The play that won’t leave the mind never happened.
The genius and guts and otherworldly physical gifts displayed did not count, at least not officially, but this is like a polar bear riding a unicycle while juggling knives — once you see it, you will never forget it.
The play: third-and-14 from the Chiefs’ 28. The Chiefs had four receivers, including three split to the left, but the Oakland Raiders showed eight men at the line of scrimmage anyway.
Patrick Mahomes walked forward to within shouting distance of his linemen, appearing to change the protection but not the play. He took the shotgun snap and then seven steps straight back. His eyes locked downfield, with his four receivers against six Raiders defenders.
The crucial moment came when Oakland’s deep safety, Erik Harris, took an aggressive but false step forward. Maybe he’d seen something on film to indicate the ball was going there. Maybe he trusted the blitz would force Mahomes to get rid of it quicker, or that he wouldn’t be able to throw over the top. In Harris’ defense, normal human quarterbacks can’t do what Mahomes did next:
The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player heaved the ball 55 yards in the air, off the wrong foot and off-balance because of a sprained ankle and an inside blitz, on a rainbow parabola directly into the hands of his receiver. Mahomes could not have more accurately hit a target across a coffee table.
The whole thing is astounding and presents yet another conflict between what quarterbacks have been capable of in the first 113 years of the forward pass and what Mahomes does so often that the examples blend together.
That a penalty wiped out the play does not make a material difference, and not just because any flag for holding is better than allowing an opponent to hit the man who might be the single most transformative athlete in Kansas City history.
Anything is possible now for the 2019 Chiefs, as proved by that throw and so many others that have come before it. This is the season Kansas Citians have waited on for two generations.
The Chiefs are the NFL’s “it” team, appointment viewing for casual fans around the country. We know the origin story here better than anyone. We have a better seat for the show than anyone. Our city will live the funnest show in the country’s biggest league closer than anyone.
On Sunday, the Chiefs will play the Baltimore Ravens in the first game at Arrowhead Stadium since coming within a coin flip of the Super Bowl. For the first time since he won that MVP award, Mahomes will play a real football game in Kansas City.
This is the ground floor of the next decade’s biggest story in Kansas City. Four years ago, the Royals showed the world what this town looks like with a winner. Everything is bigger with the NFL, and the Chiefs are now playing some of their most anticipated games in franchise history every week.
A parade in red would dwarf the one in blue, and with Andy Reid in charge of a roster boasting stars like Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce, receiver Tyreek Hill, defensive end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu, there has rarely if ever been this much confidence and optimism in the franchise’s direction.
Mahomes’ presence is what some in business circles or the military might call “a force multiplier.” His ability gives Hill more ability, for instance. It lifts Kelce’s talent from annual Pro Bowls to a possible Hall of Fame track. It makes the Super Bowl championship that has eluded Reid in a 20-year head coaching career feel realistic, or even inevitable.
It makes the Chiefs a more attractive destination for Clark and Mathieu, who each had other options before signing in KC. It fills more seats, sells more T-shirts, crowds more restaurants and produces more fun. It makes Kansas City a more interesting place.
This is the Chiefs’ best shot at what the Royals accomplished four years ago, in galvanizing a fanbase more accustomed to disappointment and along the way lifting a city that probably puts a little too much of its collective self-esteem into its teams.
This will be the marquee game of the week in the NFL, between two of the AFC’s three best teams, the reigning MVP against Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who so far looks every bit the part of a serious candidate to succeed him.
Last December, these teams played into overtime. The Chiefs trailed into the fourth quarter before a miracle fourth-and-9 completion to Hill highlighted a last-minute touchdown to tie the game. This week, Mahomes called that pass to Hill his favorite throw in the NFL so far.
The Chiefs won in overtime, but the Ravens remain the only team to hold the Chiefs to fewer than 26 points in regulation in their last 20 games. This Baltimore team appears to be improved, too. The New England Patriots are the champions until someone beats them, but it’s easy to imagine Sunday’s outcome determining who wins one of the AFC’s two byes in the postseason, or homefield advantage.
Some other quirks have conspired to make this weekend even more of a party than it always would’ve been. Teams don’t usually play their first two games on the road, for instance, and it’s even rarer that teams are 2-0 for their home opener.
The Chiefs are among those teams who often request to play more home games early. Attendance here tends to drop along with the temperatures. That should not be a problem this year.
Not with this team, and not with this quarterback and, besides, Reid has said he likes the idea of opponents having to win at Arrowhead in the cold. Something about defending the home turf, particularly with some of the league’s loudest fans screaming all around him, appeals to the old coach. This year more than most, they’ll have those opportunities.
This is a rare moment in sports: a long underachieving franchise on the rise as the league’s most entertaining show, the beginning scenes of a story that will be lived and then retold for years.