The Kansas City Chiefs are headed back to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in five years. By Sunday night, they'd stamped their ticket to Las Vegas besting the Baltimore Ravens 17-10 in the AFC Championship Game. They now have a second date with the San Francisco 49ers in their quest for a successful title defense and their fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy. All of this is happening in a season most characterized as a "down year" and it's due in large part to the leadership of reigning MVP Patrick Lavon Mahomes.
If there were any questions about whether or not he'd fully stepped into the role as the team's singular leader, those questions were answered on Sunday. Four years ago, as the team confirmed its first appearance in the Super Bowl in 50 years, one could argue that safety Tyrann Mathieu was the team's emotional leader. Sure, it was technically Pat's team then, but his voice had not yet become singular in the locker room. Make no mistake, there are vocal leaders all over this football team, but Patrick Mahomes is now the conspicuous captain of this perennial championship-caliber club.
Mahomes was at the helm the last time the team hoisted a Lombardi trophy from the podium at State Farm Stadium. Though, that team had a respectable offense comprised of reliable veteran players. The journey of 1,000 steps that led Kansas City to Allegiant Stadium (the site of Super Bowl LVIII) required Mahomes to elevate a far less formidable offensive ensemble. That leadership emerged through reimagining his own role in the championship process and extending trust where it might've been unwarranted.
The Chiefs earned a return trip to the Super Bowl on the back of the extraordinary efforts of their fearless leader.
On Christmas Day, in perhaps their lowest moment of the season, the Kansas City Chiefs fell in a 20-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. The Chiefs' offense committed two turnovers that day and could manage only two scores in the game. The team fell to 9-6 and for the first time in a long time, it looked like the division let alone a title defense might be in jeopardy. Fortunately for Kansas City, they would rebound the following week when the Cincinnati Bengals came to town. The offense didn't spring back to Legion of Zoom form, but did enough to inspire a bit of confidence. They won the game, locked up the AFC West, but most importantly found a new offensive identity.
Patrick Mahomes has come to the realization that the offense doesn't have to be at the fore for this football team to repeat as Super Bowl champions. In the four weeks following the Christmas Day loss, Mahomes posted passer ratings of 109.1, 83.6, 131.6, and 100.5. He made a conscious effort to play more efficient, mistake-free football to put Kansas City's defense in the best position to win. Mahomes had this to say following the victory over Cincinnati, “I thought I did a great job of just when it wasn’t there deep, get it to underneath guys (and) try to get the first downs. If not, we can punt, man. I know that’s not how I’ve always rolled. It’s different, man, to have this good of a defense. It’s going to keep us in every single game; it’s going to be on the offense to go out there and score enough points to win." That level of discipline and self-awareness is the mark of a great leader.
Perhaps the more impressive display of leadership is what happened with 2:19 remaining in regulation in Sunday's conference title game. The Chiefs were clinging to a seven-point lead and were facing a 3rd-&-9 near midfield. In that situation, most teams would run the ball and if they failed to convert, they'd punt and trust the defense to close it out. The Chiefs had other ideas. Andy Reid made an aggressive play call and Mahomes found much-maligned receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling 32 yards downfield to ice the game. In the biggest moment of the season for the Chiefs, Mahomes trusted a player who hadn't been reliable all season to make a play. Valdes-Scantling delivered and the Chiefs are Vegas-bound.
It's this kind of leadership that separates the men from the boys in the National Football League. It might appear simple, but understanding how and when to get out of your own way is a skill just a small percentage of players have at this level. The Mahomes legend has grown and he has a chance to step into even more elite company in the annals of the NFL if they can complete the mission in Super Bowl LVIII. After what we've seen from his leadership over the past month of the season, Chiefs Kingdom should love his chances.