Opinion: Thanks to Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs remain a cut above the rest of the AFC

Opinion: Thanks to Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs remain a cut above the rest of the AFC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In one play, Patrick Mahomes reminded his Kansas City Chiefs of the reason for their unfailing belief.

The football club regarded by many as the class of the AFC and one of the best of the National Football League had looked like anything but as it kicked off the 2021 season against the Cleveland Browns.

The visiting Browns, meanwhile, had turned in a largely masterful performance for three-plus quarters and seemingly found themselves on the verge of a statement victory while aiming to avenge a 2020 divisional-round playoff loss to the Chiefs.

But then came the play that in one fell swoop ignited a slightly off-kilter and sluggish squad. The gain bailed out a group that, from top to bottom, had been outplayed and out-schemed. It spurred the Chiefs on to a 33-29 victory and signaled to the rest of the league that the Chiefs remain as imposing as ever.

Down 29-20 with 10 minutes left, Mahomes took the snap and with the pocket collapsing, he escaped to his right, sideline approaching but eyes darting. There. He spotted wide receiver Tyreek Hill, chucked the ball back across his body 45 yards downfield and into the hands of Hill, who had slammed on  on the brakes, changed directions and shook Cleveland safety John Johnson III. Reception made, Hill raced the remaining 30 yards of real estate and crossed the goal line. A 75-yard, one-play, 14-second scoring drive.

Such heroics – Mahomes’ coaches, teammates, fans and opponents remembered – are why you can never count out the Chiefs.

The squad rolled from there. A ferocious defensive stand. A clutch special teams stop after a painful Browns gaffe. Another touchdown drive by Mahomes. And a game-sealing interception. The win. And message sent. 

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The Chiefs’ victory over a Browns squad that many pundits view as Super Bowl contenders reflected how large a margin truly separates Kansas City from the pack.

Even on a lackluster day, the Chiefs always have a chance and nine times out of 10 will find a way to prevail.

From start to finish, the Browns had remained one step ahead of the Chiefs. Coach Kevin Stefanski delivered an aggressive game plan filled with gutsy calls, creative play designs and pristine execution that kept the Chiefs off balance. 

But it still wasn’t enough. The Browns needed perfection to give themselves their best chance to defeat their hosts, and it still might not have been enough. 

They’ll never know, though, because three late-game Browns hiccups opened the door for the Chiefs, and Mahomes and his squad snatched away the “W.”

“What a game,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said before joking that he was getting too old for nail-biter games like this one.

But then he counted his blessings, the most prominent, of course, being Mahomes, who on Sunday led his team back from a double-digit deficit for the 10th time since becoming Kansas City’s starting quarterback in 2018.

“You love his attitude, because he always feels like we’re in it and he does such a great job with the guys around him,” Reid said. “He’s a great communicator during tough times on the sideline. … And then to make that kind of throw, running full speed and throw back across his body. How many times have we seen that now?”

Hill echoed his coach’s sentiments, saying, “It was just Patrick Mahomes being Patrick Mahomes.”

And cornerback Mike Hughes, who intercepted Baker Mayfield with 1:16 left to snuff out Cleveland’s last hope for a game-winning drive, credited Mahomes’ game-changing touchdown for the defensive rebound.

“That was huge. It was a big momentum shift. Late in the game, we needed that, especially on the defensive side,” Hughes said. 

The Chiefs’ future opponents should find it frightening that this squad again possesses the ability to flip the switch and erase double-digit deficits at virtually any point of a contest.

The collapse certainly had a very traditional Cleveland feel to it. Running back Nick Chubb (after rushing for two touchdowns earlier in the game) fumbled late in the third quarter, and Kansas City eventually cashed that in for a 43-yard field goal. And after that 75-yard Mahomes-to-Hill bomb, Stefanski did get away from the run while still clinging to a lead. Jones came up huge, sacking Mayfield deep in his territory. And on the next play, Browns punter Jamie Gillan fumbled the snap and tried to run rather than attempt a rushed punt, and the Chiefs mobbed him for a turnover on downs. Two plays later, Mahomes connected with Travis Kelce for the tight end’s second touchdown of the day and Kansas City’s first lead of the contest.

But despite all that, the Browns indeed displayed growth from a year ago. Cleveland seemed to validate beliefs that the team can join the ranks of contenders this fall.

If the Browns were able to perform like they did despite missing star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (still a little ways off from his return from season-ending knee surgery), expectations of even more creativity and explosiveness seem realistic.

But the Browns still just aren’t on the level of the Chiefs, and Mayfield isn’t still capable of Mahomes’ level of magic. Few teams and quarterbacks are. 

As long as Mahomes remains healthy, there’s no reason why the Chiefs won’t face strong odds of reaching the Super Bowl a third straight year. The motivation runs too strong within the young quarterback, and the belief runs too strong throughout his locker room. And he, in turn, believes in them.

“It’s just kind of, I’ve been through these situations before – with these guys,” Mahomes said. “We obviously have new O-linemen and new players. But the core, we have the core guys who have found ways to win. If it was the playoff game against the (Houston) Texans (in 2019), or the Super Bowl, or last year when we came back and won all those games. We’ve found ways to win, and at the end of the day, you just have that belief in each other, which makes you believe you can win every single game.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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