ORLANDO, Fla. -- If they were an average team with an average quarterback, the Kansas City Chiefs would have been cooked.
But the Chiefs aren't an average team -- and they most certainly do not have an average quarterback.
With less than 30 seconds to play in the half, Patrick Mahomes dropped to pass, rolled left and ran 27 yards down the left sideline through an ill-fated tackle attempt, falling across the goal line to score a touchdown and officially wipe out Tennessee's early advantage. It was the latest jaw-dropping play in what is already a highlight-packed career for the third-year pro.
One year after falling painfully short of reaching Super Bowl LIII, Mahomes and the Chiefs knocked the door down on their second try, barreling through Tennessee to Miami and Super Bowl LIV, where they'll make the franchise's first appearance in the sport's biggest game in 50 years. But these Chiefs are much different from the 1969 Chiefs, who followed coach Hank Stram and quarterback Len Dawson to a runaway win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. And the difference starts with Mahomes, whose once-in-a-lifetime specialness can be hard to capture.
Mahomes sure is spicy. As the chef cooking up Kansas City's flaming-hot offense, Mahomes has a variety of ingredients at his disposal. He can go for the quick burst of heat in Tyreek Hill, the ever-versatile and crowd-pleasing garnish in Travis Kelce, the hidden-but-delicious stuffing in rookie Mecole Hardman, or the welcome dash of pepper in Sammy Watkins.
When it all comes together, it's worthy of an award, a five-star masterpiece of a meal that leaves everyone ready to shower compliments on the chef.
"His arm, him buying time, his accuracy, and he can throw it anywhere on the field," said All-Pro Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has faced Mahomes three times (two passes defensed, zero picks, 53.4 passer rating allowed), when asked what makes Mahomes different. "One play he threw on me, it was a scramble play. I didn't think he could get it there, but he got it there. It was like 40 yards, 50 yards on the money, on the run, across his body.
"Right then and there, I was like, 'This guy's the real deal.' "
Even when the cupboard is bare, the chef can whip up a miracle so often, it comes to be seen as standard. When all hell appears to be breaking loose inside his kitchen, only fools learn the hard lesson: Never leave the table early when Mahomes is cooking.
"The biggest thing is, the guy is very agile in the pocket," Casey said. "He's a guy who can move fluently, he can get out of the pocket with great speed, poise, not necessarily trying to run downfield and try to scramble with his legs, more so looking for his receivers to get open. When you get a quarterback that has poise like that, that understands his mechanics, being able to release a ball sideways -- shoot, throwing it backwards if he really wanted to, I believe -- that dude can do whatever he wants with that ball in his hands.
"Trying to get him down is a tricky task, because you can chase him to the sideline thinking he's gonna run out of bounds, and he's flinging it. You can chase him 30 yards backwards away from the line of scrimmage, he can turn around and fling that thing 40 yards back downfield and complete a first down. That guy does incredible things where you can wrap him up, think he's about to hit the ground, he's flinging the rock. When you get a quarterback who can do things like that, it makes the game difficult."
Casey's defense learned firsthand on the aforementioned Mahomes touchdown run, which evaporated all of the positive momentum built by the Titans. It wasn't their first taste of Mahomes' magic, either, as they'd seen him run straight into the rush, jump and complete a pass to Hardman for a 63-yard touchdown during their regular-season meeting, in Week 10.
"That's the crazy thing about it. You're coming right at him, a lot of times, quarterbacks fall to the ground, take the sack," explained Casey, who missed the Week 10 game and wasn't on the field for Mahomes' 27-yard scoring dash but did help sack Mahomes once in the AFC title game (Casey finished that game with two pressures and 0.5 sacks). "This guy, he can literally get the ball around your body and make a completed pass, [an] accurate completed pass at that. It's unbelievable. When you're a quarterback who's got so much vision and so much wherewithal on where players are at and how to fit balls between, it just makes the game that much harder."
In the American sporting landscape, with commentators spending countless hours debating the merits of various players, it's common to turn to past generations to find comparisons for today's stars. Some, like Vikings defensive lineman Danielle Hunter, pull out a familiar name, a dual-threat predecessor to Mahomes: former Falcons QB Michael Vick.
"He can run the ball at any time and he can throw the ball anywhere on the field," Hunter, whose Vikings missed Mahomes in their Week 9 meeting with the Chiefs because the QB was out with injury, told me. "That's the advantage he has. He's very slippery, as you can see what he did to the last team he played. The dual-threat mentality. That's what's scary about him."
"That's what people are trying to figure out," Allen, who faced Mahomes in Week 1 (four pressures, zero sacks), told me when asked for an accurate comparison for the quarterback. "I just know, for me, I just believe he's a generational player, which makes him a different breed. He's my age (Allen, a rookie in 2019, is 22; Mahomes is 24), and he's doing things that guys want to achieve later in their career, and just to see him do that at a high level so young, it's unbelievable, and it's something that I want to do with my team as a defensive player. He's just a great competitor, he's a great guy. He's just unbelievable. I don't know, man. He is who he is. It's hard to explain.
... "It's like, who do you compare him to? I don't know. I feel like he is who he is. He's a guy you compare people to."
Mahomes has already cemented his place in NFL history in at least one department: end-of-year awards. The quarterback took home NFL Most Valuable Player honors in just his second season.
But that was in 2018, a campaign that saw Mahomes fall short of the Super Bowl. Now that he's on the grandest stage of all, he can elevate himself to an even higher plane with a victory and a Lombardi Trophy.
Then, it will be up to the rest of the league to spend the offseason trying to figure out a way to stop him.