Early in the fourth quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs’ biggest game of the season, the football fluttered to the ground once again in front of Darrel Williams, and as soon as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started celebrating, the camera panned to Patrick Mahomes, the look on his face telling the story.
There were still over 13 minutes left on the clock, but for all intents and purposes, Super Bowl LV was over. The Chiefs trailed by 22 points, their best chance at a sorely needed touchdown just foiled, and the NFL’s next generational superstar was caught staring at no one in particular, a look of disbelief mixed with anger, frustration and lord knows what else.
His stat line was brutal — just 26 of 49 for 270 yards and two interceptions. And the Bucs’ 31-9 victory was the worst loss of Mahomes’ career, an improbable result for the high-powered Chiefs who went 14-2 this season but saw their hopes of becoming the first team to go back-to-back since Tom Brady’s 2004 New England Patriots end on a disastrous note.
“They beat us pretty good — the worst, I think, I've been beaten in a long time,” Mahomes said afterward, almost incredulously.
It’s hard to blame Mahomes for chuckling there, too. In so many ways, a defeat of this magnitude — a defeat this thorough — seemed to be improbable.
Prior to this night, Mahomes hadn’t lost by double digits since 2016. He was a Texas Tech Red Raider then, and in 53 prior NFL games, it had never happened. In fact, his Chiefs had never scored less than 13 points with him as a starter, so it takes a lot to make a quarterback like Mahomes look like this.
“I just think we weren’t on the same page as an offense in general,” Mahomes said. “I wasn't getting the ball out on time, the receivers were running routes not exactly to where I thought they were going to be at and the offensive line, they were good sometimes and sometimes let guys through. And when you're playing a good defense like that, you've got to be on the same page as on offense. And we weren't today and that's why we played so bad.”
For as ugly as Mahomes’ final stat line was, it should also be noted he was far from the Chiefs’ biggest problem.
What conspired to produce Patrick Mahomes’ worst loss as a pro?
All credit first goes to the Bucs’ defense, which gave a Super Bowl performance reminiscent of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or even the 1985 Chicago Bears under the guidance of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. His game plan was on point, playing lots of deep two-man safety looks that took away the Chiefs’ big plays and limited speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill, all while letting the Bucs’ overwhelming defensive line eat a completely overmatched front.
“They kind of took away our deep stuff, they took away the sidelines and they did a good job of rallying to the football and making tackles,” Mahomes said. “We weren't executing early, I had a few miscues, we weren't on the same page. But I mean, credit to them, man. They played a heck of a game defensively.”
Credit also goes to the Bucs’ offense, which Brady guided to 31 points using the old-school New England playbook of controlling the game with the run, play-action off that and a buffet of short-passes with a dash of well-timed shots.
As great as Brady was, everything around him worked in unison. Everything around Mahomes fell apart.
Let’s start with the drops. There were plenty of those, as no receiver stepped up to help Mahomes while he was scrambling for his life behind an offensive line missing three starters from last year’s Super Bowl.
Some of the blame for that must also go to the coaching staff, as the Chiefs used five-man protections a staggering 92.3 percent of the time according to Next Gen Stats, repeatedly allowing the Bucs’ great edge-rushing duo of Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul to regularly stress left tackle Mike Remmers (who started the season as a backup) and right tackle Andrew Wylie (a natural guard) with speed to the edge.
Meanwhile, defensive tackles Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh pushed the pocket inside, making life tough for Mahomes from the start. According to ESPN, Mahomes was pressured on a staggering 29 of 56 dropbacks Sunday, the most of any QB in Super Bowl history. He also ran for 497 yards before his passes and sacks, the such yardage by any quarterback in any game this season.
By the end of the Super Bowl, Mahomes had absorbed three sacks and eight hits while eluding maybe a dozen more, on a turf toe injury that affected his mobility, no less.
“To the last snap, he was trying to win the football game,” Reid said.
Yet the pressure, when married with Tampa’s sticky coverage, did a number on the Chiefs’ passing offense, which ranked first in the NFL in DVOA but mustered only 243 passing yards as the 2020 Chiefs joined the 1972 Dolphins and the 2019 Rams as the only teams to fail to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
“They played zone on first, second down and mixed it up a little bit on third down and we weren't able to handle that too well,” Reid said afterward.
Given how deep the Bucs were regularly playing, there were opportunities for the Chiefs to punish their lighter boxes and protect their overmatched offensive line by giving them some confidence.
But the Chiefs’ running backs rushed only six times for 24 yards in the first half, and while Mahomes rushed for 33 himself, they opted to keep throwing against Tampa’s hellacious front and found themselves down 21-6 at halftime.
“I could have done a better job of helping him out with the run game,” Reid said. “I could have given him more opportunities where we could have run the football.”
Mahomes lost big chance vs. Brady but will bounce back from Super Bowl LV
For as ugly as the first half was, Mahomes never quit trying to lift his team, never quit trying to make the impossible happen. Nowhere was this more apparent than during a two-play stretch early in the fourth quarter, which started with a third-and-9 attempt early in which he ran around for an absurd 10 seconds — somehow shaking off Barrett — before lobbing a twisting Hail Mary into the back of the end zone that Byron Pringle nearly caught.
And then, one play later, Mahomes scrambled around for eight more seconds and barely eluded a sack before heaving a sidearm prayer to Williams with his body very nearly horizontal to the ground. It fell incomplete.
There will be plenty of talk about what the loss means for Mahomes’ legacy. No matter how many Super Bowls he wins, this will go on his football epitaph, as Brady now has a 7-1 lead in rings on Mahomes and owns a head-to-head Super Bowl tiebreaker.
It speaks to Mahomes’ talent that you can’t completely rule out him approaching Brady’s numbers one day. But it’s not a storyline that will bubble up again until he wins a few more rings or beats Brady head-to-head in a future Super Bowl.
Yet Mahomes knows how to bounce back. The son and godson of former major league baseball players, he has long learned how to handle disappointment as a professional athlete, even at just 25 years old.
“I mean, my dad lost in the World Series in his career and he continued to battle and continue to be who he was, and obviously it hurts right now — I mean, it hurts a lot — but we're going to continue to get better,” Mahomes said. “We have a young group of guys that have had a lot of success and learned from that, but we've had a few failures and we have to learn from that.”
So don’t expect Mahomes, now merely 25-2 in his past 27 games, to wallow in his sorrow.
“We can't let this define us,” Mahomes said. We have to continue to get better going into next year, [focus on] being even better and preparing ourselves to hopefully be in this game again.”
Super Bowl LV from Yahoo Sports: