INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Patrick Mahomes stepped into the huddle on late Sunday night and looked at his teammates. The clocks inside SoFi Stadium said there was a minute and 46 seconds left. The Chiefs trailed the Chargers by four points after another Justin Herbert-led touchdown drive. They needed to go 75 yards to the end zone to escape back to Kansas City with a victory. The vibes in the huddle felt surprisingly routine.
“I actually thought it was cool today,” Mahomes said. “I went in the huddle, and everybody was just like: ‘Let’s just do it.’ ”o they did.
Mahomes hit receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling for 18 yards, scrambled to his left for another six, benefitted from a defensive holding penalty, hit rookie Skyy Moore for another 13 yards, and then took off up the middle for a 16-yard run that took the ball to the Chargers’ 17-yard line. On the next play — the sixth of the drive — Mahomes found Travis Kelce on a crossing pattern that turned into a 17-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left, and if there was any question as to the identity of the NFL MVP, of the best player in football, it was answered across 75 seconds Sunday in the Chiefs’ 30-27 victory against the Chargers.
Mahomes was playing without his top receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was out with a concussion; he was without receiver Mecole Hardman, who was placed on injured reserve this week with an undisclosed abdomen issue; for most of the game, he was without Kadarius Toney, his latest offensive gadget, who exited the game with a hamstring injury. Which meant that he was effectively throwing to Kelce; a rookie going through growing pains in Moore; a backup in Justin Watson; and a battery of reserve tight ends. All Mahomes did was finish the night with 329 yards passing and three touchdowns, including the effortless final drive, which led Chiefs coach Andy Reid to wonder if his team had raced down the field too quickly.
“I thought we gave them too much time,” Reid said.
Mahomes has been so good this season — and pretty much every season — that his latest winning drive barely registered as anything all that special. Everyone on the Chiefs’ sideline, and everyone in the huddle, knew exactly what was about to happen inside SoFi Stadium.
Let’s just go do it.
“Pat is playing at an MVP level,” defensive tackle Chris Jones said. “They left too much time on the clock for Pat. A minute and 45?”
Mahomes leads the NFL in passing touchdowns (28) and yards (3,265). He is on pace, thanks to a 17th game, to finish with 48 touchdowns and throw for 5,550 yards, which would break Peyton Manning’s NFL record for single-season passing yards (5,477). But it’s not just the numbers that have defined his 2022 season. He is no longer throwing footballs to Tyreek Hill, perhaps the best receiver in the world, so if you account for the degree of difficulty — and the parts around him — he is arguably playing better than ever. On Sunday, he improved 14-0 in his career in AFC West road games, a statistic that would not feel real were it not followed immediately by another one just like it. Mahomes, for instance, has also won 25 consecutive games in the months of November and December.
“Pat Mahomes,” Reid said. “I mean, what are you gonna say there?”
Reid went on to say that Mahomes calms everything down — on both sides of the ball. He is protecting the football and using his legs and pulling in adoration from no less a source than actor Henry Winkler, who was in the house Sunday and collected a jersey from Mahomes. “One of my heroes,” he said, more than once.
More important than “the Fonz,” Mahomes, in his fifth season as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, appears to be hitting the coveted sweet spot in which his decision-making and reads are aligning with his immense talent and ability to improvise. If a play breaks down, he can kill you in three different ways. He can also plant his back foot in the pocket and throw a dart to a backup tight end 40 yards down field. Earlier this week, and again late Sunday night, Mahomes joked that he has boiled down the quarterback position to a simple equation.
“I just go through the reads unless Kelce’s manned up and I throw him the ball,” he said.If you watched Mahomes on Sunday, of course, you probably saw that he was not really joking. For much of the game the Chargers tried to get physical with Kelce by blanketing him with safety Derwin James, and for most of Sunday night, the strategy was somewhat effective.
“Derwin James probably got the better of me throughout the entire game,” Kelce conceded.
Yet as the Chargers tried desperately to limit Kelce, Mahomes started finding Moore, Watson and backup tight end Jody Fortson, who finished with two catches for 51 yards. And in the final minutes, Reid and Mahomes found a way to get Kelce some space, sensing that James kept shading Kelce to the outside, taking away his vertical routes and anything outside.
“He was locking me up pretty good,” Kelce said. “And Coach Reid saw that and called a play where I could just get across the field and try to beat him with my legs.”
Kelce streaked across the middle of the field. Mahomes delivered the ball in the perfect spot. The Chiefs, 8-2, stretched their AFC West lead to three games with seven remaining, paving the way for a seventh consecutive division title. Kansas City also remains in position to claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC and host the AFC Championship for a fifth consecutive year. The path to the best record in the AFC may not be as smooth as the divisional race. There are still seven games to play, and the Chiefs do not have the tie-breaker against the Bills. But after Sunday night, one thing remained clear: Nobody else in the race has Mahomes