KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Patrick Mahomes has always been the solution to whatever problems ail the Kansas City Chiefs.
The defense giving up gobs of yards and too many points to their opponent? Mahomes can outscore them.
Special teams is making blunders and causing poor field position? Mahomes can overcome it.
Wide receivers can't get open? Mahomes can sling the ball so hard and so accurately that it doesn't matter.
Yet midway through the most trying season of Mahomes' professional career, and with the Chiefs fortunate to be in the hunt for an AFC West title that seems like their birthright, the question critics are beginning to ask is unthinkable: Has their half-billion dollar quarterback become the problem rather than the solution?
“There's a challenge that we didn't start the season the way we wanted to. But I think these last few weeks, we've shown we can win different ways,” Mahomes said. "The defense is playing good, special teams is playing good, and we're doing enough as an offense right now. That comes with the adversity we've kind of gone through these last few seasons.
“We've learned how to win games even when it's not pretty,” Mahomes continued. “Offensively we want to play better, but at the end of the day, I'd rather win and not play great offensively than like earlier in the season, when we played great on offense but lost. You want to play as a team and I think that's the biggest thing.”
Indeed, the Chiefs defense is finally starting to turn things around after an historically bad start. But whether that has to do with corrections made on their part or the fact that they've faced the dismal Giants and Aaron Rodgers-less Packers the past two weeks is another subject worthy of a spirited discussion.
What isn't up for debate is that Mahomes is in the most prolonged slump of his career.
He is completing 65.2% of his passes for 2,534 with 20 touchdown throws and 10 interceptions for a 92.9 rating. All those numbers are the lowest through the first nine games of Mahomes' career — except for picks, which is ticking upward.
Last week's game, a 13-7 defense-led victory over Green Bay, proved a perfect example. With the Packers playing the heavy Cover-2 defense that teams are using to take away deep shots to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, the Chiefs managed 166 yards through the air — the fewest of Mahomes' career in a game he's completed — and 237 yards of total offense.
Mahomes was 0 for 5 on deep passes, too, and the Chiefs went three-and-out four times after their opening TD drive.
“Sometimes you got to go through some tough stuff to get to the good stuff,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid acknowledged, “and that's the way I'm looking at it now. You find out about yourself as a football team when everything's not perfect.”
Make no mistake: Reid has been under just as much of a microscope as his star quarterback.
The Chiefs have struggled to solve the defensive riddle first introduced by the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl and used by just about ever opponent since then. By refusing to give up the deep shot, defenses are forcing both Reid and Mahomes to harness their natural desire to go for the deep shot and instead dink-and-dunk their way downfield.
Two years ago, when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, Mahomes threw 19 TD passes that traveled at least 20 yards, and he averaged 8.8 air yards per attempt and 6.5 per catch. Last year, when the Chiefs returned to the title game, Mahomes hit on 15 TD passes of at least 20 yards and averaged 8.4 air yards per attempt and 6.3 per catch.
This year he has six TD throws of at least 20 yards while averaging 7.8 air yards per attempt and 5.1 per catch.
“Every team has kind of their own little thing they do here and there, but it's a lot of the same defenses that we've seen all year long,” Mahomes said. “It just comes down to execution, and I keep saying it over and over again, but when you don't execute in this league, you don't score points. You've seen that these last few weeks, and you saw in the weeks when we were executing we were scoring points. That's just on us to execute at a higher level. And that starts with me.”
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL