With less than 14 minutes left in Super Bowl LV, the Kansas City Chiefs were down three scores and facing fourth-and-nine from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-yard-line. There no question that the Chiefs would forge ahead, but also no question that they would eventually hit pay dirt. These are the Chiefs, after all, and if they’ve proved anything during their repeat championship runs it’s that there is no scenario too bleak for them to escape as long as pro football’s Houdini is on their side.
When the ball was snapped to Patrick Mahomes, you thought, Here he goes again… But before Mahomes could plant his back foot, he was spinning away from Tampa’s William Gholston and sprinting deep to his right to find an open man. Finally, at the 32-yard line, Gholston swiped at Mahomes’s leg, sending the passer stumbling sideways and the throw eventually bumped off a receiver’s facemask. Afterward, Mahomes tarried on the grass, looking as stunned and steamed as the rest of us that his magic had run out.
The play fated the Chiefs to a 31-9 defeat at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday – the first time since college that Mahomes failed to score a touchdown in a game. Overall, he completed 26 of his 49 attempts for 270 yards, two interceptions and a miserable 49.9 QBR. “They beat us pretty good,” Mahomes said afterward, “the worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time.”
What’s more, he lost a Lombardi Trophy to Tom Brady – a squandered opportunity the Chiefs’ passing whiz isn’t likely to live down no matter how much he threatens Brady’s staggering career achievements. Nt since Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson at the goalline six years ago has there been a Super Bowl ending this unexpected.
The Chiefs were overwhelming favorites in this matchup (see, our picks), and with good reason. Mahomes is the rare football player who can affect the outcome of a game entirely by himself – with his legs, with his arms, with his moxie. Not even the Chiefs losing their starting offensive tackles shook faith in No 15.
But to put the blame on Mahomes is to misunderstand how this game was settled and is an injustice to the Bucs’ defensive genius, as well as Brady’s continued excellence.
It started with Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who neutralized the NFL’s two most talented quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes, on the way to this year’s championship. He saw an opening and ran his players at Andrew Wylie, a guard playing tackle, and Mike Remmers, an 11th-year journeyman who went undrafted out of Oregon State. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 29 pressures Mahomes absorbed on Sunday exceeded the record of 25 that short-circuited the Bills’ Jim Kelly in Super Bowl XXVI.
In Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs have two of the most feared receivers in the NFL. So credit the Bucs secondary for holding the Chiefs to one big passing play, a too-late connection to Kelce that went for 33 yards. In particular Antoine Winfield Jr redeemed himself against Tyreek Hill (seven catches, 73 yards) after letting the Cheetah run wild for a record 269 yards and three scores in the teams’ Week 12 matchup.
“The biggest thing was to cover up the receivers and make him hold the ball a little bit, so our rush could get there,” Bowles said afterward. “And I think mixing up the coverages and moving some guys around and making him think a little bit and taking away his first read allowed the guys to get off up front and covering the guys in the back.”
On the flip side, the Chiefs secondary did themselves no favors by falling apart on Carl Cheffers’s watch. One of the league’s flag happiest referees, Cheffers was in charge of half of the Chiefs four double-digit penalty games coming into the Super Bowl. On Sunday he negated 120 yards on 11 fouls, including eight in the first half– a high for the Super Bowl and for the Chiefs since Andy Reid took over as coach in 2013. (Meanwhile, the Bucs drew just four penalties for the whole game.) In the second quarter alone, cornerback Beshaud Breeland and safety Tyrann Mathieu contributed consecutive pass interference penalties that allowed the Bucs to take a 21-6 halftime lead. And then Mathieu drew another flag for taunting Brady after the scoring play.
And yet: even though the Chiefs offense had no protection, no ground game to fall back on, little defensive support and too many receivers afflicted with the drops, who could give up on Mahomes? Remember: he fell behind 10 points in the Super Bowl last year only to wind up scoring 21 unanswered in the fourth quarter on the way to being named the game’s MVP. As long as there is life in that canon arm of his, there is hope. There’s a chance he finds Hill breaking into the clear and drops a long bomb into his gut for a touchdown that altogether sways the momentum. That a streaker in hot pink could do a better job of getting separation was the real shock of the night.
The Bucs were supposed to be the ones laboring to keep pace with the Chiefs offensive juggernaut. But it was the other way around. Tampa scored when they had to, controlled the clock, took the ball away and didn’t let those possessions go to waste. Kansas City played desperate. This time, there were no cutaways of a fiery Mahomes walking down the Chiefs bench encouraging his teammates not to give up; there was just Mahomes on the sideline off to himself, watching in disbelief as a 43-year-old made him disappear.
Even so, Mahomes never stopped pirouetting in the backfield against the rush and whipping balls to a receiver corps that only managed to corral 26 of the 46 passes thrown in their direction. “I just don’t think we were on the same page as an offense in general,” he said. “I wasn’t getting the ball out on time, the receivers were running routes to not where I thought they were going to be at and the offensive line, they did good sometimes and sometimes they let guys through.”
After dragging the Chiefs back to Bucs 10-yard-line with less than two minutes left, he threw one last pass to a double-covered Kelce at the right near pylon – and this time Devin White tipped it to himself for an interception. That’s when Mahomes says he knew the cause was truly lost.
Surely Mahomes will be back on this stage. He still has so much career in front of him and so much talent within himself, on his roster and on his coaching staff. And while there will doubtless be moments when he recaptures that old hocus pocus, now at least we know not to take it for granted. Now we know that underneath the magician there’s a man, and every now and again he will reveal himself.