Patrick Mahomes is in his fifth season as the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting quarterback, and the Chiefs have hosted the AFC Championship Game in each of his five years under center. He’s the NFL’s best signal-caller and the most talented quarterback most of us have ever watched.
And yet, if Kansas City loses to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Mahomes will become the first QB in NFL history to lose three home conference title games. At that point, there might be some criticism of Mahomes’ playoff record — but it would be totally unfounded.
Patrick Mahomes and the Problem With High Expectations
Mahomes is inevitable. That’s typically the aura surrounding the Chiefs’ quarterback, and the same themes played out this offseason.
After Kansas City traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, there was a thought that Mahomes and the Chiefs would take a step back. By dealing away one of the game’s best receivers, KC might have been giving signals that it was taking a small step back and conducting a mini-reload.
But that hasn’t been the case. Despite Hill’s absence, Mahomes leads the NFL in almost every quarterback metric. No offense was more efficient or scored more points. Mahomes became a near-unanimous first-team All-Pro selection, and he’s the overwhelming favorite to win the MVP award.
Has that air of inevitability transferred to Mahomes’ playoff record? Not necessarily, but it’s impossible to assume the NFL’s best quarterback should win the Super Bowl — or even appear in the Super Bowl — every season.
If the Chiefs fall to the Bengals, Mahomes will be 2-3 in home Conference Championship games. Sure, every other quarterback with at least four home starts in the championship round — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, and Terry Bradshaw — has a winning record in home title games.
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But Mahomes has earned a home championship appearance in all five of his campaigns as Kansas City’s starter. Despite lengthy careers, Bradshaw, Montana, and Manning all topped out at four home title games, and it took them until their 10th, 12th, and 18th seasons to get there.
Brady is 6-1 in home title games, but he’s the outlier of all outliers. He also typically benefitted from a top-10 Patriots defense during his playoff runs.
Meanwhile, Kansas City’s 2022 defense is the best unit that Mahomes has ever played with. The Chiefs rank 15th in defensive efficiency this season. In the previous four years, they’ve finished 23rd, 19th, 18th, and 28th, respectively.
Any criticism of Mahomes’ postseason record is missing the forest for the trees. He’s been to five AFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls in five seasons as a starter. It’s a nearly unassailable start to a career.
The playoffs are difficult. Teams that advance to title games will routinely face the best their conference has to offer. There’s a lot of signal in five consecutive championship game appearances. And although wins are not a quarterback stat, there’s a lot of signal in five straight 12+ win campaigns.
Judging Mahomes based on his team’s performance at the highest levels of a single-elimination tournament? That’s just noise.
The AFC Will Only Get More Challenging for Mahomes and the Chiefs
If Mahomes were in the NFC, he might make the next 10 Super Bowls. With veterans like Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford aging out (and potentially leaving the conference altogether), Mahomes might be unstoppable in the NFC.
Things are more difficult in the AFC, where the crop of quarterbacks is both better and younger.
Josh Allen had been viewed as Mahomes’ primary conference competition. Although the Bills have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, they’ve advanced to the AFC title game just once (2020). Buffalo has been bounced twice in the Divisional Round and once during Wild Card Weekend.
Joe Burrow, Mahomes’ opponent on Sunday, has already reached two Conference Championships in three seasons as the Bengals’ starter and is on the brink of appearing in his second consecutive Super Bowl.
Allen and Burrow will make life tough on Mahomes for the next decade-plus, but there’s plenty of other QB talent in the AFC.
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Justin Herbert and the Chargers, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, and Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars look like they’ll be formidable threats for years to come if everything breaks right. The Browns and Broncos are paying Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson, respectively, like elite quarterbacks — if they turn things around, Cleveland and Denver could compete as soon as next year.
The Texans and Colts are positioned to land a top QB prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Raiders and Jets could add Brady or another veteran signal-caller before next season.
The AFC will be a murderer’s row for the foreseeable future. Mahomes can keep winning a dozen or more regular-season games every year, but that doesn’t mean the Chiefs will be in the Super Bowl — or even the championship game — every season.
If Mahomes still only has one Super Bowl ring a decade from now, there might be some valid criticism. But until then, it’s better to appreciate what Mahomes has accomplished instead of what he hasn’t.