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Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have a problem (and no, it’s not the refs): Sando’s Pick Six

Cover 7 | Monday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Monday, Mike Sando breaks down the six most impactful takeaways from the week.

Patrick Mahomes screamed. He threw down his helmet in anger. The Kansas City Chiefs’ MVP quarterback lost his composure on the sideline at Arrowhead Stadium to a degree unseen previously. He was apoplectic.

Never before could Mahomes recall losing a game on an officiating call like the one referee Carl Cheffers’ crew made to negate a go-ahead Chiefs touchdown. Mahomes had shrugged off a blatantly bad missed pass-interference call in Green Bay just one week ago, but offensive offside to wipe out a Travis Kelce improvised lateral TD in the final 90 seconds of a 20-17 home defeat to Buffalo? This was too much.

If any team was supposed to run hot and melt down in a narrow defeat with playoff seeding implications Sunday, the Sean McDermott-coached Bills were that team. Their week had bottomed out with “Saturday Night Live” parodying McDermott for citing the teamwork of 9/11 terrorists during a 2019 team meeting — one of several damaging revelations from the Go Long expose casting McDermott as an out-of-touch, unaccountable micromanager.

Since when do the Chiefs lose the way the Bills are supposed to fall short? Since now, is when. Because the margin for error has evaporated for Kansas City, complicating its push for another Super Bowl.

The Pick Six column sizes up where the Chiefs stand, why their margin for error is gone and what it could mean for the future, with a Dan Marino career parallel to keep in mind, even if it’s premature now. As for the penalty Mahomes and the Chiefs were so upset about, we’ll get to the bottom of that one as well, with insights aplenty from NFL contacts.

The full menu for Week 14:

• Mahomes, Chiefs and Dan Marino
• Offensive offside? Here’s the deal
• Zach Wilson, Justin Fields audition
• MVP update: Case for Tyreek Hill
• On Packers’ 16-0 December record
• Two-minute drills: Sam Howell’s future

1. Here is where the Chiefs stand, why Dan Marino is relevant, thoughts on Travis Kelce and the new reality at wide receiver.

Mahomes’ starting record before Sunday was 46-2, counting playoffs, when Kansas City held the opponent below 21 points, per TruMedia. That included 16-2 when the opponent scored 17-20 points.

Those records are now 46-3 and 16-3, respectively. Both previous defeats were oddities against the Indianapolis Colts in 2019 and last season. This one hurt more because it more accurately reflected where the Chiefs stand on offense. This was less of a one-off than those Indy games. It was the game after the Chiefs lost 27-19 in Green Bay, which was two weeks after the Chiefs lost at home to Philadelphia, which was two games after the Chiefs lost to a Denver team that didn’t even try to play offense.

Where the Chiefs stand: The chart below shows AFC teams’ week-to-week probability changes as they chase the top seed in the conference, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

The Athletic’s Austin Mock maintains the model used for the projections. By his accounting, the Chiefs’ chances have plummeted from 60 percent entering Week 11 to 11 percent now, well below the Miami Dolphins (53 percent) and Baltimore Ravens (34 percent).

“I’d be worried about them on the road against Miami,” a coach with AFC East experience said. “You are going to Miami, and it is going to be hot as hell, as opposed to bringing Miami into Kansas City and it’s freezing? That is a big difference.”

I think the Chiefs will win out against the Patriots, Raiders, Bengals and Chargers, but they aren’t facing any of those teams in the playoffs.

The Marino warning: Mahomes has played 11 postseason games at home, three at neutral sites (Super Bowls) and zero on the road. That has helped him win two championships in his first five seasons as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback. Now that the Chiefs’ Super Bowl path is likely to take them outside Arrowhead, it’s a good time to consider historical precedent.

Per Pro Football Reference, Mahomes is one of 34 quarterbacks since 1950 to start at least 10 postseason games. Of those quarterbacks, Mahomes and Marino are the only ones to make their first six playoff starts at home or in the Super Bowl.

Marino used that early edge to reach the Super Bowl in his second season. But he played seven of his remaining 11 playoff games on the road, including six of his final seven, and never reached another Super Bowl. For his postseason career, Marino finished 7-3 at home, 1-6 on the road and 0-1 at neutral sites.

Career Postseason Records

QB Mahomes Marino

Home

9-2

7-3

Road

0-0

1-6

Neutral

2-1

0-1

While there is every reason to expect Mahomes and Andy Reid to reach future Super Bowls, and I would never bet against them, there was every reason to think Marino and Don Shula would reach more of them as well.

The path becomes more complicated in the absence of home-field advantage, for two reasons.

Beyond the challenges associated with road games, the lower-seeded teams that must travel simply aren’t as good as higher-seeded teams that stay home. If the Chiefs find themselves on the road this postseason — and more frequently in future postseasons as Kelce declines and eventually retires — it’ll be because they aren’t as good in the future as they’ve been in the past. Which now appears a little more likely.

The Kelce question: From 2010 into 2015, Tom Brady’s touchdown rate was about twice as high when tight end Rob Gronkowski was on the field, compared to when Gronk was not playing. There were times when the New England offense struggled to function without him.

Mahomes feels at least as reliant on Kelce as Brady was on Gronkowski. The difference is, Kelce has not missed many games, so we haven’t seen what the offense looks like without him (I’m picturing the 2019 Patriots, but if Brady were mobile). We have seen Kelce’s production decline along with the production of the offense, and so we wonder which one is affecting the other most, especially now that Kelce is 34.

“It is funny you say that,” a general manager from another team said. “I was watching him run down on that Hail Mary (against Green Bay), and I was thinking he might be almost done. I say that understanding he has been productive at times this year. But you know what the first sign of decline for a player like Travis Kelce is? That he is not the same player late in the season. It means his body is not recovering.”

Kelce is averaging 11.2 yards per reception, a career low. Respect for him still runs high.

“Kelce is fine,” an offensive coach countered. “He has never been good lining up and beating a guy press-man on him, but they do such a good job of moving him, motioning him, change-release routes, and a lot of catches come on Mahomes’ scrambles when people lose track of him.”

Former NFL GM Randy Mueller has called Kelce the best he’s ever seen at finding soft spots in zones. He thinks there’s too much pressure on Mahomes and Kelce to carry the offense, and not enough help from the wide receivers, especially now that Kelce is older. Which brings us to our final point.

The receivers aren’t good enough: With the game on the line Sunday, the Chiefs pulled off an all-time great play. Mahomes threw downfield to Kelce for a 25-yard gain. Kelce threw the ball backward to Kadarius Toney, who ran into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:25 remaining. It should have been an epic moment in Chiefs history. But there was a flag on the play. Replays showed Toney lining up offside. The penalty was a killer.

Mahomes was irate, but let’s zoom out for a moment and consider the situation objectively. With a realistic shot at the AFC’s No. 1 seed on the line, the Chiefs were only as strong as their weakest link. They were betting on a receiver deemed expendable by the New York Giants, who have been desperate for production of any kind at the position. If Toney were a seasoned pro known for his attention to detail, the Giants never would have traded him.

The Chiefs made the trade because they were desperate. In a critical spot, Toney lined up in violation of the rules. There have been greater surprises.

“They are one receiver short,” a coach whose team faced the Chiefs said. “Can they get enough from Kelce, and can they get enough from their running backs in the flat? You look at the average depth of target for Mahomes, and it is really short. They can get by if they are going to have a huge surplus from the tight ends and running backs.”

Per TruMedia, Mahomes’ average depth of target (6.9 yards) and average depth per completion (4.4 yards) are career lows, as the chart above reveals. That is not any referee’s fault, but it is a reflection of the Chiefs’ diminished margin for error. Where Kadarius Toney lines up suddenly matters a great deal to them.

2. Does Mahomes have a point about the offensive offside call? He’s not getting much sympathy.

Down judge Mike Carr threw the flag right away, well before Mahomes threw the ball to Kelce, and well before anyone knew the offensive offside penalty against Toney would wipe out an incredible play.

“It’s tough to swallow, not only from me, and football in general, to take away greatness like that,” Mahomes said afterward. “For a guy like Travis to make a play like that, you want to see the guys on the field decide the game. … I’ve never had offensive offsides called. If it does, they warn you. There wasn’t a warning the entire game. And then you make a call like that in the final minute? Another game, we’re talking about the refs. It’s not what we want for the NFL. It’s not what we want for football.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Chiefs rip refs, but the reality is another mistake by a receiver cost them another win

Lots to unpack here. Terry McAulay, the former NFL referee now providing analysis for NBC, noted that officials have called offensive offside 11 times this season, up from twice in 2022 and once in 2021. It was called a 12th time during the Philadelphia-Dallas game. McAulay called Toney’s violation an easy call, and consistent with how the rule has been interpreted this season.

On-air officiating analysts typically rally to the support of their on-field friends, but in a league filled with coaches and executives embittered by inconsistent calls, there was no outrage over this one.

“The line-of-scrimmage officials are in charge of the entire neutral zone — pass-rusher alignments, center head bobs, all those things,” an NFL team exec said. “When someone aligns as ridiculously offsides as Toney did, the officials can’t see in there to do their jobs. It’s an easy flag when it’s that blatant.”

The NFL this season has sent officiating enforcement tapes to teams with a focus on presnap alignment rules for offensive linemen on “tush push” plays, according to league sources. One of those videos from November referenced receiver alignment, noting that officials would throw flags if the violations were blatant. The video included an example play when offensive offside was called against a receiver.

“It was the right call,” a former head coach said. “It is so obvious when you are close to the tackle. I mean, I can’t believe there would be anyone that you would talk to who would say that was not a penalty.”

3. Justin Fields and Zach Wilson are auditioning for something. They helped their causes Sunday.

Fields and Wilson combined to pass for 524 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Chicago Bears and New York Jets, respectively, to upset victories.

Quarterbacks drafted in the first round usually enjoy long runways before their teams give up on them. But no matter how well Fields and Wilson finish the season, both could be headed elsewhere through circumstances they no longer control.

Fields could be expendable if the Bears land the first pick in the draft, acquired from Carolina, which is first in the order by two games now. Wilson’s future is elsewhere as long as Aaron Rodgers remains in the picture for the Jets. The better these 2021 first-round picks play, the better their markets will become. These can be win-win-win situations — wins for the quarterbacks, wins for their teams, wins for teams needing quarterbacks.

The table below compares Fields’ production in his 17 most recent games to his production in the 17 starts before that. Would a team such as Atlanta be willing to bet on that?

Justin Fields, Then & Now: 17-Game Split

Stat Then Now

Start Date

2021 Wk 3

2022 Wk 8

End Date

2022 Wk 7

2023 Wk 14

Starts

17

17

Cmp-Att

227-391

278-437

Cmp%

58%

64%

Yds

2,848

3,004

Yds/Att

7.3

6.9

TD-INT

12-15

25-11

Rating

75.1

92.3

Sacked

61

60

Sack Rate

13.5%

12.1%

EPA/Pass Play

-0.08

-0.03

Air Yds/Att

9.7

7.8

Rushes

46

106

Rush Yards

750

1,237

Yds/Rush

5.8

6.8

Rushing TD

3

8

There is no comparable 17-game split for Wilson. He was better Sunday in beating Houston than he has been almost any time previously.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Jets finally open playbook for Zach Wilson, who lets it rip for signature win

Fields is the interesting case study. In his current form, he’ll scare two coordinators every game — his own on offense and the opponent’s on defense.

There were multiple examples Sunday during the Bears’ 28-13 victory over the Lions.

First-and-goal from the 9, top of the fourth quarter. Fields misses an open Cole Kmet for what should have been a touchdown. It was one of several routine passes almost any starting quarterback should make, but one of several in this category Fields is prone to miss. Later in the game, in the four-minute offense, Fields missed an open D.J. Moore over the middle, helping Detroit get the ball back.

But two plays after missing Kmet, Fields pulled off an 11-yard touchdown scramble that perhaps only one or two other players on the planet could execute so easily.

“He misses throws anyone should make, but he also makes plays with his feet that no one else in the league makes,” a veteran coach said. “The $100 million question is, what is more important? Is it the plays everyone makes that he should make, but does not make? Or is it the plays he makes that are so unbelievable that almost no one else makes?”

4. What would Tyreek Hill have to do to get my MVP vote? Keep doing what he’s doing, most likely.

We had fun last week explaining why Brock Purdy’s MVP case was becoming harder to oppose than support based on the San Francisco 49ers’ sheer production. We can debate to what degree Purdy helps the 49ers versus the other way around, but in the end, production tends to win out in these MVP discussions.

I’ve updated the chart we published last week, comparing combined passing and rushing EPA for the leading quarterback candidates. The blue line represents the average for the past 10 quarterback MVPs.

Lamar Jackson had a monster day for Baltimore (9.9 EPA) against the Rams, followed in Week 14 by Purdy (5.6). Dak Prescott (-1.1), Josh Allen (-2.7), Mahomes (-4.8) and Hurts (-11.8) slipped backward from an EPA standpoint, although Prescott in particular remains a strong candidate.

Quarterbacks have won the past 10 MVPs, but if none produces near record-setting levels, I’d lean toward Hill, provided he sets the single-season record for yardage. Yes, quarterbacks are more valuable than receivers, but I don’t think we need to interpret the word “valuable” so literally. An all-time great season at wide receiver can trump a quarterback’s good season, at least in my view.

Calvin Johnson set the single-season receiving yardage record with 1,964 in 2012, but his Lions were 4-12 and Adrian Peterson won MVP honors with a 2,097-yard rushing season. Hill is on pace to beat Johnson’s record by 10 yards in his 16th game, with his Dolphins 9-3 and in the hunt for the AFC’s top seed entering Monday night’s matchup against the Tennessee Titans.

5. The Packers’ 16-0 record in December under coach Matt LaFleur is impressive, but not particularly mysterious.

Oddsmakers favor Green Bay by 6.5 on the road against the New York Giants on Monday night. The fat point spread is a great place to start when explaining why the team has never lost in December since LaFleur took over in 2019.

The Packers have done a good job in those games, but they should not necessarily embrace narratives about “learning how to finish” or “playing our best ball in December” — tempting as it might be to suggest they’ve found an edge.

Entering Week 14, the teams with the best December records since the Packers hired LaFleur — Green Bay (16-0), Kansas City (16-2), Dallas (13-4) and Tampa Bay (12-5) — had something else in common.

These teams also were the ones favored to win their December games by the highest average margins: Kansas City (-7.9), Green Bay (-5.7), Dallas (-5.2) and Tampa Bay (-4.6).

Below we see all the LaFleur-era December victories, stacked by how much Green Bay was favored or an underdog.

Packers’ December Spreads Under LaFleur

Season-Wk GB OPP Spread GB Result

2019-17

-13.5

W 23 – 20

2019-14

-13.0

W 20 – 15

2021-14

-11.5

W 45 – 30

2020-15

-9.5

W 24 – 16

2020-14

-9.0

W 31 – 24

2021-15

-9.0

W 31 – 30

2020-13

-8.0

W 30 – 16

2021-16

-7.5

W 24 – 22

2022-15

-7.0

W 24 – 12

2019-13

-6.5

W 31 – 13

2019-15

-4.0

W 21 – 13

2022-13

-3.5

W 28 – 19

2020-16

-3.0

W 40 – 14

2022-16

+3.5

W 26 – 20

2019-16

+4.0

W 23 – 10

2023-13

+6.0

W 27 – 19

The LaFleur-era Packers were favored to win 13 of those 16 December games, including 10 of them by at least 6.5 points. They beat Kansas City as the underdog last week. This is the most encouraging part of the December success under LaFleur, because it affirms the improvement we’ve seen from the Packers recently, and suggests an upward trajectory as the playoffs approach.

Green Bay under LaFleur has covered the spread in December at the fifth-best rate (.625), which might better contextualize the Packers’ strong play late in the season. The Rams, Ravens, Cowboys and Dolphins have covered at even higher rates since 2019.

6. Two-minute drill: Sam Howell’s future, Jake Browning’s present and more

The Commanders’ slump from 4-5 to 4-9 is pushing the team toward the top of the 2024 draft order, bringing into play the chance to select a quarterback early in the first round. Evaluating current starter Sam Howell will also be part of the process. That evaluation is not yet complete.

Of note: Over their past six games, Howell and the Commanders have cut their sack rate by more than half from the first seven games. This has helped cut in half the number of third-down situations with more than 10 yards required for a first down.

Commanders Splits on Offense

Range Week 1-7 Week 8-13

Games

7

6

Cmp-Att

167-256

168-253

Cmp%

65.2%

66.4%

Yds/Att

6.8

6.8

TD-INT

9-7

9-7

Rating

85.2

86.0

Sacked

40

18

Sack Rate

13.5%

6.6%

Avg 3rd Down Dist

8.7

6.5

3rd Down Conv Rate

29.4%

47.7%

EPA/Pass Play

-0.07

+0.01

While quarterbacks play leading roles in sack rates, the statistical splits in the table above also reflect an important change to the offensive line. Tyler Larsen replaced Nick Gates at center for the past six games, a change that seems to have calmed some of the chaos up front for Washington.

Hat tip to Bengals: Joe Burrow’s season-ending injury provided cover for the Bengals to reset their goals and fade away. Instead, Cincinnati has defeated Jacksonville and Indianapolis, two teams battling for playoff positioning, in successive weeks. The Bengals did not win those games with unsustainable plays on defense or special teams. They won those games with Jake Browning producing numbers indistinguishable from the ones Burrow might have produced.

Burrow’s most productive two-game stretch this season fell against San Francisco and Buffalo in Weeks 8-9. Below, we see how Browning’s two-game starting stretch against Jacksonville and Indianapolis compare.

2023 Best Two-Game Runs For Cincy QBs

QB Burrow Browning

Weeks

8-9

13-14

Opp

SF, BUF

JAX, IND

Cmp-Att

59-76

52-64

Cmp%

78%

81%

Yards

609

609

Yds/Att

8.3

9.7

TD-INT

5-0

3-2

Rating

123.2

109.7

Sacked

4

2

EPA/Pass Play

+0.26

+0.21

Air Yds/Att

6.2

4.0

16+ Cmp

12

12

Time to Throw

2.62

2.66

Tm EPA/Play

0.16

0.11

That is phenomenal production over two games when transitioning from a Tier 1 starter in Burrow to a backup in Browning.

Extraordinary Joe: How happy are you, Cleveland Browns fans, when 38-year-old, off-the-couch Joe Flacco provides a huge upgrade over the $230 million quarterback your team is married to for another three seasons?

The line of questioning Browns coach Kevin Stefanski faced after Flacco’s debut game last week had me laughing. Beat reporters covering the the team sounded as though they had just watched prime Peyton Manning play for their team, when in reality a merely functional Flacco seemed like a gift from the football gods after watching Deshaun Watson and his backups flounder all season.

Flacco was not amazing in the Browns’ 31-27 victory over the Jaguars on Sunday, but he passed for 311 yards and three touchdowns, including two to tight end David Njoku against blitzes and a second-half knockout blow on fourth-and-3.

Rams’ Achilles’ heel: The Rams going toe-to-toe with Baltimore and then losing on a punt-return touchdown in overtime was not as shocking as it might seem. The Rams have played better teams tough multiple times this season. They checked that box again Sunday. The Rams also have ranked near the bottom of the NFL in special teams EPA. This could reflect their roster construction. With only one defensive player earning more than $1.3 million, they aren’t in position to fill their special teams coverage units with seasoned veterans. They still shouldn’t give up a punt-return touchdown in overtime after playing so well for so long. Rough.

Explosive OBJ: Odell Beckham Jr. emerging as a productive receiver for the Ravens in Mark Andrews’ absence stood out Sunday. Beckham’s four catches for 97 yards included three receptions gaining more than 15 yards. It’s the second time in three games Beckham had three explosive receptions. He had 16 such games previously in his career, plus four games with four explosive receptions. Producing at that level so late in the season, and after years of decline, should be very encouraging for Baltimore.

(Photo: William Purnell / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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