Trying to stop Patrick Mahomes is the toughest job in football. Trying to avoid hyperbole when writing about Mahomes is the toughest job on NFL.com.
What else can one do when a 24-year-old improves on an MVP season but appreciate that the beginning of this career is unlike any we've seen before, that the most physically gifted quarterback ever is winning with his mind and his legs, not just his assassin arm? There goes that hyperbole that really isn't hyperbole again.
The Kansas City Chiefs are headed to Super Bowl LIV to face the San Francisco 49ers because Mahomes wins downs even when his first two options are taken away. For all the dazzling throws he can make, his single greatest trait might be his uncanny ability to buy time before making those throws.
The Tennessee Titans took away Mahomes' initial read early on Sunday and got pressure on him, often quickly. But Mahomes calmly evades the heat like it isn't there, creating new throwing lanes and ruining a defense's perfect play call. Tennessee defensive coordinator Dean Pees threw an incredible amount of looks at him early, yet Mahomes appeared to have processed them all and found the Titans' defensive weak spots by the end of the first half. He wasn't fazed by two 10-point deficits. His 27-yard touchdown scamper late in the second quarter helped Mahomes lead the Chiefs in rushing for the second week in a row, a reminder that he can do it all. By the second half, Mahomes was winning more often before the ball was even snapped. The game has slowed down for Mahomes in his second year as a starter, and only a dominant defense like the 49ers' unit has a shot to keep him from playing on easy mode.
Andy Reid called runs in bunches in the third quarter Sunday when it made sense, but it was heartening to see the Chiefs coach let Mahomes go deep multiple times to put the game away late rather than try to milk the clock. Reid knows the reason these Chiefs may finally deliver him and the city of Kansas City a championship, and he's not going to start worrying about "balance" now. Mahomes makes the Chiefs incredibly imbalanced, and that's precisely why they've come this far.
As we turn the page to Super Bowl LIV, let's take a look at what Championship Sunday can tell us about how Super Bowl Sunday might play out:
1) Neither coach will be worried about balance.
Both teams won with offense Sunday, just in comically different ways. The 49ers' 42 rushing attempts -- against just eight passes -- looks straight out of an Army-Navy box score. When asked after the game why his team ran so much, coach Kyle Shanahan responded with the only answer possible: "Because it was working."
Shanahan calls plays with a ruthlessness that Reid can identify with. Once Shanahan finds something that pops, he's going to keep calling it until the opposition comes up with an answer. With Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine stubbornly keeping a lineup heavy on defensive backs and light on run-stoppers, Shanahan never had to change gears.
It sets up a fascinating Super Bowl matchup where the 49ers' run-game strength matches up beautifully with the Chiefs' rush-defense weakness. Then again, that's what many said about the Titans before Derrick Henry was held to 69 yards on 19 carries.
Make no mistake: Mahomes bailed out Kansas City's defense. The Chiefs gave up 17 points in Tennessee's first three drives, which took up most of the first half. The Titans effectively "shortened the game," which only resulted in them losing faster. Still, that's the second straight first-half no-show by K.C.'s defense, a group that made strides in the regular season, only to resemble last season's Chiefs group in January.
In a twist on the usual cliche, Mahomes did a nice job of keeping his defense off the field. Kansas City's offense scoring 35 points is impressive; doing it in eight true drives is outrageous. Credit the Chiefs' defense for forcing three straight punts at one point, but the unit still gave up 24 points in just seven drives before Tennessee's final garbage-time possession. That's an awful success rate that should be a concern before K.C. steps up in class in the Super Bowl.
By nearly any measure, San Francisco fields one of the great defenses in football today. The numbers say so, and these Niners are even more impressive using the eyeball test, especially now that they are as healthy as they've been all season. Yet they can still give up three straight touchdowns in a hurry to flawed offenses, because it's the year 2020, and it's tough to play defense in the NFL.
The Packers scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half Sunday is hardly cause for alarm. It's just a reminder that no lead will be safe against Patrick Mahomes. The 49ers also gave up three straight touchdowns in Week 17 to Russell Wilson's Seahawks, who came a yard away from making it four straight touchdowns and sending the 49ers into a parallel dimension as the NFC's fifth seed.
It's entirely possibly for San Francisco's defense to play well in the Super Bowl and still give up 25 to 30 points. Like Ryan Tannehill heading into the AFC Championship Game, it's fair to assume that Jimmy Garoppolo isn't going to escape a matchup with Patrick Mahomes without working up a good sweat. The onus will be on the 49ers' offense to keep scoring if they do get a lead in Miami, something they are very capable of. Kyle Shanahan, survivor of 28-3, does not need to be reminded of this lesson.
What's next for the vanquished conference championship teams?
Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson has done an outstanding job building a team of behemoths who look great getting off the bus and running over the competition. His trade for Ryan Tannehill wound up saving the 2019 season. Now comes the hard part.
Tannehill, Derrick Henry and right tackle Jack Conklin were perhaps the three best players on Tennessee's offense, and they are all headed for free agency. Conklin may be the safest bet of the trio for a long-term deal, because Tannehill and Henry will be so difficult to price. Robinson will also be looking for more pass rushers and help in the secondary, especially with cornerback Logan Ryan being another key free agent who could leave.
General manager Brian Gutekunst's heavy investment on defense the last two years has dramatically improved the team's talent base, but the group was ultimately mediocre under coordinator Mike Pettine this year. There were a lot of talented players performing at a high level, yet the erratic Packers defense added up to less than the sum of its parts. Sunday's performance against the 49ers was embarrassing and raises the question if coach Matt LaFleur could make a change, considering he essentially inherited Pettine from Mike McCarthy's staff.
I partially wonder if the Packers will change defensive coaches because the focus on personnel is bound to be on the offense. The depth at receiver was a problem all year. Jimmy Graham is a strong candidate to be cut, a reminder of how thin the team is at tight end. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is a free agent. Gutekunst and LaFleur have started their respective Packers careers strong, but their record this season was not reflective of an offense that made only modest improvements from the McCarthy regime.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Raheem Mostert, RB, San Francisco 49ers
I've somehow gone this deep without mentioning Mostert, the undrafted running back on his seventh team who runs like a first-round pick. The 49ers' offensive line deserves a massive assist, but Mostert's liquid running is a sight to behold. His timing and ability to flow with the blocks in front of him helps explain why he was untouched so often in the first half against Green Bay. Third on the depth chart to start the year -- and second this game behind Tevin Coleman, who hurt his shoulder -- Mostert's 220-yard, four-touchdown game will be remembered in the Bay Area for as long as football is played.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.