KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes had seen the situation play out before — the tailor-made Tom Brady clutch exercise with the game on the line — but never in person and never with the stakes so high.
All season, Mahomes was the superhero that lifted the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC Championship game — and his 295 yards and three touchdown passes willed the Chiefs into overtime. But once the Patriots won the coin toss, Mahomes was stuck on the sideline, powerless.
His mind told him to trust his defense. “It’s a thing where all you can do is support your teammates, trust in your teammates, then when you get your opportunity you go out there and make plays.”
But Brady never gave Mahomes the chance. Instead, Mahomes had to pull up a seat and watch Brady stack another brick on an already fortified legacy. Brady engineered a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive that sealed the Patriots’ 37-31 victory, pushing them to their fourth Super Bowl appearance in the past five years and adding another signature moment to the collection.
Still slightly shell-shocked after having an otherworldly season come to a crushing end, Mahomes shrugged, “It’s just how the coin tosses, I guess you would say.”
The Patriots chose heads and never looked back. But what if it was tails and the Chiefs got the first crack?
“No doubt at all,” Mahomes said. “But that’s just like ifs and buts. You can’t look at that. But at the same time, I felt like we were rolling.”
The Patriots all but froze Mahomes out in the first half. They drained the clock with drawn-out drives that sucked the energy out of Arrowhead Stadium and limited Mahomes to just eight first-half pass attempts.
But he didn’t let it faze him.
“You just stay within the game plan,” he said. “You can’t try to do too much. They had a good game plan and came out fast. We started slow, but we picked it up and you’ve just got to trust in the process and not try to do too much.”
With the season on the line, Mahomes saw every drive Brady made in the second half and raised him. The Chiefs fell into a 14-0 first-half hole — ostensibly a death sentence against the Patriots in the postseason — but battled back by rattling off 31 second-half points.
Mahomes’s confidence was contagious on the Chiefs sideline.
He jump-started the offense when he found Travis Kelce for a 12-yard scoring strike that finally got the Chiefs on the scoreboard in the third quarter. They kept clawing back. When Steven Gostkowski pushed the lead to 17-7 with a 47-yard field goal with 4:02 left in the third quarter, Mahomes drove the Chiefs 75 yards and hit running back Damien Williams for a 1-yard score that made it 17-14.
Mahomes gave the Chiefs the lead with 7:45 left in the fourth when he found Williams again up the left sideline for a 23-yard score that made it 21-17.
When Brady marched the Patriots down the field for a 75-yard scoring drive capped by a 10-yard touchdown run by Sony Michel, Mahomes answered with a five-play, 68-yard drive capped by a 2-yard TD run by Williams that put the Chiefs ahead again, 28-24.
The 2:03 the Chiefs left on the clock was enough time for Brady to put together another drive, this time capped by Rex Burkhead’s 4-yard touchdown.
But the 39 seconds the Patriots left on the clock meant Mahomes still had a chance to make plays. He got the Chiefs in field-goal range and Harrison Butker nailed a 39-yard field goal that forced overtime.
From what they’ve seen out of Mahomes all season, the Chiefs expected nothing less.
“Pat’s a special guy,” said left guard Cam Erving. “Without him, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now. So all the congrats to that kid because he played his [butt] off this year and he put his heart into it just like we all did. It’s definitely a sucky way to go out but it is what it is.”
At just 23 years old, Mahomes set the league aflame with what will likely be an MVP campaign. But the loss pierced the armor he’s worn all season.
“He’s hurt,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s a competitive kid, so he’s emotional right now. But he’ll get through that. He’ll grow from this. He knows that. But it’s not easy right at this minute.”
Mahomes left the field with no doubts about the future ahead of him, but still shaken by the lost opportunity in the moment.
“You have to take in the hurt,” Mahomes said. “You have to accept that this hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. You put in work for this, you’re doing everything you can to get to the Super Bowl and for this opportunity to fall short, it’s going to hurt.
“You have to go through that but at the same time when you look back and then you come back and look at the bigger picture, you know that you can build off this, use this feeling of motivation to go out and find ways to win next time.”
There will be moments that haunt him.
There was an overthrown pass to Tyreek Hill that looked so much like a sure score that tight end Travis Kelce had his touchdown hands up mid-throw.
The Chiefs couldn’t afford to go scoreless in the first half. In two games against the Patriots this season, Mahomes has thrown seven touchdowns, all after halftime.
“Just not starting how we wanted to start,” said Mahomes. “We scored what? Thirty one points in the second half? Both games we played them? So you’ve just got to find ways to start better. It’s something I’ll look back on my entire career and use it as something I can find ways to win these games whenever I’m in them.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.