When the Patriots defeated the Chiefs, 43-40, in Week 6, everyone knew — or at least hoped — that the game was a preview of the AFC Championship.
“We’ll see these cats again,” Chiefs defensive end Allen Bailey said after the game.
Three months later, here we are. The Patriots will travel to Kansas City this Sunday for a rematch with the Chiefs. And if there is any lesson to be learned from the first battle, it’s that the Patriots were wholly impressed with the Chiefs’ wunderkind quarterback, Patrick Mahomes.
“That guy’s the real deal, man,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said after the game. “You see it on film every week. They’ve got a heck of a quarterback over there.”
Mahomes, 23, is likely going to win the NFL MVP award in his first year as a starter. He became just the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a season; he finished second in the NFL with a 113.8 passer rating; and he unofficially led the league in highlight-reel throws. Throws on the run, throws against his body, throws from multiple arm angles, deep throws down the field, even the occasional no-look pass — Mahomes made at least one or two jaw-dropping plays every week in leading the Chiefs to a 12-4 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
And the Patriots saw it first-hand in Week 6. Mahomes threw for 352 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions in defeat, going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in the second half. The Chiefs actually led, 33-30, in the fourth quarter and later tied the game, 40-40, with Mahomes throwing touchdowns of 67 and 75 yards before Brady and the Patriots ended the madness with a field goal at the buzzer.
“I’m just proud of my team and how we fought to get back in the game,” Mahomes said afterward. “It’s something you can carry on and to the rest of this season.”
The Patriots will face no greater challenge this season than playing Mahomes again this Sunday, this time at Arrowhead Stadium. Let’s go deep inside the numbers and the All-22 coaches film to see what to expect from Mahomes, and how the Patriots should best defend him:
First, let’s take a look at some of the most pertinent numbers:
■ The Chiefs went 8-1 at home this year, with their one loss a 29-28 defeat to the Chargers last month.
■ The Chiefs are averaging 32.4 points at home, fourth-best in the NFL. The Patriots are allowing 24 points per game on the road.
■ The Chiefs allowed just 26 sacks this year, fifth-fewest in the NFL. Their 18 giveaways were tied for fifth fewest.
■ Mahomes also rushed for 272 yards, with two touchdowns and a long run of 28.
■ The Chiefs had the second-best red zone efficiency in the NFL (touchdowns on 71.8 percent). The Patriots defense was 16th (touchdowns on 58.7 percent).
The Chiefs made it through the season relatively unscathed in terms of injury. Mahomes will have almost all of the same weapons this Sunday that he had back in Week 6.
Tyreek Hill had a big day against the Patriots, catching seven passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Travis Kelce had a quiet five catches for 61 yards, while Sammy Watkins (two for 18) and Chris Conley (one for 19) were quiet.
The big difference this time is no Kareem Hunt, who was released in December because of a violence issue. In the first game, Hunt had 10 rushes for 80 yards, and five catches for 105 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown. Hunt scored 14 total touchdowns in just 11 games, and was a significant part of the offense.
Hunt’s replacement is Damien Williams, who has picked up most of the slack. Williams had 25 carries for 129 yards in Saturday’s win over the Colts, and has rushed for 100 yards in two of his last three games.
The Patriots’ one big change since Week 6 is that J.C. Jackson has emerged as a top-three cornerback, while Jonathan Jones has lost playing time and Eric Rowe has gone on injured reserve. The Patriots also didn’t have defensive tackle Malcom Brown or linebacker John Simon in the first matchup.
How the Patriots defended Mahomes the first time
The tactic that most stands out is how the Patriots continually switched up their defensive looks. They opened the game with a single-high-safety look, switching between man coverage and Cover 3 zone.
Then they started throwing Cover 0 looks at Mahomes — bringing everyone up to the line, with no deep safety help, to confuse Mahomes about who was going to rush and who would drop off into coverage.
And when the Patriots did drop off, they tried to clog the middle of the field to prevent the crossing routes and drags that the Chiefs run so often. This was the beginning of the Patriots’ “amoeba” defense.
Later in the second half, the Patriots fell back more into a Cover 2 look to take away the deep passes.
Except they didn’t always play Cover 2 after the snap; sometimes Devin McCourty would drop down to the middle of the field (the “robber” position). And sometimes they played man coverage with a single high safety, except they moved the safety all the way over to Hill’s side of the field.
The goal was clear: keep giving Mahomes different looks, both with the pass rush and the coverage.
All this mixing of coverage led to a poor first half for Mahomes, who threw for 164 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions as the Chiefs scored just 9 points. On one throw, Mahomes lost track of Dont’a Hightower, who faked a blitz but dropped into coverage, and Mahomes threw a pass over the middle that Hightower plucked out of the air.
The Patriots blitzed Mahomes on nine of his 36 throws (25 percent). He went 4 for 9 for 21 yards against the blitz, but threw two touchdowns.
Mahomes is an incredible athlete, and he certainly showed off his skills in this game. His first throw was a run-pass option that the Chiefs like to call. Mahomes got Hightower to bite, pulled the ball back, and threaded a quick slant to Kelce for 17 yards.
Mahomes was at his best when the play broke down. Late in the second quarter, with everyone covered, Mahomes sprinted out to his left, threw against his body, and hit Hill on a dime for 27 yards.
There are maybe one or two other quarterbacks in the entire league who can make that throw, and Mahomes does it every week.
Mahomes is so good at buying time with his feet, and his arm so strong, that he makes the cornerbacks cover their receivers for an extra long time, and to defend the entire length of the field.
The Patriots had two major breakdowns in the second half that cost them. On the first play of the third quarter, they played Cover 2 to take away the deep pass, but Mahomes scrambled around, Hunt sneaked behind Jason McCourty, and Mahomes hit Hunt with a laser for a 67-yard touchdown.
Later in the fourth quarter, McCourty looked like he missed his assignment in the deep sideline portion of the field, and Mahomes hit Hill with a 75-yard touchdown on the run.
And if you have everyone covered, Mahomes is athletic enough to pick up the first down himself. On a fourth and 2, the Patriots had their safeties sprinting backward at the snap, while Mahomes just kept the ball himself on an option run and easily picked up the first down.
For all of Mahomes’s theatrics, sometimes playing Hero Ball can get him in trouble. On the final play of the first half, he scrambled around and threw on the run, but Duron Harmon picked it off in the end zone to take at least 3 points off the board.
And late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots created a free rush for Trey Flowers, who nailed Mahomes and forced him to throw a wobbler off his back foot. Mahomes has so much faith in his arm strength that he will just put the ball up and give it a chance, which can lead to interceptions.
Mahomes’s arm strength is impressive, but he does tend to spray the ball a bit, especially when he’s just sitting in the pocket. Mahomes should have had an easy touchdown to Hunt on a wheel route, but overthrew him in the end zone.
Mahomes also missed an open touchdown to Hill, throwing high over his head. And Mahomes threw wildly on several slants and drags over the middle.
It’s almost as if he is more accurate when throwing on the run; he doesn’t always set his feet and throw with good mechanics when he is contained in the pocket.
What Mahomes did against other teams
A few trends emerged in Mahomes’s recent games:
Opponents definitely figured out that they shouldn’t blitz Mahomes that much. For the season, Mahomes had the third-highest passer rating against the blitz (115.7) with 11 touchdowns, one interception, and only six sacks on 122 pass attempts.
The Ravens blitzed Mahomes a ton in Week 14, with Mahomes completing 13 of 19 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. But in Week 17, the Raiders blitzed him just four times. In Week 15, the Chargers blitzed him only three times. In Week 16, the Seahawks blitzed only six times.
When Mahomes gets outside the pocket, watch out. He had a 30-yard touchdown pass to Charcandrick West against the Seahawks that will make your jaw drop — on the run, against his body, and threaded perfectly between two defenders.
And in Week 17 he threw a 67-yard touchdown bomb to Hill that was so perfect yet so effortless.
Mahomes threw a similar 89-yard touchdown pass in the same game. The Chiefs really can score from anywhere on the field.
But when Mahomes is inside the pocket, he can double clutch, and try to force throws into windows that just aren’t there.
He doesn’t seem as comfortable operating from the pocket, and almost threw a bad interception over the middle against the Raiders three weeks ago.
And sometimes Mahomes’s confidence gets the better of him. The Ravens forced him to fling one off his back foot when pressured, and the result was an easy interception. Mahomes does not like giving up on a play, sometimes to his detriment.
How the Patriots should approach this game
The Patriots actually don’t need to change up their approach very much from last time. Once again, they have to continually mix up their coverage and pass rush looks. They can’t just sit back in the same man defense or Cover 3 zone all night.
Last game, they mixed up their coverage from series to series. This time, they might need to mix it up more from play to play. I anticipate we’ll see the Cover 0 “amoeba” look a decent amount Sunday, as the Patriots try to goad Mahomes into misreads and bad throws. But with the Chiefs’ big-play ability, the Patriots better have one, if not two, safeties back at all times.
They have to spy Mahomes, but I’m not sure they should do it with a linebacker. The Patriots had great success against the Bills last month when they changed their spy on each play — sometimes it was a safety, sometimes it was a cornerback, and sometimes it was two cornerbacks. Those players have better speed than the linebackers.
They definitely should not blitz, but they should get fancy with their zone blitzing to try to force Mahomes into some bad decisions. This is a game where keeping Mahomes contained in the pocket is much more important than sacking him a bunch. The Patriots are asking for trouble if they start sending five and six defenders at Mahomes.
The most important thing is just making sure there are no coverage breakdowns. In the first matchup, the Chiefs hit touchdowns of 67 and 75 yards because the Patriots didn’t execute their assignments. The Chiefs may have been the second-best red zone team in the NFL, but they went just 2 of 5 against the Patriots.
The Patriots need to throw a multitude of schemes at Mahomes, play it safe on the back end, execute their assignments, make the Chiefs earn their way down the field, and hope Mahomes gets greedy and throws the ball into traffic.
Slowing down this juggernaut certainly won’t be easy.