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Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes lay on the sod at Nissan Stadium, having just been on the wrong end of a brutal collision with a 305-pound man. He was in obvious pain yet contemplating what had been painfully obvious for hours.
It wasn’t his day.
Mahomes feels fine, he insisted after Sunday’s 27-3 loss here to the Tennessee Titans, and he fully expects to play next week against the New York Giants after passing the league’s concussion protocol.
But the Chiefs are not fine. In fact, for the first time in Mahomes’ life as a professional football player, they look more like a team that will be a in dogfight for the playoffs than one that could contend for a Super Bowl.
And he’s partly responsible.
Partly. The defense is a mess, and Mahomes is not the only player keeping a remarkable run of turnovers alive. But in the same sentence he said a host of things are plaguing the Chiefs, he also admitted, “Today, it was probably me.”
He added: “Just pressing a little bit too early in the game. And then we got down, and we were in that mode where you’re no huddle, which you don’t want to be in the NFL. You can execute it a little bit, but it’s hard to sustain drives.”
Mahomes finished 20 of 35 for 206 yards. He threw another interception, one that was a mistake from the moment it left his right hand. Or because it even left his hand at all.
His quarterback rating Sunday was 62.3, the worst of his regular-season career in the NFL. It’s only the second time he’s failed to get his team into the end zone during a game, and the other time — Kansas City’s loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs in the most recent Super Bowl, seems to be weighing on this team more, and longer, than anyone would care to admit.
The manner in which he played Sunday in Nashville resembled the manner in which he was required to play that fateful February night in Tampa Bay.
With a sense of panic.
He threw an interception into traffic. His receiver seemed genuinely shocked that ball was even thrown. He fumbled trying to fight for an extra six feet — after already securing the first down — a decision that perplexed him immediately.
“Just go down,” he said after the game. “Why do I try to get the extra 2 yards?”
It’s part of a bigger picture. Mahomes left clean pockets Sunday, an attribute not entirely new, but one he’s worked hard to eliminate.
While sitting on the sideline after drives, he studied a Microsoft Surface tablet and saw receivers open, but he tried for bigger chunks that were instead closed off.
“I want to win. At the end of the day, I want to win. So I try to do whatever I can to win,” Mahomes said. “But you have to believe in the guys around you. You have to know you can go the long way. You can take a short pass, and guys will make guys miss. You can hang in the pocket and make throws.
“But at the end of the day, I just wanna win. Whatever that takes, I’m going to try to do. I’ll look at this film, learn from it, and try to come out better Monday night this week.”
Mahomes has had these conversations before. He had plenty of them this past offseason, not just behind close doors but in front of reporters, or even while sitting on a sofa during a celebrity golf tournament.
Before they had played a game this season, Mahomes, his head coach and his offensive coordinator acknowledged the Chiefs would have to play differently on offense. They’d have to settle for less, but do it consistently.
What seemed then to be a constant reminder to his teammates now appears to have been a constant reminder to himself, too. And it’s one with which he’s still grappling. Not every snap can result in a 14-point play, as he put it. But there’s an urge. There’s an impulse to perform the tricks that turned Mahomes Magic into an MVP phrase in 2018 and a Super Bowl championship after the 2019 season.
Teams don’t allow that magic anymore. The NFL is ready for Mahomes’ former self. The Chiefs have proven they can win without the home run — heck, their points per drive coming into Sunday’s game was actually equal to what they’d done in 2018.
Being more conventional is not a choice now, but a requirement. Mahomes is well-aware of this. And while it’s a leadership quality to point the finger at himself after a loss that had many responsible parties, he played out of character Sunday.
“I don’t know what prompted it,” he said. “I don’t know if it was just me kind of trying to make things happen. But in this league, you have to let things develop. You have to go through the process of making plays. It takes one play at a time.”