2019 AFC Championship: How the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs are finally shedding ghosts of playoffs past

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The question was put to Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce about Patrick Mahomes' leadership. Not the incredible escapability. Not the wrong-handed throws. Not the chuck-it-from-anywhere-on-the-field confidence.

Just a simple question about Mahomes' hegemony. To explain, Kelce went deep.

"It was once he threw that first touchdown pass against San Diego," Kelce said.

Wrong city – they're the Los Angeles Chargers – but right place to begin another chapter of the Legend of Patrick Mahomes. Kelce was referring to the kid's first touchdown pass this season on Sept. 9, which was the first of his career and the first of 50 this regular season.

That was also the first time Kelce knew the then-22-year-old second-year player could not only play but lead.

From his own 42 that day, Mahomes faked a handoff to Kareem Hunt, then threw three-quarters, finding a cutting Tyreek Hill across the middle of the field. Hill eluded the five defenders around him, running the final 47 yards to give the Chiefs a 14-3 lead.

The Chiefs won 38-28 in the season opener and didn't trail at any point in a game for the first month of the season.

"It was a dual read," Kelce said. "He not only had to read the defense and see what they were doing but while the play was going on [he had to decide] either hand the ball off or pull it. He pulled it and threw a dive right into a tiny window to Tyreek Hill. Right then and there, [I saw] game time decisions, instinctual decisions, putting the ball where it needs to be."

For Kelce, everything else flowed from there – the rocket arm, the wins, the leadership. All of it has congealed behind the charisma and right arm of Mahomes, who has taken unofficial ownership of this town.

All that stands in the way are Tom Brady and the Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. At stake is Kansas City's third Super Bowl berth. Their only Super Bowl win, on Jan. 11, 1970, in Super Bowl IV, came 25 years before Mahomes was born (the Chiefs also played in the first Super Bowl, losing to the Packers).

"I'm going to make everybody proud who believed in me," Mahomes said.

Listen to Jason La Canfora and Will Brinson break down the AFC and NFC title games on the Pick Six Podcast:

With Brady in town, Mahomes' breakout season highlights how the Chiefs have struggled to get the quarterback thing right. Until Saturday, there had been 25 years between home playoff wins. The last one before Saturday, in 1993, featured a Joe Montana at the end of his career.

Mahomes is the second year of a career that already seems destined to one day end with his name on Arrowhead Stadium's ring of honor.

As if the football gods dictated it, the now-23-year-old budding superstar faces Brady, the 41-year old sure Hall of Famer. The trite approach is to consider it a passing of the torch if Mahomes and the Chiefs win. The 18-year difference in ages in the two starting quarterbacks is a playoff record.

Kelce has deeper thoughts.

"Reps is how you develop it," he said of Mahomes' budding talent, "going through the motions of training camp, even in games. Knowing that the play is not always dead. That he's always going to try to a new way to get you the ball."

Championship Sunday: Watch Rams-Saints at 3:05 p.m. ET on Fox, stream on fuboTV, try for free, and watch Patriots-Chiefs at 6:40 p.m. ET on CBS, stream on CBS All Access.

Certainly Kansas City, and maybe the NFL, has never seen such a swashbuckling playmaker. Mahomes makes throws they teach you to avoid in pee-wee ball.

-- The left-handed first-down throw to Hill against the Broncos

-- The six touchdown passes against the Steelers.

All of it led to Mahomes becoming the second NFL quarterback ever to throw for at least 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards.

It's all on the shoulders of a guy who knows nothing of Kansas City's past playoff disappointments. Mahomes was mostly a spectator during his rookie season in 2017, backing up starter/mentor Alex Smith. In Smith's last game, the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead at home to the Titans, losing 22-21 in a wild-card playoff game.

It was the latest gut punch to a franchise used to self-inflicted playoff wounds.

"Alex was as smart a guy as I've coached in my career," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "That says something about the kid [that he was willing to learn]."

Even with the then-rookie running the scout team, Kelce saw an apprenticeship being well-served.

"It kind of prepared him for the moment," he said. "It got his confidence going that he could still make the type of throws, in his mind, he could make."

Could Mahomes have jumped under center as a rookie in 2017? Based on this season's results he might have been a better option than Smith.

"I hope I would have won a lot of games last year," Mahomes said. "I don't know if I could have done this. Coming into it, you don't know what you don't really know. You don't know what it takes to be a real successful quarterback in the NFL."

Now he is the standard. Mahomes and Reid have been the tip of the spear adopting college spread and RPO concepts

In the traditionally restricted space of the NFL playoffs, Mahomes calmly led again. Last week he did not throw a touchdown pass in a game for the first time in more than two months. The Chiefs won by 18 over Indianapolis.  

If you still haven't marked your calendar for the Super Bowl, the game will be kicking off from Atlanta on Feb. 3 and will be televised by CBS and you can stream it right here. If you're thinking about buying a new TV for the big game, CNET has you covered. They shared their best picks for every budget.

Pat Mahomes Sr. saw something from the time Patrick the toddler was running around an Alex Rodriguez-era Texas Rangers locker room.

"Probably since he was about 5 I thought he was going to have a chance to do some special things," Mahomes' dad told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I just thought it would be baseball."

Mahomes Sr. played in the majors for 11 years. The son is reshaping the NFL as a millennial.

"He does his job and he does it great," said Chiefs running back Damien Williams. "[But] off the field, he's a brother. He's a friend. He's doing every little thing. It's fun to see him so involved with guys. Not just offensive guys, defensive guys. He's in the mix."

There is a basketball goal outside the showers in the Chiefs practice facility where Mahomes really dominates.

"Just shooting the basketball around in the locker room, he's really competing," Williams said. "We tell him, 'You're the starting quarterback. You need to go sit down. We got this.'

"To see him actually involved [like that], you don't get that a lot."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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