He's only been leading the Kansas City Chiefs for two seasons, but Patrick Mahomes is already considered by some to be one of the best quarterbacks ever, which means that years down the line -- when the internet is consumed with angry fans petitioning for a remake of the Game of Thrones prequel and complaining about how Kylo Ren's son (don't ask me how that'd work) shouldn't have perished in Star Wars episode 12 -- Mahomes is going to be measured against Tom Brady, the quarterback most consider to be the best to have ever played the game.
Barring a career-derailing injury to Mahomes or a new Patriots scandal that renders Brady's accomplishments illegitimate, the comparison is inevitable. The number of championships they've won will undoubtedly be used as a measuring stick. So will their fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, since it's one tool we often use to judge great quarterbacks -- like Brady, whose legacy began with a game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI and peaked with the most improbable of comebacks in the history of sports against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
What's interesting about Mahomes, who will make his Super Bowl debut against the same coach who was coordinating the offense of the team that fell victim to that historic Brady comeback, is that his resume doesn't include many game-winning drives or fourth-quarter comebacks. In 31 career starts in the regular season, he's pieced together only four game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks. In four playoff starts, he technically has zero of either. For the sake of comparison, Deshaun Watson already has 10 game-winning drives and eight fourth-quarter comebacks in 38 regular-season games. Jimmy Garoppolo, who will meet the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, has four of each this season alone.
Peyton Manning holds the all-time record in fourth-quarter comebacks with 43. Brady isn't far behind with 36. Manning also ranks first in game-winning drives with 54. Brady ranks fourth with 45. But if you factor in the postseason too, Brady actually has 45 fourth-quarter comebacks and 58 game-winning drives. Manning has 45 and 56, respectively. That's why Brady has earned the reputation as the most-clutch quarterback of all time.
Using game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks to measure a quarterback's greatness has always been somewhat paradoxical. Mounting a game-winning drive or fourth-quarter comeback means the quarterback in question didn't play well enough to be carrying a lead late in the game. Ideally, a quarterback would play well enough in quarters one through three to be in a situation where his team is winning comfortably throughout the final quarter. That's why it felt
weird wrong when Matthew Stafford was briefly garnering MVP support in 2016 as he broke Peyton Manning's single-season record for the most fourth-quarter comebacks. It ignored the fact that Stafford was actively playing a role in creating the deficits he was later overcoming much later in the game.
Mahomes' lack of game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks shouldn't be held against him. In his 31 career regular-season starts, the Chiefs are 24-7 and they've outscored their opposition by an average of 9.5 points per game. In his four career playoff starts, the Chiefs are 3-1 and they've outscored their opposition by an average of 10.8 points per game. Going through his game log and box scores, it's remarkable how many big leads the Chiefs have held with Mahomes at quarterback. That's far more important than game-winning drives or come-from-behind wins, because it eliminates the possibility of a loss.
But that doesn't mean Mahomes doesn't have the so-called "clutch gene". He has a knack for engineering late-game magic, even if he's not forced to do much of it, even if his comebacks don't always go down in the record books as fourth-quarter comebacks. Don't let his four game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks fool you. If you believe in clutch, you should also believe in Mahomes.
Coincidentally enough, his first-ever start against the Broncos in Week 17 of his rookie season, when Alex Smith was given the week off before the playoffs, featured a game-winning drive. After Paxton Lynch tied the game with a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas (#TBT) with 2:53 remaining -- which came after the Chiefs put Mahomes on the bench to give Tyler Bray some reps (oops) -- Mahomes led the Chiefs on an 11-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a walk-off field goal. His product didn't look as polished as it is today -- he threw up one downfield prayer that could've been picked -- but even as a rookie making his first career start, it featured the type of play that has come to define his career.
For some Chiefs fans, this was the moment they knew Mahomes was a quarterback unlike any they'd seen before.
You have to fast forward to Week 4 of the 2018 season to find a fourth-quarter comeback, but it was a doozy. Also against the Broncos in Denver, the Chiefs trailed 23-13 with 12:47 to play. Mahomes manufactured a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to three points and an eight-play, 60-yard touchdown drive to win the game. On those two drives, he went 14 of 17 for 153 yards and a touchdown.
You definitely remember his left-handed pass, but don't overlook this throw across his body to turn a third-and-16 into a fourth-and-1. Down 10, it was a play the Chiefs absolutely needed. It was also a throw that only a few quarterbacks can make because it required a ridiculous amount of arm talent.
Then there's the left-handed throw that converted a third down on the game-winning drive that you definitely remember, but probably don't mind seeing again.
One play later, he eluded pressure to hit Demarcus Robinson for 23 yards on second-and-30.
Time and time again, Mahomes kept digging the Chiefs out of self-dug holes until they found the end zone and stole a win that announced Mahomes' arrival as the best quarterback playing football at that moment in time -- something that remains true a year and a half later.
Two weeks later, the Chiefs trailed the Patriots in Foxborough by a touchdown in the closing minutes. Mahomes needed one play to tie the game, hitting Tyreek Hill for a 75-yard touchdown. But the Patriots went back down the field and won the game at the death. It wouldn't be the last time Mahomes would be robbed of an official fourth-quarter comeback (the stat requires the the quarterback's team to either finish with a win or a tie) against the Patriots.
Similarly, in a 54-51 loss to the Rams a month later, Mahomes threw a go-ahead touchdown with 2:47 remaining, but the Chiefs' defense failed to hold the lead. Given that Mahomes turned the ball over five times in that game, he too was at fault for the result. Given that he threw for 478 yards and six touchdowns, I think we can let the giveaways slide.
Three weeks later, Mahomes made more magic happen in an overtime win over the Ravens. After the Ravens took a seven-point lead with just over four minutes to go in regulation, Mahomes proceeded to piece together an 11-play, 75-yard drive to tie the game. That drive featured one of the best throws of Mahomes' career: a 48-yard bomb across his body on fourth down.
Four plays later, Mahomes tied the game with a touchdown pass. In overtime, the Chiefs kicked a field goal and the defense scrounged together a stop.
Getting stops was a rarity for the Chiefs' defense in 2018. A few weeks later, Mahomes couldn't erase an 11-point deficit to the Seahawks in Seattle because his defense couldn't generate a stop after he cut the margin from 11 to 3. Mahomes led the Chiefs to 20 points on their final five drives, but the defense didn't do its part.
After a comfortable win over the Colts in his playoff debut, the Chiefs hosted the Patriots in the AFC Championship. We all remember this game. We remember Dee Ford lining up offside. We remember Brady's brilliance on third down. We remember the Patriots winning in overtime,
In the initial aftermath of that game, I thought Mahomes' performance in the second half was overlooked. I think it remains overlooked. I don't think you'll find many better playoff performances than Mahomes' in that second half. I think if the Chiefs had won the overtime coin toss, Mahomes' performance would've gone down in the annals of all-time great postseason quarterback play.
That doesn't mean Mahomes is blameless for the 14-0 canyon the Chiefs found themselves in at halftime. It just means he doesn't get the credit he deserves for his heroics in the second half because a coin toss didn't go his way and his defense wasn't capable of producing one stop.
Coming out of halftime, Mahomes went from zero to 60 with a four-play, 74-yard touchdown drive. The final two plays -- the first was a third-down conversion and the second was a touchdown -- of that series belong in the "perfect throws beat perfect defense" category of plays.
Kinda feels like we’re sleeping on how ridiculous this Mahomes deep ball on third down was. This isn’t a throw most QBs make with this kind of precision pic.twitter.com/AQVnYG8aR6— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 21, 2019
Next play? Puts the ball in a perfect spot for a touchdown. The smallest of margins. pic.twitter.com/tX4i3ELTBc— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 21, 2019
Down 10 points later in the third quarter, he converted a third down with a wicked sidearm release. The drive culminated with another perfectly placed touchdown early in the fourth quarter to slice the deficit to three points.
How many other quarterbacks are capable of doing this? pic.twitter.com/wSV9eZ1Dre— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 21, 2019
As Romo noted on the broadcast, the ball placement here is perfect. Away from the trailing linebacker, but makes sure he’s not leading Williams out of bounds. pic.twitter.com/0oePiAMYan— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 21, 2019
In the final eight minutes of the game, the Chiefs offense had three possessions. They scored 17 points. Their last drive was remarkable. Down three with 32 seconds left, Mahomes needed two plays to move the ball from the Chiefs' 31-yard line to the Patriots' 21-yard line to set up a game-tying field goal. He did so in spectacular fashion.
Down three with 32 seconds left, Mahomes had the ball at his own 31 with one timeout. It takes him two plays to get into FG range. This is just great pocket work and an even better throw on the run. pic.twitter.com/Kmx5SG0hPe— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 21, 2019
Just can’t make a better throw. pic.twitter.com/WZsbRR4fuE— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 21, 2019
Mahomes never touched the ball again after the Patriots won the coin toss between regulation and overtime, and marched straight downfield for six. And that's how his MVP season ended.
His chances for comebacks this year, at least during the regular season, were few and far between. Prior to his knee injury, he did overcome two separate three-point deficits in a win over the Lions. The game-winning touchdown was only possible because of Mahomes' decision to scramble for a fourth-down conversion -- something he's been doing more of in recent weeks as he distances himself from the injury that cost him two starts in the middle of the season.
He did, however, fail in a couple come-from-behind opportunities.
The Colts beat the Chiefs 19-13 (the fewest points the Chiefs have ever scored with Mahomes under center) in Week 5. After the Colts took a 16-10 lead with 7:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs turned the ball over on downs. That said, on that failed drive, Mahomes did manage to complete a 27-yard pass on third-and-28 before Damien Williams got stuffed on fourth-and-1. The Colts promptly tacked on a field goal, essentially ending the game. You can hold the Chiefs scoring only 10 points up until that point in the game against Mahomes, but you can't hold the outcome of that drive against him.
The following week, the Chiefs lost to the Texans, 31-24. The Texans took that seven-point lead with 6:24 remaining. The Chiefs proceeded to go three-and-out. They never got the ball back, as the Texans successfully killed off the remaining 5:03. Who deserves the blame for that ill-fated drive? The play-caller. The Chiefs lost four yards on a screen. Then -- and this is the crucial moment -- they ran the ball on second-and-14 to set up a third-and-13. Mahomes never had a chance on third down after he was flushed from the pocket at the onset of the play and forced to his left. Running the ball on second-and-long should be outlawed. It should be a felony when your quarterback is Mahomes.
Finally, there was the 35-32 loss to the Titans in Week 10. But in that loss, the Chiefs led most of the way until the Titans took a three-point lead with 29 seconds showing on the game clock. After a nice return set up the Chiefs at their own 38-yard line, Mahomes completed passes of 23 yards and five yards. But Harrison Butker's game-tying field goal was blocked. Again, it's tough to pin the result on Mahomes, who threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns without turning the ball over and put his team in a position to send the game to overtime. The Chiefs' normally reliable kicking team just didn't execute.
That brings us to this year's postseason. Neither of the Chiefs' two playoff wins have involved fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, but both qualify for this story.
In their 51-31 win over the Texans, the Chiefs trailed 24-0 in the second quarter. The deficit was not Mahomes' fault. The Chiefs first three drives ended in three dropped passes on third down and one questionable decision to punt by Andy Reid.
By halftime, the Chiefs were winning 28-24. Mahomes erased a 24-point deficit in a single quarter with four touchdown passes. He ended up leading the Chiefs to touchdowns on seven straight drives, which is far more impressive than a fourth-quarter comeback or a game-winning drive, highlighting the flaw of the stat. If any other quarterback had vanquished a 24-0 deficit, it probably would've taken them every minute of regulation to do so and thus, they would've been credited with a fourth-quarter comeback and a game-winning drive. It took Mahomes less than a quarter. When the legend of Mahomes is ready to be written, the comeback against the Texans will be above the fold.
There are too many plays from the comeback to include, but here are a few noteworthy instances of his greatness.
Watching where Williams was (and where he was looking) when Mahomes released this ball make me chortle. This is such a "trust your route and turn, the ball will be there" play. pic.twitter.com/NL7AJ9qcFc— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 14, 2020
Mahomes doesn't really have a window to throw to Kelce here due to the pass rushers, so he creates one by leaning way to his right and altering his arm angle. Still absolutely pinpoint.— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 14, 2020
This is hilarious. pic.twitter.com/lMwt4XOlvV
Another "window creating" throw (push?) by Mahomes.— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 14, 2020
This window does not exist for 99% of QB's. It just doesn't. There's a freaking linebacker in the way. It's witchcraft. pic.twitter.com/DTTAw1x3Ir
Now that Mahomes is actually healthy, he's fast enough to outrun your pass rushers. Which means man coverage is dangerous because he might have an easy 15 yards in front of him.— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 14, 2020
There's no "right" answer here. pic.twitter.com/PufvSBFQFW
2nd and 15? No problem, Mahomes will just throw a laser to Kelce that's placed so well the coverage doesn't matter. pic.twitter.com/i9wyuhFobh— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 14, 2020
Look at where Kelce is as Mahomes starts to throw the ball. Literally turned the other way. There's no defending this stuff when Mahomes and Kelce are on their game. pic.twitter.com/ndWh95VD85— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 14, 2020
Mahomes' comeback against the Titans in the AFC Championship wasn't as ethereal, but it once again serves as an example of how great he's been when tasked with orchestrating a come-from-behind win. The Titans held a 17-7 lead with 6:43 remaining in the first half. By halftime, they trailed 21-17 after Mahomes threw a 20-yard touchdown and ran for a 27-yard touchdown.
Mahomes with an absolute rope. Good lord.— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) January 22, 2020
Also, look at Fisher doing work and Schwartz finding some, while Reiter does a nice job helping Wisniewski. pic.twitter.com/zdr27e9gof
This run by @PatrickMahomes 🤯 pic.twitter.com/k3UckGScz5— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 20, 2020
They didn't trail the rest of the way. Now, they're in the Super Bowl.
I'll be honest -- I don't really know that there are many lessons the 49ers can take away from Mahomes' historic playoff run, his overall dominance since he became the Chiefs' starter, or his knack for erasing deficits in a matter of minutes.
To a certain degree, there's not much a defense can do to stop Mahomes. The 49ers can play zone and get picked apart. They can play man-to-man and get burned deep or surrender rushing yards to Mahomes as they scramble to cover all of his weapons downfield. They can pressure him and hope his athleticism, quick trigger, and ability to change his arm angle doesn't beat them anyway. They can hope Mahomes suffers a bad game even though Mahomes doesn't have bad games.
That's not hyperbole, by the way.
Here's the 2-season version of Pat Mahomes never has bad games pic.twitter.com/xxHmiJSI02— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) December 23, 2019
What's interesting is that Kyle Shanahan will be on the other sideline as the 49ers' coach and play-caller. Shanahan, of course, was the Falcons' offensive coordinator when they fell victim to Brady's 28-3 comeback.
For every epic comeback, there's an equally epic collapse. For that collapse, Shanahan was blamed.
As the Patriots clawed their way back into the game, Shanahan stuck with a pass-first mentality. Up 28-9, the Falcons went three-and-out on a series that included three passing plays (one running play was negated by a holding penalty). Up 28-12, Shanahan called a passing play on third-and-1, which resulted in a strip-sack that turned into eight Patriots points. Up 28-20, Shanahan kept letting Matt Ryan drop back to pass, and it worked. Ryan led the Falcons down to the Patriots' 22-yard line. With under five minutes to play, a field goal would've cut the head off the snake. But Shanahan called yet another pass and Ryan took an unforgivable sack that lost 12 yards. They lost another 10 yards on third down due to a penalty. And that's how they exited field goal range and punted the ball back to the Patriots, which led to the tying eight points, overtime, a walk-off Patriots touchdown, and the birth of an all-time great meme.
It's easy to blame Shanahan with the added benefit of hindsight, but Shanahan had good reason to keep throwing the ball. It gets lost in the shuffle because of the Falcons' collapse, but Ryan was actually in the middle of an all-time great playoff run after an MVP regular season. Ryan threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions in the regular season. In the Falcons' two playoff games before the Super Bowl, he threw for 730 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions. To help build that 28-3 lead over the Patriots, Ryan threw two more touchdowns. What Shanahan was doing was relying on his strength. He was staying aggressive because he knew he was up against Brady and the Falcons needed more points. Obviously, the process didn't lead to the right results, but if Ryan hadn't taken that brutal sack and the Falcons had kicked a short field goal, we would've celebrated Shanahan's aggressiveness and willingness to let his best player go win the game.
As Shanahan chases redemption in Super Bowl LIV, he needs to maintain that aggressive mindset. No lead against Mahomes is safe. If the 49ers jump out to an early lead, they can't relax. They need to approach the game thinking that they have to score at least 35 points to have a shot at beating the Chiefs, knowing full well it might actually require 40 or 50 points to finish the job.
That doesn't mean Shanahan should throw the ball 40 times. Unlike that Falcons offense, the strength of this 49ers offense isn't its quarterback. We just watched the 49ers beat the Packers by running the ball 42 times for 285 yards and four touchdowns. Jimmy Garoppolo, who isn't in the same quarterbacking universe as Mahomes, attempted eight passes. The Chiefs, who did just become the first team since the Broncos in Week 6 to hold Derrick Henry to under 4.0 yards per carry, are considerably better against the pass (sixth by DVOA) than the run (29th by DVOA). Running the ball has worked quite well for the 49ers.
It just means Shanahan would be right to remain aggressive no matter how many scores he's winning by, and that includes going for fourth downs instead of punting and kicking field goals. You don't beat Mahomes by punting and kicking. Against the Packers, the 49ers punted on fourth-and-1 on their opening drive and kicked a short field goal on fourth-and-2 to turn a three-score lead into a three-score lead. It didn't end up mattering because the 49ers were THAT much better than the Packers, but those kinds of decisions won't work out well against the Chiefs. No lead is safe against the Chiefs. No predetermined amount of points is enough to beat the Chiefs.
How do the 49ers prevent Mahomes from engineering another remarkable comeback? They probably can't.
The only solution is to keep scoring.