PHOENIX -- The football floated out of the right hand of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes while his eyes instantly bulged in apparent disbelief. His right arm kept thrusting forward, as it had on countless other pass attempts throughout his career. The ball drifted in the other direction, having slid out of his grasp at a critical juncture in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game. By the time it hit the ground, and Cincinnati defensive end Sam Hubbard had scooped up the fumble at the Bengals' 45-yard line, the damage was evident: It felt as if Mahomes was in the midst of another meltdown against a team that had haunted him in three previous losses.
The noteworthy part of that moment is what happened after it. Mahomes continued to play with an impressive amount of grit and guile, fighting through the pain of a high ankle sprain and frustrating a Cincinnati defense that tormented him into a brutal second half in last year's AFC title match. He dealt with the staggering low of a huge turnover, then promptly faced down everything the Bengals threw at him next. The Mahomes of old might have pressed. The older Mahomes steadied himself.
The Chiefs are facing the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII because they are a talented team that understands how to win. They're also here because their star quarterback, as he proved against Cincinnati, has grown a lot over the last few years.
"I think when you've been in some big games now a couple years in a row, you've learned from your mistakes, and I felt like the year before, I let one mistake kind of compound into two, three or whatever it was," Mahomes said after that victory over the Bengals. "Whereas this game, this last one, instead of worrying about, 'Man, I made a huge mistake when we probably could've had a good chance of not putting the game away but giving ourselves a big lead,' (the mindset was) let's not magnify it. Let's move on to the next play."
Mahomes is so talented that it's easy to take his own maturation for granted. After all, he won the NFL MVP award in his first year as a starter, in 2018, at the age of 23. He won the Super Bowl in his second season under center -- and as he famously admitted on the HBO show The Shop, he couldn't truly read defenses until halfway through that 2019 campaign. He even suffered through a maddening stretch in 2021, when he threw 10 interceptions in his first 10 games while relentlessly searching for big plays.
This isn't the same Mahomes we're seeing now. He's on the verge of winning his second MVP at the age of 27 because his game has elevated to another level. He lost the most electric receiver in football in Tyreek Hill, who was traded away last offseason, and he spent most of this year acclimating himself to a collection of largely unheralded talents. The end result was a spectacular effort -- Mahomes led the league in passing yards (5,250) and touchdowns (41) -- and definitive evidence that the next chapter of his career might be even more impressive than the first.
"He's just so locked in right now, and it has not changed, literally, from when I first got here in OTAs," said Matt Nagy, the Chiefs' senior offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach, ahead of Kansas City's Divisional Round playoff win over Jacksonville. "But when I really noticed it was training camp and then from Day 1, Week 1 until now, he's not changing. He is very, very focused on our opponent. He's very focused on staying within the system and doing what he does best (and) not losing what he ad-libs on."
This season has been filled with numerous moments that exemplify how clearly Mahomes is seeing the game he loves playing. You can look at a Thursday Night Football win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2, when Mahomes eluded a heavy rush, stepped up in the pocket, saw Chargers safety Nasir Adderley jump a crossing route and then launched a 41-yard touchdown pass to Justin Watson. Mahomes was equally magical in a Week 14 win over Denver, as he scrambled toward the sideline to extend a pass play, found a Broncos defender racing toward him and then slung the ball underhand to running back Jerick McKinnon, who ran untouched for a 56-yard score. That was the kind of breathtaking moment that's normally created by high-level NBA point guards on fast breaks.
What's even more jaw-dropping is how Mahomes has operated when his legs have been compromised. He sprained his right ankle late in the first quarter of that playoff matchup with Jacksonville. Ever since that point -- when he talked his way back onto the field -- he's been shredding defenses from the pocket. Mahomes threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals, and he did that despite losing three of his best receivers during the game (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman).
Mahomes has been doing amazing things for five years. The difference now is that he's doing them in subtle ways that still leave a huge impact on the game. "He's just a competitive person," said Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, when asked ahead of the AFC title game about Mahomes playing so well on that injured ankle. "He's a competitive player. It's the intestinal fortitude that's in him. He just refuses to accept that he's not going to put himself out there to be with his teammates. You love that about him."
Smith-Schuster, who is in his first season playing with Mahomes after signing with the Chiefs last March, had this to say heading into the playoffs: "My family or friends are like, 'Oh my God, how's Patrick Mahomes?' and I'm like, 'He's just a special individual.' From myself, it's just like playing (the) Madden (video game). Back then, when you had Michael Vick, (you could) just run all over the field and then launch it 80 yards down the field. It's kind of like that, but for me, it's IRL -- in real life."
This season has been so much sweeter for Mahomes because he's overcome so many challenges to find success. When he acknowledged his faults as a student of the game to his fellow guests on that episode of The Shop that aired three years ago, he wasn't intimating that he was thriving on talent alone. Mahomes wanted to see football in the same way future Hall of Famers like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers saw it.
As Mahomes said on the show, "I understood coverages but how to be able to pick up little tendencies defenses do, stuff that Brady and them have done -- they know it, and they just do it. I was just playing."
When asked about the learning curve involved in moving from his rookie season in 2017 -- when he only played in one game while sitting behind Alex Smith -- to his first year as a starter, Mahomes said back in December, "When I first got in the preseason that first year, I was so focused on getting us in the right position and getting the offense lined up and all that different type of stuff that I wasn't even worried about what the defense was doing. I was just trying to go out there and make sure we were doing stuff the right way, whereas at the end of that last game (his first start at the end of the 2017 regular season) and then into that next preseason, I was focused on what the defense was doing because I was so comfortable in the offense. I think that's where you take the biggest step at the quarterback position."
Mahomes admitted that he had such immense success early in his career that he figured his entire time in the league might be a breeze. That was before he lost to Brady and Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV, when a depleted offensive line resulted in Mahomes running for his life all night. Then came last year, when all those turnovers tainted the start of his season, and that 27-24 overtime loss to Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game ruined the ending. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo crafted a game plan that flustered Mahomes in the second half of that contest -- he threw two interceptions, one that led to the game-deciding field goal in overtime, and the Chiefs blew a 21-3 first-half lead -- and Mahomes often looked confused by the coverages Cincinnati devised.
That was the first time a postseason loss could've been blamed on Mahomes. If that wasn't bad enough, the Chiefs decided that trading Hill to Miami made more sense than rewarding him with another massive contract. The consensus outside the Chiefs' facility was that Kansas City was preparing for a reset. For the first time in his career, Mahomes, who had been given a 10-year, $503 million extension in the summer of 2020, was going to have to succeed in the same manner as a Brady or Rodgers -- by making the players around him better.
That process started with head coach Andy Reid giving Mahomes the opportunity to train with his new receivers at the start of OTAs in the spring. Instead of spending the first stage of those workouts at the Chiefs' facility, the veteran pass-catchers -- tight end Travis Kelce, along with new faces like Smith-Schuster, Watson and Marquez Valdes-Scantling -- joined Mahomes at his offseason home near Dallas to practice. Rookie Skyy Moore would come later in the summer after the team selected him in the second round of last year's draft. Mahomes spent as much time on relationship-building as he did on fine-tuning routes.
When asked about bonding with his receivers this season, Mahomes said: "I think it just changed me in the sense that you have a lot of different personalities, and you have to kind of motivate guys in different types of ways and keep guys going with the culture and how we do things here and to the bigger picture. And so, for us, I think the biggest thing for me and becoming a better leader was I had to just learn that."
The loss of Hill also meant Mahomes had to tinker with his playing style. Mahomes had never been shy about admitting his thirst for the deep shot and how much Hill fed that desire to embarrass opposing defenses. If Reid and Bieniemy called a play in from the sideline, it didn't take much for Mahomes to go off-script based on the coverage given to Hill. That attitude made the Chiefs exciting, but last year, it made defensive coordinators commit to more conservative shell coverages to contain that explosiveness.
The main reason Mahomes committed so many turnovers in the first half of last season was that refusal to accept what defenses were giving him. His success later that season and in this season has everything to do with changing that mentality. "He's wired that way," said Nagy when asked about Mahomes and his aggressive nature. "At the same point in time, defenses know that and sometimes they want to try to take that away and they want to tempt him to take the checkdown, and I think there's a balance there. So, you want to be able to stretch them downfield but be smart with the decision-making -- he knows that. … He's done a great job this year, in my opinion, of taking what the defense gives him."
Nagy said in December that Mahomes has been more aware of not becoming reckless with his footwork. There have been times in games when Mahomes has jogged to the sidelines after possessions and told his coaches that he's slipping into bad habits, that he needs to stick with his progressions and not just look at two receivers and bolt from the pocket on pass plays. Those are the little details that make great quarterbacks even greater. It shows that Mahomes can see outside of himself in real time and calibrate his skills to their highest level.
"I think sometimes players like him, that are so naturally gifted and talented (and) can make different throws from different arm angles, (they) don't have to have their feet set all the time (and) see something before it happens," said Nagy, who rejoined the Chiefs staff this offseason after a stint coaching the Chicago Bears and was the team's offensive coordinator when Mahomes was a rookie in 2017. "(And) sometimes you can get away from some of your standard fundamentals. And the thing with Pat -- and it starts with Coach Reid -- is we really stress that to him. And he wants that to be stressed."
The growth Mahomes has shown on the field doesn't only relate to his play. With this being his third Super Bowl in the last four years, he's far more aware of how to prepare himself mentally for the game. It was only a couple days after the end of the AFC Championship Game that he said he's already designed a plan for Super Bowl week with backup quarterback Chad Henne. Mahomes vividly remembered the whirlwind of his first trip in Super Bowl LIV, when he had to fit in film study around practices held at irregular times and all the media responsibilities that come with playing in this game.
This time around, Mahomes is giving his younger teammates a blueprint of what to expect and how to proceed. There are only 20 players left from the team that lost in Super Bowl LV, so that means he must do more teaching and guiding. One thing that won't be in question is what this opportunity means to Mahomes now. He's gone through plenty of ups and downs over the last two years, all of which have made him even hungrier to show the world how much he's grown at his craft.
"(This season) helped me grow as a quarterback, just having to get through the offense -- the entire offense," Mahomes said in December. "Knowing that we're going to move guys around, we're going to have playmakers everywhere. And you got to just continue to get through your reads, get to the right guy. I think I got in some things the last year (in the 2021 season), especially, where it was Tyreek or Travis, Tyreek or Travis, kind of looking back and forth to that. I think it's helped me become a better quarterback, having to move around and having so many different weapons … So, I think I'll continue to evolve. "