KANSAS CITY, Mo. –Earlier this year, quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked to the most logical person for inspiration on handling what was shaping up to be his most difficult NFL season: Tom Brady. Mahomes wasn’t piling up his usual big passing numbers, and the Kansas City Chiefs weren’t getting big plays or scoring plenty of points in their normal manner.
Mahomes took note that Brady won throughout his career with the New England Patriots and did it in a variety of ways. Sometimes Brady did so by way of 5,000 yards or 50 touchdown passes, sometimes he was a caretaker for a team led by its defense or running game.
During a season in which the Chiefs started 3-4, it struck Mahomes that his game might have to evolve and be less about big stats for the Chiefs to continue to win.
“One hundred percent,” Mahomes said of using Brady as a guide for how to handle his new role. “He just wants to win at the end of the day.
“It’s awesome to win and throw for 500 yards and five touchdowns and all that different kind of stuff and it feels amazing. I’ve learned in my career that those losses, when you’re throwing for all those yards, it feels terrible. You’d rather win no matter what it takes, if it’s throwing for 100 yards and winning or if it’s throwing for 300 yards and winning. As long as you have that W, nothing else matters.”
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Since their sub-.500 start, the Chiefs have won seven straight games, a couple with Mahomes looking like he did toward the start of his career. He threw for 406 yards and five touchdowns in a Week 10 win over the Las Vegas Raiders and 410 yards and three TDs in last week’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
In some of the others, Mahomes had among his worst statistical games ever. During a Week 8 win over the New York Giants, he had a QBR of 18.3, something that would have been unthinkable for him earlier in his career.
He was a little of both players in the Chargers win. He was off on some early passes, including a fourth-down throw to an open Mecole Hardman that landed on the artificial turf well in front of the wide receiver. He threw an interception with the Chiefs backed up near their end zone that resulted in a Chargers touchdown.
But in the final 11 minutes last Thursday, Mahomes threw for 197 yards and all three of his touchdowns to lift the Chiefs to a win that gives them a huge edge in the race for their sixth straight AFC West title.
“He just keeps firing,” coach Andy Reid said. “That’s the part that you love about him. He is never out of it, mentally, of a game.
“He just keeps rolling. He’s unique that way. He’s going to stick with it, trust himself, trust the guys around him, trust in everyone and never question that stuff. He just goes and plays. There are so many little things that I appreciate from him. That’s why he is one of the greatest.”
Mahomes had to learn to play a more patient game. With defenses aligned to take away the Chiefs’ ability to get the big play, he was at times forcing the ball into coverage or trying to make plays when none were available.
He had 10 interceptions in the season’s first eight games, though responsibility for some fell on his receivers, who often deflected passes that went to defenders. A frustrated Mahomes said after some of the early-season games that he would reassess his decision-making process, but it took a while for those results to show.
“We’ve had to learn that,” Mahomes said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things this season. We’ve always been this big-play team that’s had short drives in under three minutes, whatever it is. With the way defenses are playing us, you have to learn how to take the short stuff and do these long drives. I think it’s made us better because we can always have the big plays.
“If we can show everybody that we can drive down the field methodically with patience, that will be hard for defenses to stop.”
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky said having to learn to play a different game — being patient, taking what the defense gives, not forcing throws — could help Mahomes become a better player.
“It can if he embraces it,” Orlovsky said. “He’s had moments where he’s grown this year in that regards. It’s not fun for a guy that is incredibly talented and has had such remarkable success to have to play this style of football. … I could play that style of football, throw the checkdowns. I could make those throws. That’s the challenge he’s been presented with. It’s always cyclical. It will come back.
“There’s always going to be moments in games where you can get the big plays. But you can’t force them. You have to understand when they are and when the moment is to take them. That’s part of the growing process with Patrick.”
The Chiefs had to work extensively with Mahomes since his arrival as a rookie in 2017 in terms of mechanics. They’re not concerned about his ability to make this transition.
“He has that mental toughness to handle a lot of different situations,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “The thing I appreciate about him, he understands he has to keep throwing the football. It’s not like we’re going to stop throwing the ball, so he has to continue to play.
“On top of that, Pat is not afraid of being vulnerable and admitting his mistakes, and I think that makes him a very admirable player and person. But also, too, it exhibits his type of leadership that he has because if he’s taking ownership in what he is doing, everyone else needs to make sure they’re taking ownership as well.”