TAMPA, Fla. — In the end, when it was clearly over, it was still hard to comprehend. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had previously always seemed to have an answer in his rocket right arm, his sneaky mobility and his penchant for conjuring magic in miraculous fashion. We’ve rarely seen him running for his life or heaving desperate passes that didn’t connect. This is apparently what happens when even the NFL’s best player loses too much help.
Yes, the Chiefs suffered a 31-9 defeat to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV because the Buccaneers had Tom Brady. Kansas City also lost this game because Mahomes literally didn’t have enough support around him. The Chiefs had become so accustomed to dominating — having won 25 of their previous 27 games coming into this contest – that it just felt like Mahomes always would find a way to succeed. Instead, we wound up watching what life is like for him when he’s saddled with a makeshift offensive line and a defense that couldn’t make enough plays.
The major storyline coming into this game was how Mahomes would fare going head-to-head with Brady, who’s clearly cemented his status as the greatest quarterback ever. The narrative coming out of it was how Brady was blessed with a more complete team than anyone ever realized. Even Mahomes had to acknowledge that the Chiefs weren’t ready for the Bucs in this one.
“This is the worst I’ve been beaten in a long time,” he said after the game.
Let’s start out by saying the Chiefs knew this wouldn’t be easy. They came into this Super Bowl looking to repeat as champions, but they also arrived with an offensive line that was missing 2018 All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher. Those losses meant Kansas City was relying on a unit that had three different blockers playing in spots they weren’t occupying when the season began. The Chiefs had never put Mahomes in that kind of position and it proved to be a problem early and often.
It wasn’t just that Mahomes — who threw for 270 yards while tossing two interceptions and taking three sacks — was constantly under pressure. It’s that he wasn’t able to create the type of backbreaking plays that had been a staple of this prolific offense for so long. He barely had time to throw the ball deep and he was often scrambling to buy precious extra seconds for his receivers to break open. The more Mahomes raced around to improvise, the more it looked like the Chiefs had no answer for what the Buccaneers were throwing at them.
This is the point in this column where Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles deserves credit for his game plan. He mixed up coverages, dialed up effective blitzes and asked his defensive line to harass Mahomes down after down. The Bucs clearly came into this contest looking to avenge a 27-24 loss to Kansas City in Week 12, a defeat that featured Mahomes throwing for 462 yards and three touchdowns. As Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said after the game, “They had us schemed up pretty well.”
“I can’t give him enough credit,” said Bucs coach Bruce Arians when asked about Bowles. “I think he got a little tired of hearing about how unstoppable they were. I thought he came with a fantastic plan just to keep them in front of us and tackle really well. Patrick (Mahomes) wasn’t going to beat us running. We let him run all day.”
It would be easy to say the Chiefs’ offensive line was the only problem in this contest. The reality is that Andy Reid’s group had many others. Mahomes could’ve used more from wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who’s been plagued by a calf injury since Week 16 and didn’t look completely healthy Sunday. The running game wasn’t much of a factor, either. The strength of the Tampa Bay defense is their dominance against the run and, other than one 26-yard run, that unit (and the Chiefs’ run-pass imbalance) never allowed rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to build up much steam.
The Kansas City defense was even more of a culprit. That bunch couldn’t slow down the Bucs’ offense and committed eight of the Chiefs’ 11 penalties. If there was a chance for Kansas City to win this game when its offense wasn’t performing at a high level, it meant the defense had to do its part. Aside from a goal-line stand early in the game, that unit didn’t deliver in ways that would’ve been critical to the Chiefs’ success.
The incredible aspect of all this was that Mahomes couldn’t find a way to overcome these problems. One of the worst kept secrets in the league was that the Chiefs actually did have flaws. They’ve never had great cover corners and nobody would describe their offensive line as dominant, even with Fisher and Schwartz healthy. The difference always has been that Mahomes could mask those issues just by taking the field.
This game ultimately featured a number of firsts in the Mahomes era. This is the first time the Chiefs have finished a contest without a touchdown with him as a starter. It’s the first time Kansas City lost a game by more than eight points when Mahomes has been under center. In terms of efficiency, he also posted the worst passer rating of his career (52.3) in this defeat.
“I could’ve done a better job of putting our guys in a better position,” Reid said. “They fought their tails off. The guys never gave up, I mean these are champions. Just the fact that they were able to get themselves back to [the Super Bowl], fighting like crazy to get here. It was a bad day to have a bad day. But I’m not going to lay it all on the offensive line. When we lose, we all lose together on this.”
It would be easy to say the situation surrounding Reid’s son — Chiefs outside linebackers coach Britt Reid was involved in a multi-car collision last week that left two children injured, one with life-threatening injuries — was a major factor in how this Super Bowl played out. The truth is, we’ll never know much it impacted the head coach’s focus. The Chiefs had been so good at staying focused throughout this season that it’s a safe bet that they were mentally prepared for this game. What they couldn’t handle, however, was a situation where Mahomes wasn’t the best player on the field, as he’s been in nearly every game this team has played over the last three years. No matter what else happened, the Chiefs generally could count on Mahomes delivering a stellar performance. This is a man who won the league’s MVP award in his first season as a starter and a Super Bowl in his second. It was starting to feel like there was nothing he couldn’t do.
Now we actually can say that he’s human, that he needs help like everyone else. We also can assume this defeat will create even more motivation for him moving forward.
“My dad lost in the World Series and still continued to battle and be himself,” Mahomes said. “Obviously it hurts right now but we will get better. … We can’t let this define us.”
Mahomes certainly has nothing to be ashamed of. He played valiantly and he was still fighting even when the game was long over. It’s just that he ran into a legendary quarterback leading a Buccaneers squad that found itself at the right time. If there’s anything Mahomes can take away from this Super Bowl, it’s that Brady undoubtedly had the better team on this night.
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