Anatomy of a comeback: Patrick Mahomes reveals how Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV

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This is the column I do every year, eight days after the Super Bowl, where I try to dive deep into why the game turned out the way it did, through the eyes of the most important player or people in the game. A couple of things lingered with me flying back from Florida the other day that I wanted to explore. One: How did Patrick Mahomes, after the worst 10-minute stretch of his NFL life, climb out of the pit to win this game? Two: As I reported last Monday, it was Mahomes who came up with the idea to call the play I had Reid diagram in this column last week, 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp; and I couldn’t get it out of my head how amazing it was that the 61-year-old Reid, the sixth-winningest coach of all-time, before the biggest play-call in his life, chose to trust a play second-year-starter Mahomes wanted to run to propel the Chiefs out of the hole with seven minutes left . . . on third-and-15.

But that’s what happened.

So I re-watched the game twice, once on the FOX telecast (Joe Buck and Troy Aikman aced this game), and also on the all-22 tape. I spoke to Mahomes the son and the father, and to backup QB Matt Moore, and to GM Brett Veach over the weekend, and had two pieces of key leftover info from Reid.

Patrick Mahomes was driving home from a workout Friday morning when he called. (Doesn’t that make you feel good, Chiefs Kingdom?)

After pleasantries, the first (unpleasant) topic: the interceptions.


The Tormenting Time
Niners 20, Chiefs 10, 2:35 left, third quarter. KC ball at its 25-yard line.

Watching the game twice in a five-hour span, you can see what a tireless monster San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa was. His strip-sack and Mahomes recovery midway through the third quarter led to a desperation third-and-12 play for the Chiefs and caused Mahomes to throw a ridiculous interception to Fred Warner, who looked like the intended receiver. Later in the quarter, Mahomes was thoroughly discombobulated by Bosa and friends. Three rushers, including Bosa, chased Mahomes into an incompletion on first down. Run for five on second down. Do not go three-and-out here; that’s the feeling every Chiefs fan had at that moment. Do not go two full quarters without scoring. On third-and-five, flushed right, Mahomes decided to sprint for the first down. Bosa, in pursuit as Mahomes turned the corner, did a full belly flop and slapped Mahomes left calf, hard.

“I actually didn’t even feel Bosa behind me until right when he dove,” Mahomes said. “And when he dove, I think that last second of me seeing him, kinda diving at my leg, I was able to get my knees up. That was a big thing when you’re running away from a guy that gets your legs, to keep your knees up and keep your feet from dragging on the ground. He hit me hard. He hit me hard—might’ve left a little bruise actually. But I was able to still get around the side to get a first down on that play.

“Like you said, that dude is a monster.”

Bosa, for the game, had one of the best days any defensive lineman had in the NFL this season, per PFF: one sack, one forced fumble, 11 quarterback hits/significant pressures, four tackles, 59 of 76 snaps played.

On this series alone, Mahomes was pressured or sacked on six of 10 pass-drops or scrambles forced by pressure. On the 10th, seeing Jaquiski Tartt making a beeline for Tyreek Hill on a short crosser at the Niners’ 13-yard line, Mahomes tried to protect him by throwing it slight behind him. Too far behind him. Another interception, his second in nine minutes.

Watching it back, you could see Mahomes change the play at the line. “Do you regret that, based on the outcome?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I don’t regret it. I did change the play. I saw they were in a man coverage and so I changed it to one of our man-beaters that we run a lot throughout the season. The mistake I made was, I stayed on the first read just a little too long. I think it was Mecole Hardman, or Sammy [Watkins]. One of those guys was going on the shallow-cross route. I was thinking to hit him first but I stayed on it too long and by the time I got to Tyreek, the safety [Tartt] was coming down on him. I almost tried to slow him down with the football instead of just throwing that there and letting him catch it, take the hit. . . . I think if I would’ve hit Tyreek right off his break, on his slant route, he would’ve had a chance to maybe split the guys and maybe get in the end zone. For me, it wasn’t necessarily wrong changing the play. I put us in the right play. I just didn’t make my decision quick enough.”

Twelve minutes left in the biggest game of his life, down 10, and Mahomes was messing it up, with the help of the best pass-rush he faced all season.

“When I got back to Kansas City,” Veach the GM said Saturday evening, “I watched the NFL Films version of the game, with the players mic’d up. Right around that time, I mean, you know the outcome of the game, but I felt it. My hands were palm-sweaty nervous.”

Mahomes didn’t seem like it.

“Almost every single person that came up to me right there said, ‘We still got time left. You’re still good. We’re still gonna have time to go down there and put up points,’ “ Mahomes said. “It was almost a little annoying because I knew we had time left. There was one point, Matt Moore, a guy that was vital in us being where we were at this season, he came up to me, and he was like the last guy to come up to me and say something. He said, ‘We still got a lot of time left. You gotta believe.’

“And I almost gave him a little bit of an attitude. I was like, I know we got time left!!!”

Moore: “I think what I said was, ‘Hey Pat, it’s never over!’ And he was like, ‘I GOT IT! I GOT IT!’ I’m thinking, what the heck just happened? He’s not like that. Later, he came up to me and said sorry for coming at me so hot like that. ‘Dude, you were like the 15th person to say something to me. Sorry!’ “

The effect of the cheerleading wasn’t lost on Mahomes, though. “It gave me the confidence to go out there and keep slinging the ball around,” he said.


The Most Fortuitous Lost Challenge in NFL History
Niners 20, Chiefs 10, 7:17 left, fourth quarter. KC ball at its 35.

Second-and-15. Mahomes, still off, threw a worm-burner that Hill trapped at midfield. Not an impossible catch, but the pass should have been three feet higher. Mahomes hurried the Chiefs to the line and just before the snap, Kyle Shanahan threw the challenge flag. After a couple of replays, it was clear the ball hit the ground. The Niners would win the challenge. Mahomes, so out of sync, would face third-and-15.

“He’s not played well, Joe,” Troy Aikman told America. “That should have been his easiest completion of the night.”

While that was being said, Mahomes was talking to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy on the sidelines. He knew the play he wanted to call. “Do we have time to run ‘Wasp?’” Mahomes said, captured by NFL Films.

Reid liked it. “If he [Mahomes] feels it, I’m giving it to him,” Reid told me.

“They think alike,” Moore said.

Maybe sometimes we try to overthink things—we feel like, Coach knows best, just let him make the call. If you’re Andy Reid, and the Super Bowl might come down to this play, wouldn’t you feel like, Step aside kid—I got the call here. Just run this. Maybe that’s why the Reid-Mahomes partnership has been gold for the first three years of it, and maybe that’s why they’ve got an NFL MVP and a Super Bowl victory to show for it. Maybe this is why Donovan McNabb loved playing for Reid, and why Michael Vick did, and why Reid might have talked Nick Foles out of retirement, and why Alex Smith—traded after having his best NFL season so Mahomes could play—still texts him congrats after wins. It’s a partnership.

Moore started two games when Mahomes had his dislocated kneecap. He just learned the offense. And he had two 100-plus rating games, with zero turnovers. “What impressed me so much about this opportunity,” Moore said, “is here I was, pretty new to the offense, and we’re getting ready for the games, and [Reid] says, ‘You’re the one playing. You gotta be happy with what you’re running, man.’”

Said Pat Mahomes, the dad: “The best year I had in baseball was with Bobby Valentine, with the Mets. I went 8-0. We made the playoffs [in 1999] and I knew he had so much faith in me that I might pitch every game in the postseason. That’s when you feel best as a ballplayer, when you know your manager or coach has that kind of faith in you.”

Pat Mahomes told me his son called him the night of his pre-draft visit to Kansas City in 2017. Son told father Kansas City was where he wanted to play, and Reid was the coach he wanted to play for. He felt Reid would teach him everything he needed to win, and let him have the kind of freedom he’s played with through his high school and college career.

Freedom like picking Wasp.

It’s always about the next pitch.

As you read here last week, ‘Wasp’ (familiar name: 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp; name that Mahomes would call in the huddle: “Gun trey right, 3 Jets Chip Wasp Y Funnel”) called for three receivers to the left—Watkins, Hill and Kelce. Kelce, tightest to the formation, would run a deep slant to the right, Hill a deep post-corner to the left, and Watkins a 16-yard in-cut. The key: Would Niners cornerback Emmanuel Moseley follow Watkins across the formation on his in-cut? If so, Hill would be singled on safety Jimmie Ward, incredibly. Moseley did indeed follow Watkins. And Mahomes did indeed have time: 3.63 seconds till defensive tackle DeForest Buckner leveled him as he threw a high-arcing strike to Hill at the San Francisco 22.

It was the longest air yards, 56, for a Mahomes completion all season, on the biggest play of the season.

Mahomes, on avoiding being down in the dumps: “I think it’s just a competitiveness and the way I’ve been raised my whole entire life. I don’t know if it’s from baseball, I don’t know if it’s from basketball or from my time in football. But I’ve always just been taught that you just have to play the next play. You have to go out there and compete no matter what’s happened earlier in the game. No matter what’s happened the whole season. All that matters is that next play. So for me, after that [replay challenge], I just wanted to have the best play called. We had talked about that play kinda throughout the game. . . . We thought it was good versus the defense that they were playing. I just kinda asked. I asked EB [Bieniemy], do you think we have enough time in the pocket to run this long developing play? He asked me if I wanted it on first down, or with down and distance. I just told him, I don’t care about the D&D, I wanna run this play.

“With that little bit of a break we had, when they were reviewing the catch, we were able to talk through all scenarios. I had already talked with coach Reid and coach [Mike] Kafka and EB. They had told me, if we [don’t] get after this right now, we’re going for it [on fourth down] . . . If I don’t have Tyreek or Sammy on these two routes, let’s get it straight to that check down and give ourselves a chance at fourth down. I think that having that little bit of time and being able to discuss with the coaches what our plan was, it gave us a good game plan to go out there and execute at a high level on a crucial down in the game.”

So the Chiefs would have gone for it fourth down. That’s one decision to clear up. The other: If Moseley had turned to run with Hill, would Mahomes have chosen the same throw to Hill, or would he have checked down to Watkins on the 16-yard cross?

“If he [Moseley] doesn’t stay there,” Mahomes said, “I throw that for the first down . . . Once I saw Tyreek get one on one with the safety, I mean, that’s a matchup that I’m gonna take every time.”

Mahomes finished the drive with a one-yard sprintout TD toss to Kelce. Three-and-out for the Niners (more about that later). Then 65 yards in seven plays for the winning drive by Mahomes.

Three touchdowns in seven minutes. Kansas City 31, San Francisco 20.


The Epilogue
He’s just 24.

When the Chiefs were scouting Mahomes, the knock on him—and the big reason why so many NFL teams knocked him down pre-draft—is because he threw some interceptions (25 in his two full seasons as a Texas Tech starter), played a bit out of control at times, and generally was too reckless for many scouts. It was hard to judge, too, because the games were like Arena League affairs. In 2016, he threw 88 passes against Oklahoma. What Chiefs personnel czar Veach saw was a guy playing with three-star players at Texas Tech against teams with five-star guys. “So often Tech was completely overmatched,” Veach said, “but Patrick’s attitude was I don’t give a s— how many stars my wideouts have. You guys will remember us, and you guys will remember me. He was fearless. He didn’t care if he was down 21-0 to Oklahoma. You were getting everything he had for four quarters.”

When Reid chose to trade Alex Smith to Washington early in 2018, handing the job to Mahomes, he couldn’t have known this accelerated superstardom would happen this fast. Even after Mahomes beat the Chargers and Steelers, on the road, to begin his starting career in 2018, scoring 80 points and throwing 10 touchdown passes with no picks. Even Pat Mahomes, the dad, said Saturday, “This doesn’t really surprise me, that this would happen at some point. But the fact that it happened in two years . . . that’s something I didn’t really expect, this fast.” Mahomes has won the NFL MVP and the Super Bowl MVP before Peyton Manning or Tom Brady won either. He credits his mental approach to those baseball days.

Said Patrick Mahomes: “The main memory I’ll always have is whenever I’ve watched guys that my dad played with, or Alex Rodriguez or guys like Derek Jeter, and all these guys that were superstars . . . the best of the best at the time in the game and how much success they had . . . I watched how hard they worked. I got to see it every day, how they were the first people there and they were hitting off the tee like I was doing as a little kid and trying to perfect their game. That really was instilled in me. It told me that if I wanted to be great, I had to put the work in. When you’re at the top of the game, you have to still keep working in order to stay at the top. I think those memories were stuff that really stuck with me.”

That’s the sporting side. There’s a personal side too. In November 2018, when the Chiefs fired running back Kareem Hunt because they found out he lied to them about a striking a woman, Mahomes—the fifth-youngest player on the 53-man roster—asked to talk to the team. No coaches. No staff. Just players. Reid hesitated, then said yes. That’s how much he trusted Mahomes to see the right things when his team was teetering. “He knows how to tie a team together,” Reid said.

Mahomes knows Veach’s role in getting him to the Chiefs. The scout who hounded Reid to draft him, Veach got a surprise from Mahomes last year when Mahomes made his first Pro Bowl—a signed MAHOMES Pro Bowl jersey with the inscription, “Thanks for believing in me from the beginning! Let’s go get some rings!”

Last summer, I arranged for Brett Favre to fly to Kansas City on an off-day for the Chiefs, so he, Mahomes and the man who has coached both, Reid, could sit in a room and watch tape together for a “Football Night in America” feature story. Afterward, Reid had some Kansas City barbeque brought in for lunch, and seven of us sat in a room to eat lunch and talk. Five of the seats in the room had a bottle of water at them. The two belonging to me and Mahomes did not. When we all sat down, Mahomes left the room and came back 90 seconds later with two bottles of water, one for him and one for me. A simple thing. A polite thing. Reid told me later that’s what he’d do for the last guy on the practice squad too.

On Sunday night, Mahomes was escorted by a veteran publicist for the Ravens who works the Super Bowl every year, Chad Steele, for about 90 minutes to all the obligations a Super Bowl MVP has to fulfill—network and NFL partner interviews on the field, the Super Bowl stage, post-game media presser. “First thing he wanted to do was see Coach,” Steele said. “And he said, ‘Can I bring my family?’ ”

There’s also a 24-year-old-kid side. Did you see this?

Don’t you love the 24-year-old kid catching a line-drive beer one-handed at the Chiefs victory parade, then shotgunning it, then spiking it?

“It was fun to kinda let loose for a day,” he said. “Just be one of the guys.”

For a while. As his dad said Saturday: “He’s not done. He’ll get back in the lab this offseason. He’ll be better.”

It’s always about the next pitch.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.