By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
They call him "Showtime Mahomes". Already.
That's how much of an impression that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has made on the National Football League, just six starts into his career. No question about it, Mahomes has been electrifying. He leads the NFL with 14 touchdown passes, and sits fifth with a 112.7 passer rating. He's made eye-popping plays in and out of the pocket, short and long. Even with both his right and left hand.
Mahomes' "big arm" has been a key talking point for Patriots players ahead of their much-hyped prime time matchup with Kansas City on Sunday Night Football. Plenty of arm talk. The physical tools are obvious.
But what's really been impressive about the 23-year-old Mahomes is his poise, his ability to make plays under pressure. Andy Reid's offense involves a lot of quick decisions and short passes, and Mahomes has done that as well as the deep balls and scramble plays. And he's often done it under duress. You saw it just last week, when he dropped a 30-yard dime into the hands of Travis Kelce with a pass rusher in his face. He's made throws while taking hits. Doing the kind of things that the very best, most mentally tough quarterbacks can do.
Is he ready to do those things under the bright lights of Gillette Stadium, with the football world watching in the clear game of the week in the NFL? In a way, he's already passed that test.
Facing a 23-13 deficit in Week 4 at Mile High Stadium, one of the league's most formidable road environments, Mahomes went 13-for-16 passing for 153 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Facing his first big bout of adversity, he led the Chiefs to a 14-point comeback win over the Broncos (Kareem Hunt ran in the second score).
So it's easy to look at that Denver game and say yes, Mahomes is most certainly ready for a prime time test like this. But it's still not the same as marching into Foxborough. Here, the bright lights are isolated, a beacon in an expanse that lands closer to "rural" than "urban". It's produced an eerie feeling for visiting teams, winding through the back roads and rolling up the bumpy road to the rickety old haunted mansion at the top of the hill. Despite its lack of a reputation for crowd noise, Gillette has been its own unique house of horrors for many young QBs.
And of course, facing Vance Joseph and Case Keenum simply does not compare to staring across the field at Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. A pair that's produced a 41-1 record against quarterbacks under 25 in their first game at Gillette. The only win came off the hands of Colin Kaepernick, whose 49ers out-dueled Brady 41-34 in 2012.
Does Mahomes have the poise to bust the ghosts of Foxborough, to overcome the near-impossible challenge of facing the best quarterback and coach in the league on their home turf in prime time?
Patriots safety Devin McCourty has had a first-hand look at plenty of those wins over young quarterbacks. But he also saw Mahomes' performance in Denver. He's certainly not treating the Chiefs signal-caller as if he's a first-year starter who's easily shaken.
"It’s not like we’re playing a young quarterback and we just need to make it tough for him early and we’ll have him," said McCourty on Thursday. "Like he’s not going to be rattled if he has a bad throw or throws an interception like he threw against Jacksonville. It’s not going to stop him from coming back, making plays. So, I think we’ve just got to be ready. It’s a young quarterback, but the guy plays like a veteran."
Belichick certainly got a long look at Mahomes from that Denver game. He's aware of the big plays he made even with defenders bearing down on him. Pressure alone won't necessarily stop a quarterback who thinks as quickly as he throws.
"He’s made a couple, I would say, slick plays where there’s been pressure on him, they miss a block or something happens, the guy’s right on top of him and he’s able to pretty quickly and adeptly get the ball out – pass it or get it out of his hands where it’s kind of tight, it’s a tight fit," Belichick said during his Friday presser. "So, he’s pretty good at that. He makes quick decisions – makes good decisions and makes them quickly.
"So, he doesn’t stand back there and have a lot of indecision, a lot of just being frozen in the pocket or frozen with the ball. He gets it out of his hands, unless he’s not pressured, then he extends the plays and then the other problems start to increase – him running, throwing down the field, so forth. But, yeah, he does a good job on that."
Despite the number of ways that Mahomes can beat defenses, and the rare poise he's shown for a 23-year-old, it's probably still best for the Patriots to keep him in the pocket and force him to complete long, tedious drives with short passes. And he'll have to do it against probably the best-coached defense in the NFL, with the specter of Brady lurking on the sidelines ready to answer.
Ask Brady, though, and the whole "not ready for prime time" thing is overrated. He couldn't remember much from his first primetime game in 2001, when the Patriots lost to Kurt Warner's Rams, the team they'd eventually beat in Super Bowl XXXVI. But he knows that Mahomes will forget about his surroundings once the footballs are flying.
"There’s always a little nerves, a little anxiousness before every game when you play in primetime," said Brady during his Friday presser. "It’s always fun, you know that you’re kind of the game. But I think that goes away pretty quick. One or two plays in, you’re in the flow of the game."
McCourty isn't buying into the hype of the game, and he doesn't think Mahomes will, either.
"I think more of the hype is like the outside world," said McCourty. "I think for us, we just play football. Like guys get in here, you get around your guys, you’re going over what do you need to know, the scouting reports. It’s kind of just a week-to-week thing. ... I think all those days just roll and you’re not even kind of thinking about any of that and you just go play, and I’m sure [Mahomes] is kind of in that mode already. And I think you can see that confidence out on the field."
Mahomes was clearly confident in the fourth quarter at Mile High. It'll be on the Patriots defense to keep him from replicating that big-time effort.
But the Pats, from the top-down, definitely feel he's capable of pulling it off.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].