It's what we're all wondering -- what in the world happened to Patrick Mahomes after halftime in the AFC Championship Game? The Chiefs looked primed to cruise to a blowout win at home to reach their third straight Super Bowl. Then everything for Kansas City went kaput.
After a nearly flawless first half in which he went 18 of 22 for 220 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, Mahomes had a dud of epic proportions in the second half and overtime.
Mahomes dropped back 24 times after halftime. He completed 8 of 18 passes for 55 yards with two interceptions, four sacks, and no touchdowns.
The Bengals philosophy on Mahomes' second drop back of the third quarter foreshadowed what they'd do for the remainder of the game. It was a bold but brilliant defensive wrinkle, and it worked amazingly.
Cincinnati showed a four-man rush but ultimately dropped No. 94, Sam Hubbard (top of the line) into coverage. No. 24, safety Vonn Bell, looked to be part of a classic two-deep safety look at the snap, but drifted downhill to take away intermediate routes over the middle.
Now, giving Mahomes time -- via a three-man rush -- and technically playing single-high safety was previously thought to be a recipe for a disaster defensively, because of Kansas City's speed, Mahomes' arm, and the club's ability to hit the home run over the top. But the Bengals realized the Chiefs were mostly moving the football underneath and at the second level of the defense that, due to the safeties' alignment, had provided ample space in those areas.
Cincinnati was steadfast in its defensive tweak, utilizing some variation of it on nearly every Mahomes drop back after halftime.
Here, it caused Mahomes to prematurely leave the pocket to his right and throw the ball away.
But notice, three-man rush. Safety floating over the middle.
And we get nearly the identical coverage and front-seven play on a big sack later in the game. This time, Bates (No. 30) was actually in the box at the snap, but in that "robber" role, he's given the freedom to simply find someone to cover, and he located the shallow cross by DeMarcus Robinson (No. 11) who was likely the target meant to get the ball to move the chains.
After Mahomes noticed Bates driving on that route, it turned into backyard football, and the Bengals got the quarterback.
Occasionally, Cincinnati threw in a spy on Mahomes as well, and on this play later in the fourth, that did feature Bell taking away the deep middle instead of "robbing" at the intermediate level. Kansas City's tackles simply got beat around the corner.
Notice how No. 33, cornerback Tre Flowers, drifted into the middle of the field to occupy that area the Chiefs love to exploit.
This was not a defensive idea based in fear. And the Bengals did mix in some simulated pressure by way of cornerback blitzes from one side of the line and a defensive end sinking into coverage on the other side. Like here. Watch how Hilton blitzes from the top, and Hubbard sits in Mahomes' intended throwing lane, which made the quarterback hesitate. That tentativeness catalyzed B.J. Hill's game-flipping interception.
Kansas City's play design played right into Cincinnati's hands on that play. Awesome concentration from Hill to tip the football and make that interception.
Let's finish with the Chiefs' flop of a red-zone possession near the end of regulation and the failed overtime drive.
Tell me if this looks familiar: Three-man rush, QB spy, and a discombobulated Mahomes.
How about this? "Simulated" blitz -- only four rushers -- with the "extra" rusher coming by way of Hilton off the edge. Mahomes thought he needed to get rid of the ball in a hurry and it was sensible to throw to the spot on the field the "blitzer" vacated.
Robinson wasn't ready for the pass, and it was ever-so-close to the Bengals going to the Super Bowl on an overtime pick-six.
Now for Mahomes' final throw of the game, the Bell interception.
Mahomes decided to let one rip down the field, something he hadn't done at any point in the second half. He had a single high safety, the other safety robbing the middle of the field, and the lightning-fast Hill running a deep crosser. Perfect, right?
Would've been, except Bell felt Hill behind him and was able to float toward that side of the field with Kelce breaking in that direction too. Bates, one of the rangiest safeties in football, was able to get over the top while Bell sunk, and the two pinched the throw exquisitely. It was tipped and intercepted.
I assume Hill and Kelce's routes were designed to put Bell in conflict, with a route in front and behind him. But the safety did a marvelous job of reading that the pass was going over his head. He had enough twitch and speed to run underneath the long ball.
By naturally clogging throwing lanes with eight in coverage, spying the quarterback, simulating pressure with corner blitzes, and allowing Bell -- and occasionally fellow safety Bates -- to roam free over the middle, Mahomes and the Chiefs were epically perplexed. It was a master class in proper defensive adjustment by coordinator Lou Anarumo, and his players executed fantastically.
Kansas City's confusion helped spark a dazzling comeback by the Bengals. And now, Cincinnati is in the Super Bowl.