KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maybe it’s too soon. Maybe it’s not. Maybe Patrick Mahomes is just that mesmerizing. Maybe he’s still learning the full scope of his potential. Maybe one season is all it takes, especially if that season stretches the boundaries of what the quarterback position can be so far that it challenges the conventional wisdom that it’s for the cerebral and forces the new notion that it can also be for the creative.
Maybe Mahomes is one of a kind — Stephen Curry in a helmet, forcing the league to reimagine what its game could look like. Maybe he’s the first in an entirely new wave.
Maybe he’s just scratching the surface. But the question was worth asking.
Is Sunday’s AFC Championship game the moment when power finally shifts in the conference after nearly two decades of Patriots dominance with Tom Brady as the quarterbacking gold standard?
It’s a question that even Mahomes has to think about as he and the Kansas City Chiefs steel themselves to stare down an NFL institution at Arrowhead Stadium.
With Brady, there are no maybes. His legacy as arguably the greatest quarterback in history is cemented even as he continues to add new chapters. But Mahomes is a supernova with a world of possibilities ahead of him.
The narrative of a passing of the torch feels like a trap if only because torches aren’t passed, they’re taken.
“I’ve seen it, but there’s still a long way to go,” Mahomes said. “I’m a young guy. [Brady has] done so much in this league and he’s still doing it to this day. He’s going to play for more years to come, so I’m always going to strive to do some of the things that he’s done, with the Super Bowls that he’s won, that’s the ultimate goal. He’s not trying to pass the torch any time soon. He’s played at a high level this year and I expect him to keep playing at this level for at least another couple years.”
From afar, Brady’s had an eye on Mahomes. He was picking apart film of the Chiefs’ defense ahead of their matchup in Week 6 and couldn’t help but drift over to see Mahomes weaving dreams on offense. Mahomes threw for four touchdowns against the Chargers in Week 1 and six against the Steelers the next week.
“He’s had really a spectacular season,” Brady said. “I remember seeing the [Chargers] game earlier in the year . . . and they played so well. And then they went to the Steelers and everyone thought, ‘Man, the Steelers are going to have this great season,’ and it was 28-whatever right out of the box in Pittsburgh and started watching, like, ‘Holy cow, how are they doing these things?’ ”
It’s a question the league has been asking all season. The on-the-run throws. The across-the-body, across-the-field throws. The sidearm throws. The no-look throws.
Part of the reason Mahomes is able to bend the rules of quarterback at a whim is that he has them committed to memory.
“I think certain guys have great vision and can see on the field,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “It’s one thing knowing it, it’s one thing seeing it on the field and executing it. He’s got good vision. That’s what these top quarterbacks have in common. They see things that the average guy can’t. That’s why they’re the best in the business of what they do. With Patrick, he’s been blessed with the vision, and then he’s very intelligent. He learned.”
At the same time, Mahomes realizes that throwing for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns affords him some wiggle room to experiment.
“You don’t want to detract from that unless it were an issue, and then you teach around it, and with it, I guess you would say. I’m not discouraging it at all,” said Reid, “but there are things from a release point you want to make sure are right and that he understands the defense that’s out there that he’s throwing against.
“If he happens to come back across the grain a little bit, he knows where people are at. There’s some things that go with it, but I’m not going to take that away or ask him to take that away.”
None of this — not the MVP-like campaign, not the march to the AFC Championship game — was on Mahomes’s vision board even three years ago. As the son of former major leaguer Pat Mahomes (who spent one of his 11 big league seasons with the Red Sox), Mahomes’s Plan A was a career as a pitcher. He didn’t commit fully to football until his sophomore year at Texas Tech. He had enough bottled magic for the Chiefs to invest the 10th overall pick of the 2017 draft in him.
“We saw it in college on all the tape that we watched,” Reid said.
As a rookie, he played behind quintessential pro Alex Smith, and the experience was invaluable.
“Sitting back and learning, you get to see a lot of things you don’t get exposed to in college, that’s just the truth of the fact,” Mahomes said. “First off, being behind Alex and seeing someone who’s seen a ton in his time in the NFL, and then being with this coaching staff for an entire year and getting to go through the practices and do that stuff, has prepared me to come out this year and get those experiences and have a stepping stone to where everything was not so new and I’ve kind of seen some of these things before.”
But as the scout-team quarterback, Mahomes got a feel for the full range of his powers, showing signs of the player he became this season.
“He is very confident and he is very creative of how he went about being a scout-team quarterback last year,” said tight end Travis Kelce. “Kind of testing the waters even more so than he did this year, especially during Sundays. I think it kind of prepared him for the moment. He got his confidence going that he could still make the types of throws that in his mind he feels like he can make.”
As Mahomes’s confidence grew, so did his leadership in the locker room.
“I think the biggest thing with him is he’s been a leader since he got here,” said fullback Anthony Sherman. “He’s one of those kids who has an unbelievable leadership gene in him. He does a phenomenal job of coming in and commanding the offense. None of us, I don’t think any of us on this team really has been in this position, so we really don’t know what to say besides, ‘Go be yourself and enjoy it and let’s have some fun.’ ”
Mahomes’s first brush with Brady was a shootout in Foxborough in Week 6. Mahomes threw for four touchdowns, but also had a pair of interceptions that ended up being costly in a 43-40 loss.
After the game, he and Brady had a brief conversation.
“He’s had so much success and been at the top of this game for so long. For him to give me those words of advice, it’s really cool,” said Mahomes. “But I was kind of upset at the time, we had lost the game. But it is still a great thing when I look back on it. It was a pretty cool moment.”
As for what Brady told him?
“I’ll keep that to myself,” Mahomes said.
But perhaps no one knows the road Mahomes is about to walk more than Brady. Mahomes was still just 5 years old when Brady won his first Super Bowl.
The memories feel distant for Brady, even though he’s in the exact same position at 41.
Just looking at the quarterbacks in both championship games — Brady and the Saints’ Drew Brees with a combined 33 NFL seasons and 52 playoff games; Mahomes and Rams signal-caller Jared Goff in their early 20s and on the brink of the Super Bowl — puts Brady in a time capsule.
“I was that age at one point, too,” Brady said. “I mean, I remember pretty well — it’s a little while ago, but I still remember it — my first playoffs and having the experience to go to the AFC Championship game. It was different. I flew to Pittsburgh to do a press conference with Lawyer Milloy on Friday and waited for the team to come on Saturday. It was a little bit different.
“But it goes fast, and I’m sure it will go fast for them and their young career. Jared and Patrick have had great seasons, great offenses. And we’re still here plugging around, me and Drew, doing our thing, having a lot of fun doing it.”
Maybe Sunday will be a passing of the torch. Maybe it won’t.