MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Through three quarters of Super Bowl 54, Patrick Mahomes was on track to have the worst performance in his two-year career as an NFL starting quarterback. His Chiefs were down 20-10 to the 49ers, and much of their deficit was tied to the fact that Mahomes (16-of-25, 145 yards, 5.8 yards per attempt, INT, 62.9 rating) was struggling to be effective through a mostly short passing game.
Mahomes even had a rough opening to the fourth quarter, throwing a second interception on what looked like a sure scoring drive deep in San Francisco territory. Both of his turnovers came while he was trying to feed go-to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. For most QBs, the frustration of an off night against a tough defense would bury them at that point in the game, down double digits.
But as we’ve learned every time he has taken the field, Mahomes is not like any other young QB we’ve seen. The 24-year-old seemed to relish in the fact that he had an uphill, time-sensitive battle to convert his performance into Super Bowl MVP status as Kansas City’s Chief orchestrator of an amazing 31-20 win.
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Through his worst plays, Mahomes claimed he never thought he would lose his first Super Bowl instead of winning what could become one of several.
“My mindset is always to play and compete to the very end, the last whistle, until that clock strikes zero,” Mahomes said after the game. “I just went out there and kept competing.”
After all, Mahomes quickly helped his team erase a 24-0 hole in the second quarter against the Texans in the divisional playoffs, and then a 17-10 deficit in the second quarter against the Titans in the AFC championship game, making those games look like routs on paper at the end, too.
But this was the Super Bowl. He needed an unprecedented challenge.
“He kept firing, that what’s he did,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “The guys around him believed in him, all the coaches likewise.”
Mahomes took over the final dozen minutes of the game as the Chiefs scored 21 unanswered points. He looked like a totally different passer (8-of-13, 114 yards, 8.8 yards per attempt, 2 TDs, 129.5 rating).
What helped was the Chiefs had seen this play out before with slow starts in two consecutive AFC playoff games, having recent first-hand knowledge of how having setbacks was a setup for a comeback.
“Our guys have learned how to play through situations where the game is not perfect, because you can fall into complacent moments with Pat because he’s such a great player, and he makes a tremendous amount of big plays,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “We’ve seen teams come out to play the very best against it. Every game is a Super Bowl challenge. It’s about how to finish, how to perform when things aren’t quite going the way you want them to go.”
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What changed in Super Bowl 54 is that Mahomes decided to start pushing the issue himself, building on his continued strong running to spark his passing. He got more aggressive throwing deep to Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. That dynamic pair was under wraps as late as the early fourth quarter, with dump-offs to running back Damien Williams and a few easy shots to No. 2 wideout Sammy Watkins being Mahomes’ only reliable plays.
Mahomes suddenly turned his risks to big rewards. The game-changing play was his 44-yard strike to a streaking, wide-open Hill on a third-and-15 from Kansas City’s 35-yard line. It was soon followed by a third-and-10 shot to Kelce from San Francisco’s 21-yard line, drawing a pass-interference penalty that set up a Kelce 1-yard TD a play later.
Hill coming alive to finish with 9 catches for 104 yards on 16 targets was directly related to Mahomes pushing him.
“He was encouraging us, telling us to believe,” Hill said of Mahomes. “He had seen it in some guys’ eyes — they were getting down, including myself. I was like ‘Man, how are we going to pull this off? He was like ’10, you’ve got to believe, brother’. He brought the guys together and you see what happened, man. We pulled it off.”
What makes Mahomes special on the field isn’t only his cannon arm and more prevalent athleticism. It’s also how he never gives up on a play and can fight to make a big play when nothing is here. Like how his physical toughness translates to the mental fortitude, his faith in positive results also carries over to how he lifts his teammates.
That was faith was needed all the way to produce the game-winning drive with 2:44 left, a possession in which Mahomes brought out all his best plays to Kelce, Hill, Watkins and Williams with the most on the line.
“I believe in the guys I have around me,” Mahomes said. “I believe that we are going to go down there and find a way to score, and we did. It’s just a credit to all my teammates, honestly, for them to believe in me after how I was playing in the third quarter and believe that I am going to go out there and keep fighting and keep throwing it no matter what.”
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Every Super Bowl-winning quarterback has his own style. Joe Montana was cool. Tom Brady is stone cold. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson are three more contemporary passers who mesh their leadership and talent in different ways. Mahomes on Sunday joined the club with his own fiery brand.
His digging deep to get his first win is in many ways more impressive than simply lighting up the 49ers with the video-game numbers everyone unreasonably expects of him.
Since last season, when Mahomes put up monster stats and won the NFL MVP award, the focus has been on whether he could provide a worthy encore. Mahomes looked like that 50-TD guy early, but then came humbling home defeats to the Colts and Texans, followed by the adversity of a knee injury that cost him two games. By the time the playoffs came around, a grittier, even more inventive Mahomes emerged.
There were many points in Super Bowl 54 when Mahomes could have folded. But through his running, passing and grinding, he somehow found a new way to wow us by saving his best for when it mattered most — and making us forget about his worst.