It’s true by regular-season record (11-6), point differential and any eye test a given NFL observer might prefer.

The Kansas City Chiefs have their worst team since Patrick Mahomes took over as quarterback in 2018.

While the Chiefs won the AFC West – as they have in every season since 2016, the year before they drafted Mahomes in the first round  – they are not in their customary perch as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, and they’ve proven to be more beatable than in a typical year. 

It’s a testament to the greatness of both Mahomes and Chiefs coach Andy Reid that while all of these points are inarguably true, their team is still getting ready to play in the AFC championship game – at the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

It is good to have No. 15 behind center. 

The Chiefs are right on the doorstep of Mahomes’ fourth Super Bowl appearance and a shot at his third win. Our supercomputer basically gives them a 50% chance to win on the road as 3.5-point underdogs.

They’ve arrived behind a formula of Mahomes, Mahomes and more Mahomes, with a side of stingy defense helping him.

Across the NFL regular season, Kansas City endured some of the worst performances by a wide receiver group that any contender has ever experienced, and the running game was average. But Mahomes continued to be the greatest quarterback in the world, and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit gave the Chiefs enough cushion that the failures by Mahomes’ supporting cast did not crush the team. 

In the playoffs, however, the story has been a bit different. 

Mahomes’ Receivers Are Finally Helping Him

The struggles of the Chiefs wideouts is well documented: During the regular season, Mahomes’ targets posted a dropped-throw rate of 5.46% – the worst for any starting quarterback in the NFL – forcing his passing yards per game (261.4) to dip to a career low.

The lowlights were plentiful, and didn’t stop with the drops:

  • Kadarius Toney’s infamous offside penalty wiped out a regular season win against Buffalo.
  • Tight end Travis Kelce remained productive, but showed clear signs of decline.
  • Nobody in the wideout room picked up even a fraction of the slack.

Few playoff teams had a more obvious weakness than the Chiefs did with their receiving corps.  However, in their two wins, Mahomes’ pass catchers have woken up, with their dropped-pass rate only 3.6% – a tick better than league average.

Just as importantly, they’re getting themselves open at skyrocketing rates. Mahomes’ open-target rate in the playoffs is 89.1%, which is by far the highest among quarterbacks to take postseason snaps.

That’s a jump from an 80.5% rate in the regular season, and it speaks to both Reid’s schematics and some nice work by the receivers (and Kelce, of course) to get themselves into open grass. It also doesn’t hurt to get coverage busts like the type the Bills ceded on Kelce’s first touchdown catch in the divisional round: 

It isn’t just Kelce, though. Rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice has caught 12 of 16 targets for 177 yards and a touchdown.

Veteran Marquez Valdez-Scantling even made a big play against the Bills, getting between a pair of defensive backs and squeezing a deep ball from Mahomes for a 32-yard catch. 

Mahomes Finds New Ways to Be Special

Mahomes has undoubtably enjoyed his wide receivers getting open and dialing back their drops. He’s also played exceptional football – maybe not so much by his standards because he makes the weird feel normal, but by anyone else’s.

He is legendary against the blitz, and consistent with that, he’s been a menace when under pressure in these playoffs. He’s thrown 12 passes under pressure at an 83.3% well-thrown rate. No other playoff QB is higher than a 66.7% well-thrown rate in the postseason. 

Mahomes hasn’t thrown a playoff pass that we’ve deemed “pickable,” and it’s not like he’s been conservative. His 3.6% check-down rate is the lowest in the playoffs, and his 8.1-yard average throw by air yards is ahead of the NFL’s 7.7-yard league average. That’s despite Mahomes playing both games in winter hellscapes – especially in Kansas City against Miami, then in Buffalo.

QBs under pressure

Maybe not surprisingly, the four quarterbacks with deeper average air yardage in the playoffs – the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford, Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield and Green Bay’s Jordan Love – played their games indoors or in warm climates.

They are also eliminated as Mahomes plays on.  

The Defense Is Doing Its Share

The days of the Chiefs saddling Mahomes with a subpar defense are over. (Now they only saddle him with bad receivers.) 

The Chiefs finished the regular season second in the league in fewest points allowed per game, second in adjusted defensive rating, fifth in expected points added on defense and fifth in defensive EVE. They’ve carried the good work into the playoffs, holding the once-high-flying Dolphins to six points in the K.C. tundra on Super Wild Card Weekend.

Their performance in Buffalo was much iffier, particularly allowing 182 rush yards on 39 carries, but the Chiefs got big plays when it mattered: a special-teams stand on a Buffalo fake punt, and end Chris Jones’ pressure into quarterback Josh Allen’s lap that seemed to cause an incompletion on a would-be touchdown pass right before Tyler Bass’s missed a potential game-tying field goal in the final two minutes. 

When the Chiefs have succeeded in the playoffs, it’s been because nobody’s been able to throw on them. Tua Tagovailoa had one of his worst games as a pro and Allen didn’t land a single 20-yard pass.

The Chiefs’ 5.1 yards allowed per pass play in the playoffs match Baltimore for the best in the league, but the ways the two NFL powers have achieved that success against the pass have been wildly different.

The Ravens’ quarterback pressure rate against Houston’s C.J. Stroud in their lone playoff game was 63.9%, giving them the highest pressure rate to date. The Chiefs have the lowest rate of any playoff team at 27.8%, and one of the lower blitz rates at 23.3%.

Quite simply, Patrick Mahomes and Ravens counterpart Lamar Jackson will have contrasting tasks in front of them with a trip to Super Bowl 58 on the line.

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