KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In Week 15, Patrick Mahomes stood on the home sideline of Arrowhead Stadium. The snow fell upon the red Kansas City Chiefs coat draped in the fashion of a medieval cloak over his shoulder pads.
"Yeah, they went to saw zero," Mahomes said to fullback Anthony Sherman. "They ran it one time this year, like Week 7 against Indy."
In the middle of dismantling the Denver Broncos, Mahomes was describing what Vic Fangio, one of the best defensive minds in the game, was trying to throw at him. The reigning MVP recognized it. Even if Fangio had barely used it this season.
Mahomes connected on 27 of 34 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns (against one interception) in the 23-3 win. Watching the performance firsthand, the only thing more remarkable than seeing Mahomes complete almost 80 percent of his passes in a constant -- and sometimes blinding -- snowfall was the thought that the 24-year-old is exponentially better this season than he was during his eye-popping, record-setting campaign of 2018.
"I loved it," head coach Andy Reid passionately responded when I asked his opinion about his quarterback's second season. "Second year is a tough year for a quarterback. Tough, tough year. These guys, there are some great minds in the National Football League that are coaching the defensive side of the ball. So, they had a whole year of an offseason to study and they're going to come back with their absolute best against you. And he answered it. And he did it through some adversity, like you're saying, with injuries or players that weren't available or whatever it might be. And he didn't flinch."
Compared to last season's production, Mahomes' 2019 numbers appear pedestrian: 4,031 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and five interceptions in 14 starts. In 2018, Mahomes eclipsed 5,000 yards passing and led the league with 50 TD strikes (against 12 picks). Both seasons have brought the Chiefs to the AFC Championship Game, and brought the trophy that shares the same name as ownership back to Kansas City -- at least for the days leading up to kickoff. Perhaps this year, the trophy is won and a trip to the Super Bowl is earned in the 60th season in franchise history.
The adversity Reid touched on was present all season -- and almost leveled the Chiefs before the campaign's halfway point. Mahomes injured his ankle during the season opener in Jacksonville. The ailment was more severe than many know, but Mahomes continued to play on it and reinjured it twice before a mid-October Thursday night game in Denver. In that contest, Mahomes dislocated his kneecap. Panic commenced in and around the Chiefs' visiting locker room, as the press box whispered fears that the quarterback's season was over and "the Madden curse" was real. He would end up never missing a practice, but begrudgingly sat out two games at the request of the medial staff.
"He had a major injury and he pushed through it to where the coaches and the trainers and the doctors all had to back him off," Reid told me last week before the scintillating Divisional Round win over the Texans. "So that mindset is important in this day in age of football. It's an important thing to have, especially in a leadership position."
Mahomes has always been a leader. The Chiefs' scouting department collected countless examples of this during K.C.'s dissection of every moment of Mahomes' career at Whitehouse High School and Texas Tech before trading up to select the quarterback in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Reid believes Mahomes' unteachable gift of leadership stems from his days growing up in MLB clubhouses with his father and watching it happen firsthand in the world of professional sports. But the QB has taken this quality to a new level in his third NFL season. In the eyes of several teammates I spoke with, it's one of Mahomes' biggest areas of growth.
"I think it's his leadership role," wide receiver Sammy Watkins told me. "Last year, he was just balling and he didn't really have to use that ability because everything was going right for us. Now this year, when we hit adversity and everything wasn't going our way with injuries and such, you see him on TV getting us together and getting us up."
What Watkins is referring to is a shot that came across the NBC broadcast during Kansas City's Sunday Night Football game in Foxborough back in Week 14. The Chiefs were putting together a drive in Patriots territory and were hoping to extend their 23-13 lead, but on the final play of the third quarter, Travis Kelce fumbled the ball away. Just before the start of the fourth quarter, cameras caught Mahomes giving an animated and passionate speech to the entire offense -- a message that more than one player voiced to me as one of the best speeches they've ever heard from a teammate.
"That's the type of guy he is," Watkins said with a grin. "He won't step on anyone's toes for any reason, but he saw that we were just kind of low and he came to everybody and said, 'Let's fix this s--- and f------ score.' Literally when he said that, we went down and scored. That's the type of guy he is and the type of guy we need throughout these playoffs. When he's hot, this team is hot."
Just days after Watkins told me the story of Mahomes' speech that helped Kansas City prevail at New England, his quarterback rallied the troops again on the sideline. The Chiefs were down 24-0 to the Texans in the second quarter of their Divisional Round game and were facing the end of their season. This time, Mahomes stood as his teammates sat on the bench in front of him. He preached to take it one play at a time, but also to do something special on every single play. Forty-one unanswered points followed.
"I just wanted to make sure everyone was still in the right mindset," Mahomes said this week. "With everything that had happened at the beginning of the game, I still felt like we were doing good things, but we just weren't executing at a high enough level. I just wanted to make sure I went to the guys and let them know that. I think it just comes with knowing your teammates and knowing how the game's going and how to get back on it and back to where you need to be at."
I spoke with more than a dozen Chiefs, and each one believes Mahomes is a better player heading into this year's AFC Championship Game than he was before last year's conference title bout. This shouldn't come as a surprise, given the amount of work Mahomes expends perfecting his craft.
Since the day Mahomes walked into the facility at One Arrowhead Drive as the 10th overall pick, there has never been a question about the time he puts into his studying. He did it his rookie season, as he absorbed everything then-QB1 Alex Smith did and would teach him. He did it alongside Andy Reid during his first season as a starter and contributed more than people probably know to the offense's meeting room. He sees things quite similarly to Reid, creating a very productive collaboration. But it appears this season, with a full year of on-field experiences and an offseason of self-scouting under his belt, Mahomes is on a different level.
"It's reading coverages," the star receiver said. "His first year, it was purely off talent. If you factor in coverages this year, you hear him yelling things right away. (Hill pretends to be a quarterback and starts pointing and calling out numbers.) He's changing routes and that kind of stuff. It's his maturity and the work he's put in in the film room. He's grown a lot."
That maturity was on display when Mahomes spent every day of the Week 12 bye at the facility breaking down his own film. Mahomes felt he had gotten into some bad habits of drifting and backpedaling too much in the pocket. Relying too much on his cannon of an arm and at the same time hanging his offensive line out to dry. It's been an issue that traces all the way back to high school. He spotted the relapse. He corrected it.
I sat with receivers Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson at their lockers and asked them how often they come to Mahomes after running certain routes to tell him what they're seeing in coverages. They both kind of laughed.
"Usually it works that we tell (wide receivers coach) Greg Lewis," Hardman started. "'If they play that again, I can win on the back side.' So then it will get passed down, and if it's used again, Pat is aware of it."
"But Pat sees all that s---," Robinson interrupted. "We don't have to be telling him. If we see it, he's seen it."
The skill players aren't the only ones who have noticed a higher level of perception from Mahomes.
"He's even better this year at recognizing looks and putting the OL and offense in a better position," right guard (and real-life M.D.) Laurent Duvernay-Tardif told me. "Recognizing fires and pressures and blitzes, making sure that they're on the right guy so the back can get out as an extra receiver. All those little things make the OL's job easier and builds confidence as a unit."
Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz told me they demand a lot of Mahomes mentally, especially for such a young player. But he added that now Mahomes has experience to play off of, not just film. He could already process extremely quickly -- with game experience, it just continues to grow. A quarterback never stops learning, Schwartz told me.
"I think just trying to prepare for everything," Mahomes said when asked what he learned from last year's overtime loss in the AFC Championship Game. "That's the big thing. Last year, they caught us a little off guard with the coverages they played in the game and we made adjustments and were able to score points later in the game, but you want to make sure you are just preparing for anything. This is a good defense. They do a lot of things and play a lot of man and zone, so you know they're going to throw out different coverages against you. You are just trying to prepare yourself for whatever their game plan is and adjust as quickly as possible."
We know Mahomes will prepare. He learned where he came up short last year, when, in the eyes of teammates, he was going off of pure talent -- and still might've hit the Super Bowl if a coin had landed differently. It's scary to think that this year his pure talent isn't what you should fear the most.