KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There is a flag that flies atop Arrowhead Stadium -- 1969 World Champions -- that has no match anywhere else for this historic team. It is a constant reminder of both the Kansas City Chiefs' greatest moment and exactly how long it has been since they matriculated the ball all the way down the field in the game named by the team's founder.
Down in the stands on Sunday at Arrowhead, as the blizzard of red and gold confetti blew around in the wake of the Chiefs' 35-24 triumph over Tennessee in the AFC Championship Game, a fan held a sign that was at least a potential pairing for the lone flag that flaps in the wind. Beneath pictures of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, it read, "Get Used to It, NFL."
Get used to seeing Mahomes, under pressure, running to his right, and throwing 26 yards downfield to Tyreek Hill. It was a gasp-inducing play and one that will probably be forgotten by the end of the night. Get used to the 20-yard rocket of a touchdown pass to Hill that screamed past a defender in good position, to pull the Chiefs to within three points. A demonstration of Mahomes' spectacular arm, sure. Soon to be overlooked, too.
And get used to seeing Mahomes, looking like he was about to be sacked with 23 seconds left in the first half, with nothing open downfield, tiptoeing down the left sideline, staying in bounds and then cutting back inside, and breaking two tackles at the goal line for a 27-yard touchdown run that gave the Chiefs the lead at halftime. That was a gift to the people who will edit the Mahomes career highlight reel, the opening scene in the show to explain how Mahomes carried the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years.
Ever since Tom Brady turned 40, the search for the passing-of-the-torch moment has all but consumed those who wonder when Brady will finally be eclipsed. Brady pushed it off last season, winning his sixth title, and in the minutes after the Patriots had beaten the Chiefs in the AFC title game, he spoke quietly to Mahomes. His advice was simple. Stay with the process, he told Mahomes, and be yourself. Who Mahomes is, it seems, is the person who might finally be ready to take that torch for the next generation. He threw for 294 yards and was the Chiefs' leading rusher with eight runs for 53 yards, just 16 fewer than the Titans' Derrick Henry.
Clark Hunt, the team's owner and the son of its founder, Lamar Hunt, was asked an interesting question: Would the Chiefs' long drought have ended if the Chiefs had not drafted Mahomes in 2017? The Chiefs had just come off a 12-4, division-title season with Alex Smith. Hunt, overwhelmed by the emotion of raising the AFC championship trophy that is named for his father, was briefly stumped.
"Certainly, Patrick has made a huge difference," Hunt finished.
In Mahomes' two seasons as a starter, the Chiefs have made the AFC Championship Game both times, losing to the Patriots last season by -- as everybody in Kansas City will remind you -- four inches. The distance that created an offsides call that went against the Chiefs that still stings here. For a brief, terrifying moment that played out on national television in October, the return here, the triumph that followed on Sunday, seemed a long shot.
That moment, of course, was when Mahomes writhed in pain on the field during a Thursday night game, his kneecap dislocated. Trainers popped it back in place on the field, but as he hobbled away that night, the Chiefs' season looked on the brink of collapse, the league's defending MVP lost indefinitely.
It was clear after watching Mahomes shred the Houston Texans last week that the Mahomes that lost to the Titans was not the one they would face this Sunday. Mahomes at full strength -- he is also free of the ankle injury that was hobbling him even earlier this season -- remains the most dangerous quarterback in the game, Lamar Jackson included. And Mahomes had this season what Jackson will soon have, too: The bitterness of a loss to drive him. Mahomes' statistics were not as gaudy as last season's -- he threw 26 touchdown passes this season compared with 50 last season -- but Hunt said he saw him mature as a leader. That was obvious when the Texans took a 24-0 lead in the Divisional Round and Mahomes went up and down the bench encouraging his teammates not to give up, and then systematically drove his offense for seven touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions. It proved what should be obvious by now: The Chiefs, who have never lost a game that Mahomes has started by more than seven points, are never out of a game as long as Mahomes is on the field. He erased that Texans lead, just as the victory Sunday erased the near-miss against the Patriots last year.
"Having to watch the Super Bowl and we weren't in it -- it's something I could barely do," Mahomes said.
He won't have to watch in two weeks, and he may not have to do it too often for quite a while. Get used to it, indeed.