Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs bounce back from hard loss, show explosiveness vs. 49ers

Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs bounce back from hard loss, show explosiveness vs. 49ers

Updated: 1 month, 3 days, 13 hours, 16 minutes, 51 seconds ago

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Working toward incremental improvement, when necessary for a team between games in an NFL season, is often not glamorous.

The Chiefs, though, needed such a week to adjust, refocus and recalibrate leading up to their game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Although they are considered one of the NFL’s clear Super Bowl contenders, the Chiefs, coaches and players alike, understand they are far from a flawless team. In fact, they learned as much in the previous game, a home loss to the Buffalo Bills, their biggest rival who also appear to be the greatest threat preventing them from reaching the Super Bowl. Growing during a season is a process.

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The first step for the Chiefs took place Sunday inside Levi’s Stadium, a loud venue in which the home fans were energized before the opening kickoff by seeing newly acquired star running back Christian McCaffrey in a 49ers uniform for the first time.

Three hours later, after their overwhelming 44-23 win over the 49ers, several Chiefs players had various answers for the same question inside the visitor’s locker room: Where did you show the most improvement?

“Physically and effort, as far as straining to finish plays, are the two biggest things,” center Creed Humphrey said. “We felt we didn’t do that enough last week. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we could do it. There’s no better feeling than winning a game like this. This is what we’re capable of doing.”

A few minutes later, star defensive tackle Chris Jones gave a calm answer in a matter-of-fact tone.

“I think we gave last week’s game away,” Jones said of losing to the Bills. “We had so many opportunities late in the game where we could’ve capitalized. The focal point this week is that we capitalized on those opportunities.”

Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ superstar quarterback, summarized Sunday’s game — and theme for the rest of the regular season — with one sentence.

“We’re going to continue to get better and better,” Mahomes said.

The small, incremental raises the Chiefs made in their performance Sunday turned an early 10-point deficit into a blowout victory.

In just his second pass, Mahomes threw an ill-advised interception while targeting rookie receiver Skyy Moore in the middle of the field. But Mahomes noticed an early tendency from the 49ers’ defense, a unit that entered the game leading the league in fewest yards allowed (255.8). Unlike most opponents, the 49ers had their safeties attack toward the middle of the field in hopes of creating such a turnover on an intermediate pass. Adjusting their plan early, the Chiefs gained the advantage by attacking the 49ers on the perimeter and through deep passes.

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Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was successful on back-shoulder catches and on corner routes. Marquez Valdes-Scantling connected on deep passes with Mahomes, including on a third-and-11 play that produced a 57-yard completion, the longest of the season. Mecole Hardman, the speedy four-year receiver, scored a game-high three touchdowns on, in essence, the same play concept: the jet sweep.

“(Left tackle) Orlando Brown — I don’t know if you (saw) him — but he was getting out on that edge,” Hardman said, smiling. “(Tight end) Jody Fortson had a key block out there, too. Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten in the end zone. Coach (Andy Reid) called the plays at the right times.”

In their previous game, the Chiefs struggled to generate big gains with Mahomes passing the ball. Von Miller, the Bills’ star edge rusher, won one-on-one matchups against right tackle Andrew Wylie to sack Mahomes twice. Miller pressured Mahomes throughout the fourth quarter, including on Mahomes’ game-ending interception.

The 49ers also have an outstanding pass rusher in defensive end Nick Bosa. But the Chiefs adjusted by often having running back Jerick McKinnon, a nine-year veteran, chip Bosa after the snap as a second blocker. Late in the third quarter on a third-and-20, McKinnon chipped Bosa after the snap then turned around to catch a short screen pass from Mahomes. The play surprised the 49ers, and McKinnon gained 34 yards, which set up one of Mahomes’ three touchdown passes.

“He’s just a selfless teammate and he loves to do that,” Humphrey said of McKinnon’s blocking ability. “He’s done a great job with that all year. He knows that if he does enough plays like that, where he’s chipping guys, we can dial something and have one play like that happen. He was definitely looking forward to that one and I’m glad it hit. He deserved it. It’s fun blocking for a guy like him.”

Give it to Jerick McKinnon on 3rd & 20.

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📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/USkaudAkBK pic.twitter.com/519UnO1KzK

— NFL (@NFL) October 23, 2022

As is often the case in the NFL, getting your opponent down 10 points early in a game is a key ingredient for a victory. But against Mahomes and the Chiefs, a 10-point lead is often not safe enough for an opponent to start relaxing. Just as they did in Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers experienced how ruthless and exceptional Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense can be when forced to perform at their best in a comeback scenario.

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“You ever play (NFL) Madden, and they have the X-Factor on the quarterback?” Smith-Schuster said, referencing the popular video game, while smiling. “They had it on Pat today. It was, like, fire.”

Despite his interception, Mahomes produced perhaps his best performance of the season, as he completed 73.5 percent of his passes and finished with 423 yards and three touchdowns.

“Having done it (before), and there’s so much time left in the game, I’m going to compete until the final whistle, until coach takes me off that field,” Mahomes said. “Whenever you get down in these games, how can you have a positive next play? And then you continue to do that. The next play. The next play. (Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) preaches that.”

Jones, the Chiefs’ leader on defense, acknowledged what many opponents have experienced once a game’s momentum begins to shift.

“I think we actually play better when we’re down,” Jones said. “I don’t like to be down because it causes so much pressure on us. But I guess we like challenging ourselves at this point.”

Early in the team’s comeback on Sunday, the Chiefs’ defense was presented with challenges. The 49ers were able to move the ball in the first half through a collection of star players, including tight end George Kittle, receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and McCaffrey, who joined the team Thursday through a blockbuster trade with the Carolina Panthers.

As the game progressed, the Chiefs (5-2) provided more resistance when the 49ers ran the ball. On clear passing plays, the Chiefs moved Jones to the defensive end position, which allowed him to win multiple snaps against right tackle Mike McGlinchey and record two sacks. He also forced quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to fumble, which led to a takeaway.

“We just tried to give them different looks,” Jones said of switching positions. “I’ve got a heck of a supporting cast with me: Frank Clark, Carlos Dunlap, Khalen Saunders, and Derrick Nnadi. They cause a double team on them, which frees me up to get a one-on-one. My job here is to win a one-on-one.”

The biggest test for the Chiefs’ defense occurred just before halftime with the Chiefs up, 14-13. Rookie receiver Moore muffed a punt and the 49ers (3-4) recovered it at the Chiefs’ 12-yard line with a chance to retake the lead. Instead of surrendering a touchdown, though, the Chiefs blitzed on 3rd-and-3 and created a takeaway. Rookie defensive end George Karlaftis pressured Garoppolo into an interception, with rookie cornerback Joshua Williams leaping near the goal line to catch the ball.

“I know he wants that play back,” Williams said of Moore. “When (the interception) did happen, he even came over and said, ‘Thank you.’ He just dapped me up.”

The comeback’s final highlight, early in the fourth quarter, featured Clark doing exactly what Reid asked of his defensive linemen this week: rush the quarterback with relentlessness.

“Nothing (reveals) that more than what Frank did at the end with the safety,” Reid said.

The victory was the Chiefs’ first on the road against the 49ers since Dec. 6, 1971. In that Monday primetime game inside Candlestick Park, the first matchup between the two franchises, the Chiefs were led by Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, star receiver Otis Taylor and a host of Hall of Famer defenders in middle linebacker Willie Lanier, outside linebacker Bobby Bell, defensive tackle Buck Buchanan, cornerback Emmitt Thomas, and free safety Johnny Robinson. Prior to Sunday’s game, the Chiefs had fallen to the 49ers in five consecutive games in the Bay Area.

But in line with his impact on the franchise, Mahomes continues to be one of the Chiefs’ most pivotal, fortune-altering figures who has already become a historical quarterback in the league’s history. By leading his team to a win Sunday, Mahomes tied Hall of Famer Ken Stabler (55 wins) for the second-most wins ever by a quarterback through his first 70 career starts. Only Hall of Famer Otto Graham has more, with 56 victories.

For Mahomes, the best part of the victory was completing a pass to eight different teammates while running backs Isiah Pacheco and Clyde Edwards-Helaire combined for 75 rushing yards on just 14 attempts. Mahomes knew for much of the game that the 49ers didn’t know who was going to get the ball next, a sign to him that the Chiefs’ offense is progressing in the correct manner.

“We have guys everywhere in this offense,” Mahomes said. “That’s just going to be who we are as an offense: It’s going to be everybody.”

Injury update

In his postgame statement, Reid said the Chiefs didn’t have any major injuries from the game. He added that following their bye week, the Chiefs could have cornerback Rashad Fenton (strained hamstring) and Trent McDuffie (strained left hamstring) available for their Nov. 6 game against the Tennessee Titans.

(Photo of Mecole Hardman and Patrick Mahomes: Cary Edmondson / USA Today)