Patrick Mahomes frantically dashed to his right, desperately scanning the end zone in search of an open teammate. It was fourth and nine and almost his last chance to spark a fourth-quarter comeback in Super Bowl 55 while down 31-9.
But as William Gholston nibbled at his ankle, Mahomes flicked a wrist while sprawled out with just a hint of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam to the pose. The pass looked destined to produce his latest masterpiece.
But with four Buccaneers constructing a wall around Darrel Williams, the ball landed with a gentle bounce on the turf, extinguishing hope and eventually defeat to add a blemish to Mahomes’ résumé.
Two years later, Mahomes is hobbled from an ankle sprain but eagerly embraces a third trip to the big dance, cognisant of how a winning or losing record in this particular game can shape a legacy. It is partially why Tom Brady, with a 7-3 Super Bowl record, elevated himself above Peyton Manning, who finished his career with two wins and two losses.
The NFL throne is tantalisingly within reach, but the Chiefs continue to tiptoe between sunk opportunity and supremacy during the Mahomes and Andy Reid era, depending on the result on Sunday. The NFL has masterfully produced parity and equal opportunity over the last decade or more, in stark contrast to the Premier League, ensuring no dominant force since Brady and the Patriots parted ways. That changes if Mahomes can clinch a second ring to go with five consecutive AFC Championship games.
But Super Bowl 57 is delicately balanced, with Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles a meagre 1.5-point favourite. If Mahomes is healthy, this game boils down to a similar test to Tampa Bay way back at Raymond James Stadium when the Bucs laid siege to the former Texas Tech passer, feasting on a battered and bruised offensive line. The Eagles are licking their lips, hoping the likes of Joe Thuney crumble to expose Mahomes in the pocket.
“The strength of the Chiefs’ offensive line is inside,” American football journalist Mike Carlson says at a Betfair event. “The essence of the Eagles line is inside, they push up [Javon] Hargrave, who has had a fantastic year. One guy pushes the pocket, another occupies two blockers. It leaves Philly able to play with designated pass rushers from the outside. That freedom makes them more of a threat than their individual ability. [Haason] Reddick is a real force and they can use him in lots of ways.”
Mahomes, devoid of a superstar wide receiver after Tyreek Hill’s departure to the Miami Dolphins last year, although comforted by Travis Kelce’s presence at tight end, has led to more scheming in the offense this year.
If Hill resembles a heavyweight’s ferocious haymaker, then Kelce, in collaboration with Mahomes’ savviness, leans on his intelligence, resembling a fighter who prefers to box and move while reading the opposition before duly adjusting mid-route.
“He’s good at avoiding double teams, even on option routes, Kelce can take a third option that isn’t part of the option,” Carlson adds. “If they’re playing zone, you’ll break it off or run an out, and man to man you take it up the middle.
“He’s so smart and sees the defence, he might break it out and come back over short, because that’s where the space is. Mahomes is the same, he’s like a point guard in basketball and sees the whole field and can anticipate.
“His throws always anticipate where the wide receiver will be. They need that to stay in this game.”
Kelce, who has quietly compiled an entire regular season now in the offseason with 17 games at an All Pro level, including an astonishing 127 catches, 1,467 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns, is not the only solution to this belligerent Eagles defence.
A third layer, in addition to a set of receivers that lack the sparkle of Hill, includes a running back being sent out to the flat. If Mahomes can tease a defender into anticipating Isiah Pacheco or Jerick McKinnon in the short-yardage game, then Kelce may just feast over the middle.
The glitz and the glamour of this game in Glendale, Arizona therefore boils down to Philadelphia pressure and how the Chiefs cope.
So look for Mahomes to take a peak around the corner, hoping to capitalise on the Eagles aiming to cause havoc inside.
It’ll be hard to get there, but if they can find the edge, Jonathan Gannon’s defence may just be left guessing all night.
There is beauty in Mahomes scrambling and daring to be great in the air, but to hoist another Lombardi trophy, the Chiefs will be quite content to keep that version of their quarterback hidden.
Listen to Mike Carlson on Betfair’s NFL…Only Bettor Super Bowl preview podcast and get the latest tips here