Moments before the final drive of the Chiefs’ 27-24 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, receiver Albert Wilson was waiting on the sideline, over by the heater, when he turned to rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes and made one thing clear.
“The two-minute (drill) is what we do,” Wilson said. “We’re about to go down there and score.”
“Let’s do it,” Mahomes replied.
At that point, the score was tied at 24-24. Over the previous four minutes, the Chiefs had just blown what seemed to be a safe 14-point lead with Mahomes out of the game, and coach Andy Reid decided to turn back to Mahomes to get him some valuable experience with the game on the line.
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So understand, while the Chiefs’ regular-season finale against Denver was relatively meaningless, considering they’d locked up the No. 4 seed in the AFC regardless of the result, for several backups like Mahomes, this victory over the Broncos’ starters in front of an announced crowd of 75,928 was anything but.
Baltimore later lost to Cincinnati on Sunday, setting up a 3:35 p.m. game at Arrowhead Stadium next Saturday between the Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans. But throughout the course of this game, all eyes in Kansas City were on Mahomes, the Chiefs’ much-hyped rookie from Texas Tech, as the showdown against the vaunted Broncos defense amounted to a pop quiz of sorts — an opportunity to show what he’s learned in eight months as Alex Smith’s understudy.
And although Mahomes had an interception early, airmailing a throw, what he did throughout the course of the game — and particularly the last drive — did not disappoint.
“He’s the quarterback for the future of the Chiefs … he came out and made some great throws,” Denver outside linebacker Von Miller said. “Hats off to Mahomes. He’s going to be a great quarterback.”
Miller said that that phrase — “great quarterback” — three times when talking about Mahomes, and no wonder, as the 6-foot-2, 225-pound rookie completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards while showing the ability to consistently scramble away from pressure and deliver strong passes from different — and sometimes absurd — platforms. Mahomes was the first rookie quarterback to start for the Chiefs in a non-strike game since Steve Fuller in 1979.
“He ruined a couple of great plays there,” Reid joked, with a laugh. “Listen, you saw that in college and for it to be able to transfer here to this level … there’s not a lot of guys that can do that.”
What’s more, Mahomes also converted several tough third-and-longs with dart-like throws under pressure, consistently pushed the ball downfield and, most importantly, led the game-winning scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
“He had complete command out there,” said Reid, who was particularly pleased with Mahomes’ command of the verbiage in his offense. “He did a great job with it. I thought he was spot on.”
But more on that last drive later, as Mahomes was hardly the only Chief who reveled in the chance to finally showcase his skills. For instance, once rookie running back Kareem Hunt left the game after one series — his 35-yard touchdown run gave him 1,327 yards this season, helping him surpass the Rams’ Todd Gurley as the league’s top rusher — an ankle injury to backup Akeem Hunt forced the Chiefs to turn to fullback Anthony Sherman in a feature-back role.
Sherman, a seven-year pro who had six carries in his entire career entering the contest, answered the call, rushing 14 times for 40 yards and catching three passes for 21 yards. The Broncos took a 10-7 lead midway through the second quarter with a 29-yard touchdown by running back D’Angelo Henderson on a screen pass, but Sherman’s 1-yard plunge on the Chiefs’ next drive capped an eight-play, 73-yard scoring march that gave the Chiefs a 14-10 lead they took into halftime.
“It was fun,” Sherman said. “We knew coming into this game that we were going to be down some backs. I took over and just did what I was supposed to do.”
A big reason for the Chiefs’ halftime lead — and their ability to hold onto it the rest of the game — was the play of the defense, which was populated almost entirely by backups.
Inside linebacker Terrance Smith wiped out a Denver march with a tipped interception to close out the second quarter, and after the offense opened the third quarter with an 18-play, 90-yard drive that ended with a field goal, Ramik Wilson — another backup inside linebacker — came up big on the second play of the Broncos’ next drive.
Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch, who completed 21 of 31 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in what amounted to an audition for 2018, attempted a play-action pass and was quickly enveloped by defensive lineman Chris Jones. The ball came out, and Wilson scooped it up at the 11-yard line and ran for a score that gave the Chiefs a 24-10 lead entering the fourth quarter.
From there, the defense did the job. Backups such as outside linebacker Tanoh Kpassagnon, a rookie second-round pick, and inside linebacker Ukeme Eligwe, a rookie fifth-rounder, contributed to the harrassment of Lynch: Kpassagnon recorded two sacks, while Eligwe had one.
Backup cornerback Terrance Mitchell also contributed to the cause, snuffing out a fourth-and-long play deep in Chiefs territory by undercutting a sideline throw by Lynch near the goal line and returning it 40 yards for his fourth interception of the season.
“I trusted my arm to get it there,” Lynch explained, “but the DB made a play on it.”
The play silenced the crowd and prompted a wave of fans to hit the exits. The Chiefs had the lead and the ball with a fresh set of downs with only seven minutes left.
But what happened next complicated matters. On the first play of the Chiefs’ next drive, backup quarterback Tyler Bray — making his first regular-season appearance of his five-year career — fumbled the exchange with Sherman and could only watch as Broncos inside linebacker Zaire Anderson scooped it up and sprinted 38 yards for a touchdown to cut the Chiefs’ lead to seven.
The momentum, from there, was decidedly on the Broncos’ side. The Chiefs went three-and-out and Lynch promptly guided a game-tying touchdown drive, hitting a streaking Demaryius Thomas in the back of the end zone on fourth and 4 from the Chiefs’ 6.
With the score knotted at 24-24, the Chiefs got the ball back with a little under three minutes left. And Chiefs coach Andy Reid turned back to Mahomes — whose creativity lends itself to the two-minute drill — to lead his team to a score.
Things didn’t start well, as Mahomes was dragged down for a 7-yard sack on first down. But on second down, Mahomes found his safety valve in receiver Albert Wilson — who was outstanding Sunday, catching 10 passes for 147 yards — to gain 14 yards and set up third and 3. Mahomes’ third-down deep ball was incomplete, but he was spared when the Broncos were whistled for a drive-extending offsides call.
And Mahomes made them pay.
“The guy’s a competitor,” Wilson said. “He’s going to go out there and compete.”
On the next play, he completed an absurd cross-body throw to Demarcus Robinson while running to his right. Two more completions to Wilson — who was forced into duty due to a gruesome injury to De’Anthony Thomas — went for 13 yards and 14 yards and put the Chiefs in field-goal range at the Broncos’ 29.
“Albert wasn’t going to play as much as he played,” Reid said. “But he was phenomenal.”
From there, the Chiefs pounded Denver with the run, as Sherman plowed ahead four times for 17 yards. That set up kicker Harrison Butker’s 30-yard field goal in the waning seconds, giving the Chiefs their fourth straight win, one that not only helped them close the regular season with a 10-6 record, but — thanks to the play of backups such as Mahomes — also provided a significant amount of hope for the future.
“He’s going to be special,” Sherman said.
He’s not the only teammate to feel that way; it’s part of the reason Wilson was so confident predicting the late score before it happened, over by the heater.
So when it actually came to pass, and as the game came to a close, Wilson made sure to find the young quarterback and deliver one last message.
“I told you so,” Wilson told him, with a grin.