the other elements of quarterback play: the field vision, the ability to sense pressure in the pocket and move away from it, the capacity to cycle through his progressions quickly enough to find an open receiver even if it’s his third or fourth option. To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky, Mahomes can throw the ball to where the receiver is going, not to where he’s been. I mean this without hyperbole: If Mahomes had average arm strength for a quarterback, he could do a fair rendition of Joe Montana.

But, of course, he is both power and finesse. He is Favre and Montana, Clemens and Maddux. He’s also got a touch of Rich Gannon, with his flair for throwing passes from unpredictable and indefensible angles, and has a style all his own: How else do you explain those no-look passes? Mahomes can even beat teams with his legs; while his speed doesn’t tempt him to tuck the ball and run too soon, he’s fast enough to scramble for a first down when the situation calls for it—like when the Chiefs faced a fourth-and-8 with the game on the line in Detroit in Week 4, or when he scampered for a 13-yard touchdown in last Sunday’s 40-9 rout of Oakland. Like Pedro on the mound 20 years ago, Mahomes is redefining the limits of his position by taking two diametrically opposed versions of superstar performance and combining them into one perfect package.

There is one critical difference between Mahomes and Pedro, though. Pedro’s peak was, well, his peak: It took him seven big league seasons to develop his pitching smarts to the same world-class level as his stuff, and two years later his stuff was no longer world class. Mahomes has been doing this since his first snap in the NFL. He was the league MVP in his first season as a starter.

We don’t know what Mahomes’s peak is because quarterbacks tend to peak in their late 20s, and he turned 24 in September. We also don’t know what his peak is because a peak implies a trough. Mahomes has never had a trough.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There may be no better way to demonstrate Mahomes’s singular brilliance than to ask what should be a simple question: What is the worst game of his career?

Is it the time he threw for just 138 yards on the road in blizzard-like conditions? No, because I just made that up. Mahomes threw for at least 240 yards in each of his first 25 career games. Right out of the chute, he tied the record for consecutive games of 240-plus yards, set by Drew Brees in 2011 and 2012, a decade into the future first-ballot Hall of Famer’s career.

Was it the time Mahomes threw four interceptions under constant pressure? No, because that never happened either. He’s thrown three interceptions in a game only once, and in that game he also threw six touchdowns as the Chiefs scored 51 points.

He’s played in 29 career games and thrown for a touchdown in 25 of them. In two of the other four, he ran for one. And more to the point: The Chiefs scored at least 26 points in the first 23 games in which Mahomes played. Last season, they scored 565 points—an average of 35.3 per game—which ranks third all time behind only the 2013 Denver Broncos and 2007 Patriots.

Do you know how ridiculous that is? No team in NFL history has ever scored 26-plus points in 23 straight games. That includes the Chiefs, whose streak reached only 22 because Mahomes’s stretch began with the final, meaningless regular-season game in 2017, and when Alex Smith returned for the playoffs, the Chiefs scored just 21 against the Tennessee Titans (and lost by a point). The previous record for most consecutive games scoring 26-plus points was 19, set by the Broncos in 2012 and 2013. The 1983 Washington Redskins scored 26-plus points in 15 straight. No other team has a streak longer than 12, barely half as long as Mahomes’s streak.

So what was his worst game? By quarterback rating, it’s his Week 5 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars last year, when he threw two interceptions and no touchdowns. Of course, he also threw for 313 yards on 38 attempts, rushed for a touchdown, and staked the Chiefs to a 20-0 halftime lead in an eventual 30-14 win. Mahomes’s second-worst rating came two weeks ago against the Los Angeles Chargers, on a field in Mexico City that played like someone had thrown a bunch of grass onto a pit of quicksand, and where the extremely high altitude gassed the Chiefs defense and produced some uncharacteristically conservative offensive play. Even then, the Chiefs never led by fewer than seven points after the first drive of the second half and came away with a 24-17 victory.

If instead of looking at quarterback performance you look at team performance, the worst game of Mahomes’s career is the Week 5 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts this season, a 19-13 loss and his only career outing in which the Chiefs didn’t score at least 24 points. Still, he threw for 321 yards on 39 attempts and didn’t turn the ball over. The Chiefs fell because they committed 11 penalties for 125 yards, because Mahomes nearly had as many rushing yards (17) as the rest of the roster combined (19), and because their defense couldn’t get off the field.

If you want to get picky and break Mahomes’s performances down to a more granular level, you could argue he has never played worse than during the first half of the AFC title game against the Patriots in January. Bill Belichick devised a game plan that milked the clock—the Chiefs had only four possessions in the first half, with the fourth starting with 21 seconds left in the second quarter—and frustrated Mahomes with myriad defensive shenanigans. Yet after being held scoreless in the first half, the Chiefs rattled off 31 points in the second. During those 30 minutes, Mahomes threw for 230 yards with three touchdowns. On the first drive of the second half, Mahomes scrambled to his right on a third-and-2 before launching a 54-yard bomb to Sammy Watkins. When he got the ball at his own 31-yard line with 32 seconds remaining, one timeout, and his team trailing by three, it took him all of two plays to bring the Chiefs into field goal range. The Patriots won the only way they could: By ensuring Mahomes never got to touch the ball again. They correctly called the overtime coin toss and fashioned a 13-play drive to score the conference-clinching touchdown.

So I don’t know what was the worst performance of Mahomes’s career. I only know that I’ll take his worst over most quarterbacks’ best. And what keeps me praying to a merciful god isn’t the possibility of a Mahomes sack, fumble, or interception. It’s what happened during an innocuous quarterback sneak on a Thursday in Week 7.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos
Patrick Mahomes
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Chiefs started 4-0 this fall before inexplicably losing back-to-back home games to the Colts and Houston Texans, but by far the worst moment of the first six weeks of the season happened in Week 1 against the Jaguars, when Mahomes was sacked on a third-and-goal and had to be helped off the field. For several minutes we broke down the video of that play like it was the Zapruder film—was it his knee? His ankle? Then we briefly endured the scariest sight of all: Mahomes entering the blue tent, the Schrodinger’s box of the NFL, where any player is simultaneously injured and uninjured until he exits. He emerged with a sprained ankle and got right back into the game, not even missing a snap. But it was a terrifying vision of what was possible, and, as it turned out, a premonition of what was to come.

You know what happened, because the whole world knows what happened. On a Thursday-night game in Denver, with Kansas City leading 10-6 early in the second quarter, the Chiefs faced a fourth-and-1 from the Broncos’ 5-yard line. Rather than kick a field goal and waste excellent field position, head coach Andy Reid called for a quarterback sneak, a high-percentage play that Mahomes has successfully converted for first downs several times in his young career. The gambit worked; Mahomes dove into the pile and picked up 2 yards. And then … he never … got up.

Football is unique among American sports in that every play involves a scrum, a tangled mass of heavy bodies crashing into one another in unnatural ways. Not only is there a baseline risk of injury every time that the ball is snapped, but there’s also the chance that an injury could occur out of sight, at the bottom of the pile of enormous human beings. You can’t watch football for any length of time without becoming partly inured to the ever-present risk of injury. Yet it’s always there, in the back of your mind. And when the most important athlete of your adult lifetime is buried at the bottom of the pile, you’re magnitudes more aware of that risk. So what happened next was both a fluke and something I’ve been waiting for since it became clear that Mahomes was the Quarterback That Was Promised.

Mahomes lay supine on top of his own center, Austin Reiter, in obvious and painful agony. His teammates either yelled at him not to move, motioned toward the sideline for help, cursed, or prayed. And I felt the blood drain from my face. This was it, the moment I had been dreading, the moment I had been praying to avoid. As the cart was brought onto the field and the broadcast cut to commercial, it seemed the season was over and a year in the prime of the career for maybe the greatest player I’ve had the privilege of rooting for had been cut short. It had to be a torn Achilles—Mahomes had been playing on that iffy ankle since Week 1, and reaggravated it when his own lineman accidentally stepped on it just two weeks earlier—or a torn ACL. He might never be the same again.

Two minutes and 53 seconds elapsed between the moment Mahomes went down and the moment the broadcast returned from commercials, two minutes and 53 seconds to assume the worst. Of course I assumed the worst. The joy Mahomes has brought Kansas City fans who have waited whole lives for him has always been accompanied by a crippling fear that it could be taken away in an instant.

We should know. It’s happened to us before.

Kansas City Royals
Bo Jackson
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

There are two types of sports fans: Those who don’t understand all the fuss over Bo Jackson all these years later, and those who saw him play. If you are part of the second group, you can skip this section. You already know.

If you’re part of the first group, here’s the CliffsNotes version: Bo Jackson may still be the greatest athlete this country has ever seen. He was a dual-sport phenom, an elite college football and baseball player who reshaped the boundaries of what seemed humanly possible. He won the Heisman Trophy after running for 1,786 yards with 17 touchdowns in 11 games at Auburn as a senior, after slashing .401/.500/.864 for the Tigers’ baseball team as a junior. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him with the no. 1 pick in the 1986 NFL draft, yet after the Bucs cost him his college baseball eligibility by paying for him to come to Tampa for a visit—which they inaccurately told him was not a violation of NCAA rules—he told them to take a hike. Instead he signed with the Kansas City Royals, and after spending just two months in the minors he was called up to the majors to play his second-best sport.

A year later, he was lured back to football by the Raiders, becoming the first man in decades to simultaneously play two professional sports. For four years, he spent his summers in Kansas City, hitting home runs, climbing walls, and throwing out baserunners from the warning track without a bounce. Even though we Kansas City sports fans had to share him with another city in the fall—and even though he played for one of the Chiefs’ most-hated gridiron rivals—he was beloved, because he did things on a baseball field that no one had seen before. And while Jackson wasn’t actually good for the Royals at first, he improved relentlessly: From 1986 to 1990, his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and (not that we knew it then) WAR increased every season. He was an All-Star in 1989 and even better in 1990.

And on the football field, he had a career average of 5.4 yards per carry despite never seeing action before Week 6. In his first playoff game, on January 13, 1991, he ran six times for 77 yards in a 20-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He would never get a seventh carry, because on his sixth he was caught from behind, pulling his hip out of joint and setting off a cascade of reactions that would result in avascular necrosis, a condition that eventually necessitated hip replacement surgery. Bo never played football again. While he miraculously returned to baseball, signing with the Chicago White Sox that September before he had his hip replaced and then playing two more MLB seasons on an artificial hip, he was a shadow of himself: The power was there, but the speed was gone.

One moment the Royals were getting ready for the upcoming season with their star left fielder whose potential seemed limitless; the next they were announcing his release. I was 15 years old then, and the sudden news that Jackson’s injury—which had been perceived as fairly minor for weeks—was in fact so severe that the Royals were releasing him on the spot remains one of the most painful moments of my fandom.

It can all be taken away in an instant. Even greatness. That’s something fans of all stripes were reminded of in November when Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, one of the best collegiate quarterbacks ever to don a helmet and pads, suffered a dislocated hip injury terrifyingly reminiscent of the one that ended Jackson’s football career. It’s also why I can’t help but pray when it comes to Mahomes, the first Kansas City athlete in 30 years to rival Jackson in terms of star power while lapping him in terms of on-field impact. And I’d like to think that one of my prayers may even have been answered already.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee TItans
Patrick Mahomes
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

After the longest commercial break of my life, the broadcast resumed to a most unexpected and welcome sight: Mahomes was walking, gingerly, on the sideline. Slowly, more details were revealed, each providing a tiny morsel of optimism. He had dislocated his patella, which was put back into place before he left the field. Immediate imaging done at the stadium showed no obvious fracture of the bone. An MRI the next day revealed neither a fracture nor significantly torn ligaments in his knee, either of which might have ended his season. After three minutes of terror and about 18 hours of dull dread had rendered the game—a 30-6 win, the Chiefs’ most lopsided victory in Denver since 1966—irrelevant, it became clear that Mahomes would come back to play again this season. He healed so quickly, in fact, that he never missed a practice. If you were a Chiefs fan, you might have been tempted to call it a miracle.

Mahomes claimed he could have started the very next week against the Green Bay Packers had it been a playoff game, but the Chiefs sensibly saw no reason to rush him back. Matt Moore started in his place, and it is a testament to Reid’s offensive genius that a backup quarterback who had been coaching high school football three months earlier threw for more than 265 yards in each of his two starts, with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Moore’s passer rating of 100.9 this season ranks 12th among the 49 quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts. And after losing 31-24 to Green Bay, Moore helped engineer a 26-23 upset of the Minnesota Vikings.

Those two games were some of the most relaxing I’ve ever watched as a Chiefs fan, because for two weeks I was able to follow the team with no real expectation that it would win, and no real concern that a loss would be fatal to its playoff hopes. Above all, I didn’t have to worry that Patrick Mahomes might get hurt.

He returned on November 10, after 24 days to rest his right knee and let his left ankle sprain heal. He took the field against the Titans as healthy as he’d been since the first game of the season, and it showed: He went 36-of-50 passing for 446 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The quiet little secret about Mahomes this season is that, while his numbers are down thanks to his injury, he’s playing just as well this year as he did in his MVP campaign. And he’s now in position to finish 2019 with a flourish.

Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

My favorite raw stat to compare quarterbacks across eras is adjusted net yards per attempt, which not only factors in touchdowns and interceptions, but also sacks and the yards lost on them. Last season, Mahomes had an ANY/A of 8.89, sixth highest in NFL history, right behind the mark of another first-round pick in his second pro season, Dan Marino in 1984. But whereas Marino never again approached the heights of his sophomore stats—he never posted another ANY/A above 7.00—Mahomes is once again in rarefied air. Right now, he’s averaging 8.79 ANY/A, a dropped pass away from last year’s number, and one of the 10 best figures in NFL history.

He hasn’t put up the gaudy touchdown totals that he did last year, but in sacrificing a little spectacle he’s cut down on a lot of mistakes. His yards per game are down from 319 to 298 (though of course he left a game early in the second quarter this season), and his completion rate has dipped from 66.0 percent to 64.5. But after getting sacked on 4.3 percent of his dropbacks last year, Mahomes has lowered that number to 3.3 percent this season, the best in the NFL. And while last year he threw 12 interceptions to go with his 50 touchdowns, this season he’s thrown just two picks, one of which was the result of an officiating error. The man who came out of the draft with a reputation as an undisciplined gunslinger has an interception rate of 0.57 percent, fourth lowest in NFL history among QBs with 250-plus attempts.

Mahomes may not win the MVP award again this year, but he’s achieved something far more meaningful: He’s quashed any doubts that last season was a fluke. Not that there was anything about his performance that suggested as much, but strange things can happen in small sample sizes. Barely one year ago, Mahomes lost an epic 54-51 duel—maybe the most exciting regular-season game in NFL history—to the Rams and quarterback Jared Goff, and afterward Goff had every bit the MVP case that Mahomes did. Goff’s performance started tailing off almost immediately, while Mahomes keeps steadily getting better.

The NFL revolves around its quarterbacks, and has been looking with increasing desperation for the next generation of stars to replace the icons who are aging out. Peyton Manning is long retired; Tom Brady and Drew Brees are in their 40s; even Aaron Rodgers just turned 36 on Monday. After them, there was a long fallow period at the position. Besides Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who’s the best QB drafted between 2009 and 2016?

The football world has been waiting for the game’s Next Great Quarterbacks to emerge for some time, and Mahomes is the vanguard of a new generation that includes Jackson and Deshaun Watson. But for as much as Mahomes means to the NFL, what he means to Kansas City is incalculable.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee TItans
Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

For the 30 years before Mahomes arrived, the Chiefs pushed the limits of what a team could do without an elite quarterback. Despite having a fearsome defense for most of the 1990s, a succession of star running backs that was the envy of the NFL (Christian Okoye to Marcus Allen to Priest Holmes to Larry Johnson to Jamaal Charles), and a Hall of Fame tight end (Tony Gonzalez) with another on that trajectory (Travis Kelce), the limit was always the same: Be just good enough to lose your first playoff game.

Fifteen months after his first game as QB1, Mahomes is already one of the most accomplished athletes in Kansas City history, and depending on what happens in the coming weeks, he might rank no. 1 on that list as soon as February. The NFL sees a young quarterback blazing the statistical trail of Peyton Manning; Chiefs fans see a kid who broke the franchise’s single-season touchdown record a mere 11 games into his pro career. The NFL wants to build its marketing campaign around a player who can chuck no-look throws and complete passes with his left hand; Chiefs fans know that he completed that left-handed pass for a key first down during a fourth-quarter comeback against our biggest rival in a stadium that had long been our own Mile High House of Horrors.

The NFL wants to sell you on the notion that the Chiefs are never out of a game as long as they have Mahomes. Chiefs fans don’t need to be sold, because we’ve seen it with our own eyes: There was the comeback in Denver on Monday Night Football; there was the 48-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill on a fourth-and-9 to set up a game-tying touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens. And then there was Mahomes in the AFC championship game, down three points with 32 seconds to go, a nearly impossible situation for the most important Chiefs drive since the double-overtime playoff loss in 1971. He was nails.

This is what it’s come to: When the Lions scored a go-ahead touchdown against the Chiefs with 2:26 remaining in their Week 4 matchup, I was relieved. In their haste to score, the Lions had made a classic blunder—they had left too much time on the clock. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way:

It’s taken Mahomes barely a season to wipe away three decades of muscle memory, to make me look past all the things this franchise has done. To the NFL, Patrick Mahomes is one of a select group of guys who have been the it quarterback at some point in their careers. To Chiefs fans, he is one of one. And if it’s possible, we appreciate him today more than ever, because we know how close we came to having him ripped away.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The story of the Chiefs’ 2019 season, aside from Mahomes and his injury scare, has been new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s ongoing overhaul of a unit that ranked 30th and 26th in DVOA over the previous two seasons, and whose inability to stop the Patriots in the AFC title game last January ruined the team’s best Super Bowl opportunity in 50 years. To this point, that overhaul has been successful. Kansas City is up to 15th in DVOA this season and getting better, having given up just 26 combined points in its past two games. That improvement has allowed Mahomes to cruise in second gear with no repercussions. He threw for 175 yards on Sunday, his lowest total ever in a full game, but there was little need for theatrics: The Chiefs led 21-0 at halftime.

Couple that defense with an offense that is finally rounding into full health, and Kansas City is arguably better prepared for the playoffs than it was as the AFC’s no. 1 overall seed last season. There are a lot of narratives getting more attention in the conference than the ups and downs of the Chiefs: The Ravens just turned in one of the most dominant Novembers any NFL team has ever had; the Patriots are still the Patriots; and the Texans just downed the defending champs in front of a national TV audience. But things could change quickly, starting this weekend in Foxborough, where a Chiefs’ win could threaten the Pats’ bye status, reassert Kansas City as a contender, and upend the conference playoff picture.

It could also serve as a reminder of what Mahomes can do against even the best defense in the NFL. And of why watching him play can feel like such a spiritual experience.

So yes, I am praying for Mahomes’s continued health. Surely there are more important things that I could worry about, but for about three hours every Sunday it doesn’t feel that way. Praying for him to stay healthy is about more than wins and losses, because he’s reached a level that transcends winning and losing. He is good for the Chiefs, yes, but he is also good for football. He is good for sports. He is good for anybody who enjoys watching things that have never been done before, or one player’s quest to lift a franchise to a place it hasn’t reached in half a century.

Sports are a zero-sum game, but the pursuit of athletic greatness is not. If Patrick Mahomes fulfills his destiny, we all win.

And if some of us win more than others, well, God works in mysterious ways.

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