KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs had just lost to the Tennessee Titans, their fourth defeat in the first 10 games of the season, and much of the optimism that surrounded the defending AFC champions had begun to evaporate amid the barbecue smoke that wafts over Arrowhead Stadium each autumn.
That's when team owner Clark Hunt chose to speak publicly for the first time since training camp.
“We have had some outstanding players here over the years,” Hunt said with conviction, “but I don't think we have had one like Patrick Mahomes in a very long time. Having him as the Chiefs quarterback really gives us an opportunity every year to be competitive and hopefully compete for an AFC championship, and ultimately a Super Bowl.”
It turned out to be a prescient statement.
The Chiefs haven't lost since that point in Week 10, rolling through the rest of the regular season and climbing out of a 24-0 hole to beat Houston 51-31 in the divisional round of the playoffs. And they'll aim to keep that roll going Sunday, when they get a rematch with the Titans at home with spot in the Super Bowl riding on the outcome.
Much of the credit belongs to Mahomes, who has quietly followed up his MVP season with another spectacular run. He eclipsed 4,000 yards passing despite missing two games with a serious knee injury, threw 26 touchdown passes against just five interceptions, and he was even better against the Texans last weekend.
Mahomes became the first player with at least 300 yards passing, 50 yards rushing and five TD throws in a playoff game, all while keeping the Chiefs in the right mindset as they embarked on the greatest comeback in franchise history.
“Best quarterback in the NFL,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said afterward. “He'll prove it again next week.”
Mahomes may not have been the best this season, of course. The ankle injury he sustained in the opener in Jacksonville and the knee injury he sustained in Denver slowed him down most of the way, and the records that Baltimore counterpart Lamar Jackson shattered could make him the heir for Mahomes' player of the year hardware.
But much to the chagrin of fantasy football diehards, statistics only tell part of the story, and the reality is Mahomes is a much better quarterback than he was as a first-time starter. The experience he gained while leading the Chiefs to the AFC title game last season was invaluable. His footwork and mechanics are further refined. The photographic memory that allows Mahomes to dissect defenses in the blink of an eye has been honed by hundreds of hours of film study.
He still makes every throw in the book, not to mention many that are nowhere to be found. But Mahomes has improved in just about everything else that comes with playing the most crucial position in the modern NFL.
“This guy can make every single play on the field,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. "Playing those guys earlier in the year, I just remember at the end of the game and the next day my body was sore. I was mentally tired, and I feel like this is the same exact feeling I’m going to have at the end of this game, by being really mentally keyed in on every single snap, trying to really understand what they’re trying to do to us to defeat us."
It is all those things — the talent, the mentality, the winning persona — that have made Mahomes among the best values in professional sports. What he's accomplished in his young career has been done on his rookie contract, paying him a shade over $5 million this season, or less than what 10 players make on his very own team.
That is about to change in a record-setting way.
The Chiefs are able to negotiate a long-term deal with Mahomes for the first time this offseason, and some front office executives believe the going price will be a four- or five-year contract worth about $40 million annually. That would just about match the salary of the Warriors' Steph Curry, the highest-paid player in the NBA this season, and eclipse the roughly $38 million that the Angels' Mike Trout will make in 2020 as the best-paid player in baseball.
The Chiefs have been planning for it, too, structuring contracts the past couple of seasons with an eye on his future.
“We are certainly excited about the opportunity to extend Patrick's stay with the Chiefs and hope that it lasts his entire career," Hunt said. “It's probably a little bit premature to be talking about a new contract. Everyone knows that the first opportunity that we'll have to re-sign him will come at the end of this season. But that is a decision that we will have to make with his representatives, whether this is the right time, or perhaps a year from now.”
In the meantime, the only thing Mahomes is focused on is the AFC title game.
He led the Chiefs within a coin toss and untimely a penalty of perhaps beating the Patriots in overtime last season, and Mahomes freely admits that near-miss drove him through the summer. Now, he has the Chiefs back on the cusp of their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years, and only the Titans are standing in the way.
“I mean, until you win that Super Bowl, I don't think you can be complacent with anything,” Mahomes said. “Being that close last year, you want to find a way to win, and until you're able to do that and do it multiple times, you're never going to get complacent with where you're at.”
Notes: DT Chris Jones (calf) missed practice Thursday for the second consecutive day. RB LeSean McCoy and QB Matt Moore remained out with an illness. ... Special teams coach Dave Toub asked Thursday what a long-awaited championship for Reid would mean to him, and he replied: “Nobody deserves it more than Andy. He's such a great coach. To not have a Super Bowl win under his belt, this would be huge. I don't know if I'd stop crying. I'd probably hug him forever.”