There have been few times when Patrick Mahomes, in what has been an almost flawless 92-game football career, has faced a quandary like this. There was no NFL learning curve for him. He threw 50 touchdown passes his first full season as a starter, in 2018. He is 64-16 as a regular-season quarterback.
He has played 12 playoff games.
Ten of those 12 games — all but the two Super Bowls in which he has played — have been held in the comfortable sea of red of Arrowhead Stadium. Think about that. Think about just how dominant his Chiefs teams have been. Not one road game in the postseason. Ever. He has one MVP Award. He is, at worst, an even-money favorite to add a second one this year.
Yet this week, Mahomes will face something he has almost never faced before. Coming to Arrowhead this Sunday for the AFC Championship game are Joe Burrow and the Bengals, and in the days since the Who Deys flattened the Bills in Buffalo, there has grown something of an angelic aura around them and their cool-as-a-movie-theater-in-August quarterback.
“They’re a great team and he’s a great player,” Mahomes said Wednesday morning in Kansas City, Mo. “I think everybody knows that.”
So it is different for Mahomes this time. Across most of his career, he has been the hunted, and he has been the biggest star on the field. He has mostly lived up to all of that hype. (Who are we kidding? He has mostly surpassed it.) But it is also fair, very fair, to point out that though he has won nine of those 12 postseason games, the three losses have come against two quarterbacks.
1. Tom Brady, in the 2018 AFC Championship game and again in Super Bowl LV two years later.
2. Joe Burrow, in the 2021 AFC Championship game, after Burrow spotted Mahomes and crew a 21-3 lead.
Mahomes and the Chiefs have faced Burrow and the Bengals two other times the past two regular seasons. The Bengals won both of those games, too. So it is Cincinnati that will bring a three-game winning streak in the series to Arrowhead this Sunday, it is Cincinnati that has drawn more than 77 percent of the pregame gambling action, moving the line as many as 4.5 points. It is Burrow who has emerged, for now, as the popular choice for the question: Who is the one player you start your team with?
Mahomes has never been an underdog before. He is an underdog now. Both literally and metaphorically. There is one notable dissident.
“Every time I walk on a field,” Mahomes said Wednesday, “I don’t feel like I’m an underdog. Especially at Arrowhead.”
It might behoove the Bengals — and everyone else — to heed the warning:
Beware of Underdog.
Certainly beware of this reputed underdog. Mahomes has been humbled by the Bengals. He has also been betrayed by his body — though he walked without a limp Wednesday morning, he is still just four days removed from a diagnosis of a high ankle sprain, and we all saw how he struggled to move against the Jaguars.
“He’s had injuries before,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He can bank on that past experience he’s had. He’ll do fine, no matter. We’re just making sure he’s safe — safe as you can be out there on a football field, anyway.”
There are times when you think the Mahomes Experience has run out of adjectives, if not steam, and that’s usually around the time he pulls a no-look pass out of his bag of tricks, or a left-handed toss, or a basketball jump-shot TD throw — or merely a textbook-perfect spiral into a waiting set of arms, usually belonging to Travis Kelce, often near the goal line.
On Sunday, he will bring that usual array of goodies with him as well as a couple of other things that are not usually part of the repertoire: a chip on his shoulder, for one, and a need for retribution. He was terrible in the second half of the AFC title game last year, when the Bengals came back to win 27-24, and he quietly insisted, “This was all my fault” amid the detritus of that defeat.
Burrow also thoroughly outplayed him in the Bengals’ win Dec. 4 — also 27-24, which was the first time the speculation began to brew that maybe there was a passing of the torch happening among the NFL’s gold-standard quarterbacks. Neither team has lost since. Somebody surely will on Sunday.
“We know who we’re playing,” Mahomes said. “We know what they’ve done against us.”
Maybe the Bengals do have the Chiefs’ number. Maybe Burrow can spend Sunday solidifying his campaign as the NFL’s new top gunner. Maybe. All of that posits that Patrick Mahomes will surrender all of that. You make such presumptions at your own risk. Beware of this underdog.