Why no lead is safe against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs

  • Covered Chiefs for 20 seasons for Kansas City Star
  • Joined ESPN in 2013

AS THE FOURTH quarter ticked by on Sunday night, it seemed as if coach Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs could lose to the Tennessee Titans.

The Chiefs had kicked off the second quarter with a 9-0 lead, but trailed by halftime.

Kansas City’s defense gave up back-to-back touchdowns to Titans running back Derrick Henry. Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker had missed a 47-yard field goal, as well as an extra point. Even Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had thrown an interception.

But then Mahomes took matters into his own hands, rushing for a touchdown and the 2-point conversion to tie the game. Finally, Butker redeemed himself with the game-winning field goal in overtime to seal the comeback.

It was the Chiefs’ fifth straight win when trailing at halftime.

The Chiefs only trailed by eight points on Sunday night, but Mahomes is no stranger to leading double-digit comebacks.

Since Mahomes became the starting quarterback in 2018, the Chiefs are 13-9 — including the postseason — in games they trailed by at least 10 points. Mahomes’ 59.0 winning percentage in such games is the best among active quarterbacks with at least five career starts. Tom Brady (39-65, 37.5%) is second, followed by Russell Wilson (16-37, 30.2%).

Mahomes is also No. 1 all-time in such comebacks. No other quarterback has so much as a winning record after a deficit of at least 10 points. Tim Tebow (5-6, 45.5%) is second.

Through eight games this season, Mahomes has led three comebacks of 10 or more points to beat the Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders and San Francisco 49ers.

“The guy behind the center always gives us a chance,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “His mental preparation and his physical preparation, it’s not like [that of] very many people. He’s a guy that’s always looking for an edge to improve, to getting better, just to having a complete understanding of exactly what he’s seeing and how he could potentially help exploit some of the spots that need to be exploited.”

IT WAS THE second Sunday in January and Arrowhead Stadium, known for its boisterous crowds, was silent.

Mahomes and the Chiefs trailed the Houston Texans 24-0 in the second quarter of the 2019 divisional round. They had never overcome such a deficit in the history of the franchise.

Sammy Watkins, then a wide receiver with the Chiefs, thought his season was over.

That’s when Mahomes gathered his offensive teammates around him on the sideline and prepared them for what was to come. He told them they were about to be part of something special.

“I was like, ‘OK, he knows something I don’t know,’ ” Watkins said.

The Chiefs led by halftime.

Mahomes fired off four consecutive touchdown passes — including three to tight end Travis Kelce — to take a 28-21 lead. They went on to win 51-31.

The Texans made a fateful decision in the second quarter that aided the Kansas City comeback. Leading 24-7, they tried a fake from punt formation at their own 31-yard line.

The fake failed and the Chiefs needed three plays to score another touchdown and cut the deficit to 24-14. Bill O’Brien, then the Texans coach, acknowledged the decision was born from intimidation of Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense.

“I don’t think any lead is safe versus these guys and that is why we felt like we needed 50 points,” O’Brien said. “We weren’t able to do that.”

Safety Justin Reid, now in his first season with the Chiefs, played for the Texans that day. He said the feeling along the Houston sideline was one of hopelessness as the Chiefs began to pile on.

“That is the way you feel, especially when you’re at [Arrowhead Stadium],” Justin Reid said. “That stadium, that atmosphere, it’s insane. It’s one of the loudest places you’ll ever play. Being an opponent, it just feels like everything is raining down on you and at that point it’s hard to stop.

“We were scrambling just to find a way to stop the bleeding.”

The Chiefs went on to win the Super Bowl for the first time in 50 years, but not before trailing by at least 10 points in each of their three postseason games that season, including Super Bowl LIV. They won the AFC Championship Game against the Titans despite falling behind by 10 at two different points in the game.

Mahomes’ comeback ability is one reason the Chiefs traded up in the 2017 draft to acquire him and then traded veteran Alex Smith the following year to make room for Mahomes as a starter.

“It starts with Pat,” Reid said. “There’s no panic if you get behind. You don’t want to be behind, but if you’re there, he’s not panicking, which would send a message to the other guys, really the rest of the team, that we’re in trouble. I mean, but the guys always feel like they’re in it with the way he handles himself.”

Mahomes has had the Chiefs in the top six in the league in scoring in each of the last four seasons. They currently lead the league with 30.4 points per game.

The Chiefs needed every bit of Mahomes’ 446 yards on Sunday. His 68 pass attempts is tied for the third-most in a game in NFL history (Drew Bledsoe threw 70 in 1994). His 63 rushing yards set a new career high. It was his second game with 500 passing and rushing yards, tied for second all-time (Ben Roethlisberger has four).

Mahomes in a way trained for such moments at Texas Tech. He was involved in a lot of high-scoring games, some of which he lost after scoring more than 50 points.

“You have to have urgency and you try to have urgency from the beginning of the game, but it even gets upped whenever you’re down like that,” Mahomes said. “You have to kind of put points on the board, you have to kind of press the issue. I think our team responds well to that.”

The Chiefs have succeeded so many times after falling behind by at least 10 points that they feel like they’ll do it every time.

“We know we can put points up fast,” Kelce said. “We know what we’re capable of and that kind of helps you gauge what’s possible and what’s not. You can’t let doubt seep in at any point in the game. As soon as you let doubt seep in you might as well throw the white flag.”

ALMOST FORGOTTEN IN these big comebacks is the part played by the Chiefs’ defense.

The Chiefs are 3-0 after having double-digit deficits this season. Their defense has aided in the comeback victories by scoring in two of those three games.

Rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown in the comeback win over the Chargers. Frank Clark had a sack for a safety in the victory against the 49ers.

After giving up back-to-back touchdowns to Henry in the second quarter, the Chiefs defense held the Titans to a field goal in the second half and overtime on Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said the job is made easier because of what the Chiefs can accomplish on offense.

“These words have come out of my mouth,” Spagnuolo said. “We’ve gone into halftime and said, ‘If we just do our job, we know our offense [is going to score].’ There is that. I think our guys have a lot of confidence that if we can get it back to balance by us keeping them out of the end zone and off the scoreboard, then our offense is going to do something to come back.”

The Chiefs haven’t failed to win after falling behind by at least 10 since a 27-3 loss to the Titans in Week 7 last season.

“There’s a little luck involved but also I think our guys do a great job of just focusing on the now and living in the moment,” Bieniemy said. “And we talk about it and discuss it all the time. It’s all about making the next play by far the most important.”

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