The Chiefs have been nearly unstoppable in the AFC since Patrick Mahomes took over as their starting quarterback in 2018.
Perhaps that’s what made their 31-9 loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl 55 so jarring. It was an uncharacteristic performance by a team that is an NFL-best 44-12 (including playoffs) the past three seasons.
It is easy to chalk up the loss to Tom Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl championship after previously dominating the AFC for most of the last two decades with the Patriots. Brady will be back in 2021, and the Super Bowl will run through the GOAT in the NFC until he retires.
That’s not Kansas City’s biggest concern, however. It’s that the Chiefs now face a complicated path to future Super Bowl appearances in an AFC flush with franchise-quarterback talent. Did Kansas City crack that door open Sunday?
That question is at least up for debate heading into next season. This loss wasn’t pretty. Mahomes finished 26 of 49 for 270 yards and two interceptions, and he was in scramble mode for most of the game. That could be attributed to the loss of tackle Eric Fisher, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the AFC championship against the Bills.
A lot of the damage was self-inflicted, too. Kansas City committed 11 penalties for 120 yards, and penalties set up two Tampa Bay touchdown drives in the first half. Brady was staked to a 21-6 halftime lead, and anybody who has watched the NFL since 2000 knew that was more than enough for the legendary quarterback as he worked on the biggest stage.
Even worse for the Chiefs, the Bucs dominated them. It was jarring to watch. The big-play offense wasn’t there. The defense could not generate turnovers. The 22-point loss was by far the worst of the Mahomes era. Brady winning the Super Bowl is never unexpected, but this was supposed to be the one of the greatest Super Bowl quarterback matchups of all time.
Instead, it was the biggest blowout since the Seahawks beat the Broncos and Peyton Manning’s record-setting offense 43-8 in Super Bowl 48.
This was, without a doubt, a missed opportunity for Mahomes in the larger quarterback conversations, given he was expected to take the torch from Brady this year. Instead, Brady improved to 2-0 head-to-head against Mahomes in the postseason. In fact, Brady has handed Mahomes three of his 10 losses as a starter.
Mahomes has a long way to go to get to seven Super Bowl championships. The loss easily disposed of a premature argument generated by two weeks of Super Bowl hype.
But he isn’t going anywhere in the AFC. The Chiefs locked up the 25-year-old franchise passer through 2031 with a massive $450 million contract extension. With that contract, however, will come salary-cap challenges every year. Sammy Watkins, Alex Okafor and Bashaud Breeland are among the top free agents in 2021.
The good news? The core around Mahomes — Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Frank Clark and Chris Jones — remains intact, and the coaching combination of Andy Reid and coordinator Eric Bieniemy remains in place for an offense that has averaged 31 points per game over the past three seasons.
To say the Chiefs are subject to a post-Super Bowl jinx would be short-sighted. Kansas City still runs the AFC. Before Super Bowl 55, Mahomes’ nine losses as a starter were by an average of 4.4 points per game, none were by more than seven points and only five were against AFC teams where Brady wasn’t the quarterback.
That said, the AFC is loaded.
Seven other teams in the conference won 10 or more games in the 2020 season. The Bills will continue to build around Josh Allen. The Browns, who had their chances when Mahomes was knocked out of their divisional playoff game, will be competitive with Baker Mayfield. The Ravens present similar challenges with Lamar Jackson. The Titans, Colts and Dolphins are all solid. The Patriots and Bill Belichick figure to be a wild card when quarterback-hunting this offseason, and we have no idea whether Deshaun Watson will still be in the AFC.
Even the conference’s bottom-feeders are on the rise. The Bengals have hope with 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, and the Jaguars welcome Urban Meyer and, potentially, Clemson star Trevor Lawrence as the No. 1 pick in 2021.
In a league that is dominated by quarterback play, Mahomes isn’t the only elite QB in his conference. That means the terrain might be more difficult to negotiate on a year-to-year basis than what Brady dealt with in New England.
That will be the Chiefs’ biggest challenge heading into the 2021 season, and here is where Mahomes can take a cue from Brady. New England is the only team this century to return to the Super Bowl after losing. The Patriots lost Super Bowl 52 to Philadelphia, but Brady led them back the following season and beat the Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl 53.
Now Mahomes has a chance to do that.
We’ll see just how unstoppable the Chiefs really are.