KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Patrick Mahomes settled in the pocket of a shotgun formation, he looked to his right, eyes briefly locking on wide receivers Marcus Kemp and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. He followed with an even quicker look to his left, spotting tight ends Noah Gray and Jody Fortson stationary on the end of the line of scrimmage.
Eighteen games into the season, the quartet had combined for all of 79 catches.
Yet here they stood, the crutches on which the Chiefs would lean their postseason aspirations in the third quarter of an AFC Championship Game.
They won a game like this. Earned a trip to the Super Bowl like this. Beat the Bengals and Joe Burrow for the first in four tries with this personnel.
The Chiefs finished the AFC title game without wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman, Justin Watson and Kadarius Toney, all of who only 48 hours earlier had been part of the game plan.
Turns out, it didn’t matter whom the Chiefs were playing without.
It’s whom they were playing with.
And they still had Mahomes. Bum ankle and all.
If there’s any surprise that the Chiefs beat the Bengals despite being so severely short-handed in the second half last weekend, it derives from those who ignored the previous four months. Because we’ve been replaying a version of this story, over and over again.
A quarterback lost his best weapon — better than anyone he lost in-game Sunday — and still paced the best offense in football in both yards and points.
Sure, while the test was similar, this represented a tougher grading system than playing without Tyreek Hill, but it’s identical in concept. Take away the quarterback’s receivers — and then watch him flourish anyway.
That is the story of the 2022 Chiefs.
And their leading character.
Mahomes responded to the most significant change of his young career with the most valuable season of any passer in the league. With the most valuable season of any player in the league.
That will be the operative word in the days to come. As the appetizer to the main course of the Super Bowl, the NFL Honors ceremony will announce the Most Valuable Player award on Thursday, on a program that will air live on NBC and NFL Network.
And for the first time, Mahomes should be ingesting both. The MVP honor. Then the Super Bowl.
He is nearly a lock for the award. The betting market has him as a significant favorite for an award he was listed as 9-to-1 to win before the season began.
That’s what makes this season distinctive. That’s what makes Mahomes distinctive.
No player in the last two decades has packaged together a Lombardi Trophy with an MVP trophy, and Mahomes remains firmly in the mix. It’s been done 10 times overall, the most recent by Kurt Warner with the Rams in 1999.
It would represent the second time Mahomes is named the league’s MVP. He also won in 2018, his first year as a starter.
Let’s be honest: We don’t really need to argue the case on his behalf. He led the league in basic statistics like yards, touchdowns and QBR, while also lapping the field in more advanced metrics like expected points added. Heck, he broke an NFL single-season record with 5,614 yards. A league-high 6.3% of his throws resulted in touchdowns. He had a career-high four game-winning drives. He threw a touchdown in every game he played and multiple touchdowns in all but five.
OK, maybe it was worth covering his case briefly. But it is so clear that his name should be called Thursday evening that rather than dissect it further, we should focus more on where Mahomes got better — when conventional wisdom, if not logic, suggested a step in the opposite direction.
It’s not like you were a quote-unquote hater for thinking that just maybe losing the guy who has served as his leading wide receiver for the past four seasons might prompt a bit of regression. Most of us suspected that, even those of us who applauded the Hill trade.
But then Mahomes got better. In a lot areas, to be sure, but in one specific area that’s most notable.
When teams don’t blitz.
Since the second start of Mahomes’ career, teams have avoided bringing extra rushers against him. They know what the numbers show: He recognizes it early and carves up the open space.
In 2022, he drastically improved against the opposite circumstances — when teams sit back and make him make a play. One year ago, he graded as the 19th best quarterback in the NFL in non-blitz scenarios, per PFF, a 70,0 overall grade. This year, he was second, at 92.3. He had a 102.1 passer rating when teams rush four guys or fewer, using data from Sports Info Solutions. That’s his rating in the situations that gave him the most trouble a year ago. He turned his biggest weakness into a 102.1 rating.
He’s followed through on a conversation he’s been having with us for two years now — taking what’s there. Mahomes threw fewer deep passes than any year of his career, dipping under 10% for the first time. For comparison, 20-plus-yard passes accounted for 15.9% of his throws in his first season as a starter, using statistics from PFF.
The personnel changed. Then he did, too.
Not only did short passes (0-9 yards) account for a higher percentage of his attempts, at 44.2%, he compiled a better passer rating than any year of his career on them. In the argument of nature versus nurture, this one tilts in favor of the latter.
Defenses forced him to adapt. And he responded.
With typical numbers. Typical results.
Just a significant change in the way he got there.
In the end, Mahomes will win his second MVP award because of a change in mentality more than a physical adjustment. Well, because of multiple changes in mentality.
In the offseason, he made a point to better handle mistakes — his own mistakes, by the way.
See, going back to that play that opened this column, it was his inexplicable fumble in the second half last weekend, the ball literally slipping out of his hands, and the lead along with it. The scenario felt reminiscent of a year earlier, when he threw a horrendous interception in the second half against the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game.
On that day a year ago, it was an omen.
Last weekend, it was a blip.
And perhaps that’s his most notable one-year turnaround — or at least the reason for it.