There is no game plan to defeat Patrick Mahomes. He torches man-to-man defenses, and he’s the best quarterback in football against zone defenses. If you blitz him—please, I’m begging you, do not blitz him—he’ll obliterate you. But if you just sit back and let him pass, he’ll eat you alive. And if you somehow manage to cover all of his receivers, he’ll simply scramble for a first down before skipping out of bounds. He’s unkillable. There is no game plan to defeat Patrick Mahomes, but if you want to beat him, you have to fucking try.
The Ravens played the Chiefs on Monday in a game that could determine who gets the AFC’s only playoff bye. I can’t remember waiting all day for a regular-season football game like I waited for this one. The reigning MVP going up against the reigning Super Bowl champ! Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are the two faces of football’s future, and I love them both like sons. But by the end of the first possession, the wind had been taken out of my sails. The Ravens received the opening kickoff and went on to claim a lead—but instead of trying to score a touchdown, they opted to kick a field goal when faced with a fourth-and-3 from the Chiefs’ 8-yard line. The Ravens are probably better equipped to get a first down on fourth-and-3 than any other team in the league. They have Jackson, a slew of talented running backs, and an inventive scheme that forces opponents to defend the entire line of scrimmage. They went 17-of-24 on fourth-down conversions last season. And yet, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh decided not to go for seven points against the best player in the sport. In the end, the field goal didn’t matter—Kansas City won 34-20. But by kicking it, the Ravens signaled that they weren’t dedicated to maximizing every possession.
The Ravens should honestly know better. They’re now 0-3 against Mahomes, with the other two losses coming by one possession. In last year’s game, a 33-28 Kansas City victory, the Ravens made two questionable decisions to punt. In the second quarter, they punted on a fourth-and-4 from their own 43-yard line; three plays later, Mahomes found Mecole Hardman for an 83-yard touchdown. In the third quarter, Sam Koch boomed a 52-yard touchback on a fourth-and-5 from just shy of midfield; the Chiefs scored a touchdown eight plays later. The Ravens lost by five after twice taking the ball out of the MVP’s hands in the name of improving field position, only for Mahomes to score two touchdowns anyway.
Monday’s game came on the heels of a surprisingly close matchup between the Chiefs and Chargers in Week 2. In that one, the Chargers repeatedly passed up opportunities to put the maximum number of points on the board. They punted on fourth-and-2s from the 50-yard line and their own 42-yard line (the second of which led directly to a 73-yard Kansas City touchdown drive) in the first half, then kicked a field goal from the 5-yard line in the game’s closing minutes. This almost worked out: The Chargers stunned the football world by sending the Chiefs into overtime. But Los Angeles punted on its first possession of the extra period instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 34. Hypothetically, this was the risk-averse move—if the Chargers didn’t pick up the first down, they certainly would’ve lost. In reality, though, they threw away a chance to score points and chose to give the ball to Patrick Mahomes in sudden death overtime. According to a 2015 Yale study, NFL teams convert on fourth-and-1 about two-thirds of the time. But you should assume that Mahomes is going to score in sudden death overtime 100 percent of the time. Sure enough, Mahomes marched into field goal range and Kansas City scored. The Chargers thought they were avoiding risk, but giving Mahomes the ball when a score means you lose is like covering yourself in steaks and jumping into a bear enclosure.
Since Mahomes became the starter in 2018, the Chiefs are 31-9. Their biggest margin of defeat during that span has been seven points, meaning all nine losses have come by one possession. Four of those nine losses were decided on the final play of the game: a last-second field goal by the Patriots, a last-second two-point conversion by the Chargers, a last-second field goal block by the Titans, and an overtime touchdown by the Patriots. The point here is that the Chiefs are so good at scoring that it’s impossible to blow them out. Any win against Kansas City will come by the slimmest of margins. Every possession is meaningful. You can’t afford to waste any.
And sure enough, if you look at the Chiefs’ losses during the Mahomes era, their opponents have been acutely aware of this. Five of the nine losses have featured opponents using fourth-down conversions to extend drives that resulted in scores.
The most famous loss of Mahomes’s career came in the AFC championship game after the 2018 season, when the Patriots knocked off the Chiefs to keep Mahomes from reaching the Super Bowl in his first year as a starter. Trailing 21-17 with about three and a half minutes left to play, New England went for it on fourth-and-inches from the Chiefs’ 10-yard line; Sony Michel burst through the middle for a go-ahead touchdown:
The second-most famous loss of Mahomes’s career came in that season’s Monday Night Football thriller against the Rams, a 54-51 Los Angeles win and the third-highest-scoring game in NFL history. With the score tied at 23 early in the third quarter, the Rams elected to go for a fourth-and-1 from Kansas City’s 37-yard line. Jared Goff completed a pass to tight end Tyler Higbee, and four plays later the Rams scored a touchdown.
In last year’s regular-season matchup between the Texans and Chiefs, Houston picked up two fourth-down conversions, both on passes from Deshaun Watson to DeAndre Hopkins. The first set up a touchdown, and the second iced the game: With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Houston decided not to kick a 46-yard field goal that would’ve given it a 10-point lead. Instead, Watson targeted Hopkins on fourth-and-3. Hopkins picked up the first down, and the Texans kneeled to clinch a 31-24 win without ever having to give the ball back to Mahomes.
The Colts also picked up two fourth-down conversions in a 19-13 win over the Chiefs last season—although both came on the same drive, which resulted in an Adam Vinatieri field goal. The Chargers had a fourth-down conversion in their game-winning drive against the Chiefs in 2018, but it’s not as if they had a choice—they were trailing 28-21 and would’ve lost if they didn’t score a touchdown. The Chargers’ truly spicy move was going for a two-point conversion instead of playing for overtime, a gambit that worked:
On the flip side, you can just about always find a moment in teams’ losses to the Chiefs when coaches made risk-averse decisions that immediately backfired. In 2018, the Broncos punted on a fourth-and-5 from Kansas City’s 48-yard line late in the first quarter; the Chiefs promptly drove 89 yards to score a touchdown, and went on to win by four. Last year, Detroit settled for a 25-yard field goal instead of going for it on a fourth down on its opening drive; the Chiefs eventually won by four. In the playoffs, the Colts and Titans punted on fourth-and-4 or shorter against Kansas City a combined four times. Three of the resulting Chiefs drives ended in touchdowns. And let’s not forget this year’s season opener, in which Bill O’Brien punted from the 50-yard line, resulting in a 91-yard touchdown drive for the Chiefs. (O’Brien took plenty of heat for calling a fake punt against the Chiefs en route to blowing a 24-0 lead in last season’s divisional round, but I actually think he had the right idea—the mistake was calling for a fake punt instead of trying to pick up the first down with his regular offense, as he did twice in Houston’s regular-season win over Kansas City. Now he’s scared.)
Coaches are risk-averse by nature, and have been since the day the first coach-amphibian hybrid put on a visor and crawled out of the ocean onto dry land. (It waited several million years to do this, to avoid being criticized in the Monday morning papers.) But the riskiest thing you can do against Kansas City isn’t going for it. It’s voluntarily giving the ball to the most talented quarterback in the history of the sport.
Field position doesn’t matter when you’re playing against Kansas City. Teams have punted to the Chiefs 130 times since Mahomes became their quarterback. Fifty-seven of the ensuing drives have ended in a touchdown (43.8 percent). That’s more than double the league average (21.6 percent). No other team has scored a touchdown on even 30 percent of drives after opposing punts. (The Saints are in second place at 28.4.) The Chiefs’ average drive length after a punt is 48.3 yards, almost 10 full yards better than anybody else. They’re actually more likely to score a touchdown after a punt than they are to have any possible non-scoring outcome; if you add up all of the punts, turnovers, missed field goals, blocked punts, safeties, and ends of halves that have followed punts to the Chiefs in this sample, you only get 51. That bears repeating: Even when opponents have punted to Kansas City, kicking the ball as far from the end zone as possible in an attempt to prevent touchdowns, Mahomes has been more likely to respond with a touchdown than by not scoring at all for his entire young career.
In general, coaches should probably avoid calling for short field goals and unnecessary punts. Analytics nerds have been yelling about this since the first analytics nerd–amphibian hybrid crawled out of the ocean and settled in front of a laptop. (It calculated that the net adjusted food serving per day on land was 0.07 morsels higher than in the ocean.)
But let’s step back for a second and think about this from a non-nerd perspective. Let’s pretend that numbers don’t exist and talk purely from a football standpoint. Regardless of what you think a team’s fourth-down strategy should be in normal games, everybody needs to acknowledge that playing against Patrick Mahomes is not a normal game. This is the baddest dude on the planet. There is no defense that can stop him. It doesn’t matter how far from the end zone his drive starts. He will score. And nobody has ever been able to beat him by multiple scores, so we know that every decision matters. To win, you need to maximize every possession.
Settling for field goals can win coaches games against some teams, but not against Mahomes and the Chiefs. If you fail to convert on a fourth down when playing Kansas City, guess what—you were probably going to lose anyway. But at least you tried. As John Harbaugh’s fourth-and-3 call reminded everyone on Monday night, you have to fucking try.