Consider all that can go wrong on a football field, all that could have gone wrong for Kansas City late Sunday night, with the Chiefs trying to score the go-ahead touchdown and the Las Vegas Raiders seeking to stop them.
Penalties, mental lapses, drops, imprecise routes. The ball could sail just high or wide, grazing off a receiver’s fingertips. It could be caught a centimeter out of bounds, or intercepted a centimeter in bounds. All sorts of wacky stuff.
Until recently the Chiefs, with a grisly history of postseason malfunctions, knew wacky stuff. But when they took possession Sunday with 1 minute 43 seconds remaining and 75 yards to the end zone, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire turned to a teammate and uttered the words that govern today’s N.F.L.: “We’ve got Patrick Mahomes. I’m not worried about anything.”
The Chiefs won, 35-31.
Mahomes is the best quarterback in the league in part because he is the most predictable. He eliminates variables, defenses, worries. He knew the Chiefs were going to score. Maybe not on a 22-yard reception by Travis Kelce, and maybe not with 28 seconds left, but he knew. Coach Andy Reid knew, too.
“I’ve got Pat Mahomes,” Reid said. “You give me a minute and a half and I’m pretty good right there. We can roll.”
No poll was taken, so call this a hunch: Everyone on Kansas City’s sideline knew it. And in an honest moment, maybe the Raiders would admit they had a sense of dread, too.
The Chiefs are 9-1, three games clear in the A.F.C. West of frisky Las Vegas (6-4), which holds the conference’s third wild-card slot, and in most seasons they would be gliding toward the No. 1 seed. But since Pittsburgh has yet to lose, Kansas City was left to rue the blemish on its record, an Oct. 11 defeat to the Raiders, and avenge it. After that loss, the Raiders’ buses circled Arrowhead Stadium in a victory lap of sorts, and though that little event had no tangible impact on the game that unspooled Sunday, professional football players and coaches do have pride, especially those who lifted the Lombardi Trophy only eight months earlier.
Nursing a grudge might not be healthy for one’s emotional balance, but for Mahomes and the Chiefs it is as nourishing as bone broth. It just so happens that late last week, Reid installed a trick play, which Kelce completed for 4 yards, with a Vegas homage, named Slot Machine Right.
The Chiefs do not lose often — only once in the last 54 weeks — but when they do, they tend to respond: After losing to Tennessee and Houston last season, Kansas City bludgeoned them in the playoffs, with Mahomes throwing for eight touchdowns.
In both of those games, Mahomes spun victories from double-digit deficits, developing a reputation for comeback wizardry that only intensified at the Super Bowl, when he led three touchdown drives in the final 6:32. But Mahomes does not lead many fourth-quarter comebacks — six across 46 N.F.L. games, counting the postseason — because his team rarely trails that late.
The Chiefs trailed late Sunday because Raiders quarterback Derek Carr did not just match Mahomes over the first 58 minutes or so — he outshined him. In one sense, the Raiders are the anti-Chiefs, an anachronism assembled to win with brute force: with fullbacks and blocking tight ends and by running with Josh Jacobs, who harnesses the power of a transformer, out of two-back sets. But they don’t have to.
The Raiders’ offensive personnel promote flexibility in a manner that feels vaguely aspirational, with Darren Waller blossoming into their version of Kelce. Carr didn’t surpass 165 passing yards in any of the Raiders’ previous three games, all victories, because Las Vegas bullied its opponents on the ground. On Sunday, he topped that number by halftime — 183 of his 275 total — and in the fourth quarter he whipped touchdowns to Waller and Jason Witten, whose 1-yarder off a Carr scramble put the Raiders up by 31-28 with 1:43 left.
Glancing at the clock, Carr thought they left too much time for Mahomes.
“Obviously, yeah,” he said.
Later, Carr clarified that he would have said that about any quarterback in that situation. But few quarterbacks in football history have done what Mahomes has done, or can do what Mahomes can do. At his current rate, Mahomes will throw for 4,856 yards this season with 43 touchdowns and only three interceptions; according to Pro Football Reference, no one has passed for that many yards and that many touchdowns and so few interceptions.
But Mahomes, the youngest player to win the Most Valuable Player Award and a Super Bowl, demolishes precedent. Never before had he thrown a go-ahead touchdown within the final two minutes. On the winning drive, he completed six of seven passes. On the winning play, he escaped the pocket and, surprised to see Kelce so open, zipped him the ball.
“I just tried to put it on him as quick as possible,” Mahomes said. “I knew that was the game winner.”
Of course he did. In the 75 seconds it took for Kansas City to go 75 yards, so much could have gone wrong. Nothing consequential did. The most expected outcome prevailed. Give Patrick Mahomes a minute and a half, and the Chiefs will roll.