I certainly wasn’t trying to conjure up an injury to Patrick Mahomes last week when I wrote that spoof that ended with him being the final piece of the Chiefs puzzle to disappear this year. Just a week earlier I said he was the most exciting part of the NFL right now and without this offense my interest in the league would be at its lowest point since 2000.
So are we there after Thursday night’s injury? Maybe not, but it was scary to see him unable to get off the field and reports of the cart coming out. Mahomes walked off after a dislocated kneecap and the thought is he may only miss 3-4 games before returning for the stretch run. It’s still a big risk to rush him back when the long-term outlook is more important than anything, and keep in mind he hasn’t received that monster payday yet.
But the fact that he’s not been ruled out for the season is great news for football fans and especially the AFC in general, which badly needs someone to stand up to the Patriots. More on that shortly.
Mahomes’ expedited return is already drawing comparisons to RG3 rushing back in Washington, a scary thought for such a promising player’s potential if he comes back too soon. I also thought about the cases of Daunte Culpepper, Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck, and that despite modern medicine’s best efforts, sometimes health can derail a player’s career. When it’s someone like Mahomes who has shown the potential to be the best to ever play the position, it’s a situation where decisions must not be made in haste.
Do You Push the Button?
So let’s talk about a hasty hypothetical decision that I saw on Twitter that has continued to fascinate me as this Chiefs season unfolds. Carrington Harrison initially posted the poll on October 3:
You have a button where if you push it, you lock Mahomes into what is essentially the 13-year run Peyton Manning had with the Colts (1998-2010). That means 11 seasons with 10+ wins, 11 trips to the playoffs, a 1-1 Super Bowl record, a SB MVP, and four regular season MVPs. It’s the type of career very few achieve as even Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have not gotten to more than one Super Bowl yet and they combine for half as many MVPs as Manning won in Indy.
I voted Yes to lock it in. I was a little surprised that only 52% went for the lock, but since Harrison is Kansas City-based, I figured he might attract more votes from the local fans who are more interested in ring counting than their QB’s legacy.
Then a funny thing happened. Just a couple days later, Mahomes had the first “bad game” of his career against the Colts when they only scored 13 points, snapping a historic streak of scoring 26+ in every start. Mahomes also twice was visibly injured and limped slowly off the field. I almost thought about re-running the poll again myself after that game, which showed Mahomes is in fact mortal.
Then the Texans came to town and after some weird sequences where Mahomes lost a fumble before the half and threw his first interception of the season after a DPI flag was picked up, the Chiefs lost another home game and didn’t score 26 points again. The defense looked horrible — worse than the box score since multiple TD were dropped by the Texans — and couldn’t get Mahomes the ball in the second half. If that’s how they’re going to handle semi-contenders like Indy and Houston, how does this team have any hope at going to New England and winning this year?
Finally, Thursday night happened. Mahomes looked sharp early in Denver, but a simple QB sneak was the play he injured his kneecap on. It’s a freak accident and you almost never see that on hundreds and hundreds of sneaks that I’ve personally studied over the years. Maybe they shouldn’t have been calling that with his ankle already compromised, but it is generally a safe play.
So after two losses and major injury concerns, I ran the poll again myself. Do you push the button?
As of Saturday afternoon, 52% are saying No to my poll. I figured my followers would have less interest in the Chiefs’ success and care more about Mahomes’ potential legacy. I also thought after the events of the last three games more would be willing to lock this in, so that definitely surprised me. I will note that some were confused that the 1 Super Bowl MVP means a ring, which I thought was obvious, but never assume on Twitter. So I don’t know how many votes that would swing if it said RING in caps, but I digress.
I’m not going to break into a 5000-word analysis over this one, but I want to talk about the prevailing thought that the potential landscape of the AFC going forward are reasons enough to vote No and to let things play out Mahomes’ own way. If Mahomes is going to be the premiere QB of the next decade, then why not better than a 1-1 SB record in a league where the Patriots should fall off soon, Andrew Luck already retired, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers are nearing the end, the 2018 QBs (Baker/Darnold/Allen/Rosen/Lamar) aren’t leaps and bounds better this year, the AFC West looks like a mess, and the NFC never seems to have a consistently dominant team?
I’ve definitely considered all of that.
However, this is the NFL, a league where we can barely predict what will happen next week, let alone 10, five, or even three years from now. For all we know the Bengals could land Tua and Cincinnati can have a dynastic run in the 2020s. Don’t laugh; at least Marvin Lewis is gone.
The AFC’s Great Decline
One thing I mentioned two weeks ago was that Peyton Manning had to deal with a much stronger AFC during his Indy days before it fell off in his Denver days, so that could definitely be an advantage for Mahomes. Of course, a Patriots fan had to butt in with this:
So here we are on to the topic that I should probably write a book about at this point: the decline of the AFC. I don’t know how anyone could follow the NFL in the 21st century and not see what’s happened to this conference. Typically in the NFL you’ll see challengers come and go while only a couple of teams hang on as consistent winners. Think about the NFC West this decade. The Seahawks have been the consistent winner since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012. The 49ers had that three-year run of NFC-CG (2011-13) when Jim Harbaugh took over. The Cardinals had a three-year run of 10-win seasons with Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer (2013-15). The Rams have won the division the last two years and been to a SB since Sean McVay took over as head coach. That’s just one division.
Meanwhile in the AFC, you basically have had the same couple of teams rule the conference for 2010-19 that ruled it in 2000-09. That’s practically unheard of. That’s New England, Pittsburgh, the team with Peyton Manning (IND/DEN), and Baltimore. The Chargers fell off and the Titans fell even further this decade. Also, the Steelers were stronger circa 2004-2011 when they had a great defense, and the Colts were stronger with Manning than without him despite Luck’s potential. Denver has been an also-ran since Manning retired too, though that 4-year run (2012-15) was a great challenge to the Patriots. The only other team the AFC has built up this decade is Andy Reid’s tenure in Kansas City since 2013, now bolstered by the addition of Mahomes.
Those three stooges in the AFC East (MIA/BUF/NYJ)? Losers for two decades. The Browns and Raiders? Terrible for two decades. Even the Bengals are back to being under .500 since 2010 despite five straight playoff trips at one point.
I talked about three-year runs in the NFC West this decade. We can’t do that in the AFC. “Hey, remember when Marcus Mariota had the Titans in the playoffs two years in a row?” Nope, didn’t happen. “Hey, remember that awesome Jacksonville defense helping Bortles to back-to-back AFC title games?” Oh, you mean the team for one season that took advantage of Luck and Watson (rookie sensation cut down by non-contact injury) being out in 2017? I liked it better when they were called the 2009-10 Jets with Mark Sanchez, the last time New York did anything worth a damn and actually knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs.
It’s not just the AFC East that New England has taken advantage of. It’s the whole conference this decade that has been a disappointment. As I always point out, the reason the 49ers didn’t continue to make a bunch of Super Bowls in the 90s (despite great regular seasons) is because they actually had legit competition from the Cowboys and Packers. The Patriots had one of those foes for four years (Denver), but nothing else has really materialized in the AFC.
It’s too early to know if Mahomes is someone capable of sustaining this incredible offensive play for years to come, leading to 12-win season after 12-win season. That’s what Manning did in his career. The Chiefs are 5-2 right now, and even if Mahomes was 100 percent healthy, they still may win 10 or 11 games instead of 12. However, with the shape of the AFC right now, don’t be shocked if 11-5 doesn’t get a first-round bye again. It happened for New England last year.
You knew there’d be a table eventually and it’s a wordy one. My theory was that Manning had a tougher AFC to navigate in his Indy days than in his Denver time and the current AFC. So I used 12 wins as the litmus test to see just where that would have gotten Manning each year since 2002 realignment, and I did the same thing for Brady and the Patriots. I also looked at the Chiefs since 2016 since they have basically taken the mantle from Denver in the AFC West as NE’s best challenger. I know very well that neither Manning nor Mahomes was in the NFL in 2016, but just go with it. I also looked at the best-case scenario for what 12 wins would have done for these teams without getting crazy into tie-breakers and not changing the game results for any head-to-head meetings that would have gone into that.
My main findings:
1. On four occasions (2003-04, 2006, 2008), Manning led the Colts to 12 actual wins and that was still not enough for a first-round bye. One year (2008) it even led to a No. 5 Wild Card and road playoff game. That happened just once in 17 years to the Patriots in 2006 when they were the No. 4 seed at 12-4.
2. That would be unheard of in the AFC these days. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time 12 wins wouldn’t have given the Patriots a bye. In six of the last seven seasons, 12 wins would have given the AFC West winner a bye. Not pictured here, but the Patriots could have won 11 games in six of the last nine seasons and still received a first-round bye six times and a No. 3 seed three times. Those days of a 15-1 Pittsburgh or 14-2 San Diego or a random 13-3 Tennessee are long gone.
3. The 2018 Patriots are the first AFC team since the 2002 Raiders/Titans to get a first-round bye with 11 wins. No one won 12 games in 2002. If you look at the way the AFC is trending this year, the No. 2 seed may not win 12 games again. Also note that the 2001 Patriots, the beginning of the dynasty, had a No. 2 seed with an 11-5 record, but this is only looking at since realignment.
4. Despite the IND/DEN/KC teams having inferior defenses/ST/coaching, they won at least 12 games in 13 of the 17 seasons compared to 12-of-17 for the Patriots. However, the Patriots did have seven seasons in excess of 12 wins (13+) compared to five for the other side. That’s still pretty respectable when you consider the defenses Indy had in the old days or KC last year.
There are many different ways one can take this Mahomes button decision. I’m not going to rehash the playoff struggles the Colts had in the Manning era here, but let’s not forget that the Chiefs have a long history of losing at home in the playoffs, including three straight seasons of doing exactly that. The defense doesn’t exactly look ready for a dynasty run. If you can lock in a ring with a lot of exciting seasons to watch, I think that’s too hard to pass up. While I understand the AFC horizon looks tempting, just remember that you’ll be watching with bated breath the next time Mahomes takes a hit. Maybe every time from now on. Also don’t forget that Dan Marino got to the Super Bowl in 1984 and never returned. He never won another MVP. He only had two more 12-win seasons after 1984 as well. Marino is about the only QB who compares to Mahomes through 26 games.
You just never know how things are going to turn out in this league. All I know is we’ve been looking for greatness to step up in the AFC for many years now. The AFC has tried to sell us on many franchise changers, including Adam Gase, Ryan Tannehill, Andrew Luck, Chuck Pagano, Trent Richardson, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Jadeveon Clowney, Baker Mayfield, Hue Jackson, Josh Allen, Sammy Watkins, Luke Joeckel, Sam Darnold, Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Justin Blackmon, Corey Davis, Doug Marrone, Bill O’Brien, Leonard Fournette, Andy Dalton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and the list goes on. Even Jalen Ramsey jumped ship to the NFC (Rams) this week.
Mahomes is the one who actually looks like he can be the face of the league for the next decade. One name I left out was Deshaun Watson, who also looked to set the record books on fire before tearing his ACL as a rookie. Could Mahomes vs. Watson be the 2020’s version of Manning vs. Brady?
That would certainly beat what the AFC has turned into since 2016: Brady vs. the field & Father Time. That’s why the sentiment around Thursday night was “this would be terrible for the league if Mahomes is seriously injured” and not just for the Chiefs.
So do I press the button and lock in a first-ballot HOF career for Mahomes that I know I’ll enjoy watching for the next decade? Damn right I do.
NFL Week 7 Predictions
I had the Chiefs covering on TNF, and lost in all the Mahomes injury talk was a horrific performance by Joe Flacco and the Denver offense.
I’m laughing at the thought of Josh Allen being favored by 17 in an NFL game. Yes, Miami is truly terrible, but I think Ryan Fitzpatrick gives them a better chance than Josh Rosen did. So even if it’s done in garbage time, I think he can cover that one.