The NFL has been pulling out all the stops to celebrate its centennial campaign (frankly, we’ve done the same).
Unfortunately, what’s largely been a forgettable season on the field (aside from the officiating issues) and an unfortunate one off of it — goodbye Andrew Luck, goodbye Antonio Brown, goodbye Ben Roethlisberger — might have suffered its cruelest blow Thursday night when reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes was knocked out in the first half of the Chiefs’ game at Denver with a right knee injury.
It’s premature to speculate on the severity of Mahomes’ problem, a dislocated patella, according to multiple reports. But tea leaves being what they are, it sure was troubling to see how quickly Kansas City’s medical staff ruled him out shortly after Mahomes took a shot to his leg on a quarterback sneak and received a subsequent X-ray.
Though his prognosis is currently unknown, Mahomes was seen on camera in the locker room, wearing a sleeve on his right leg while breaking down his teammates in a post-game cheer following a 30-6 rout of their AFC West rivals. And he definitely doesn’t seem to think the sky is falling given his tweet later in the evening.
Mahomes is expected to have an MRI after the Chiefs return to Kansas City, a city that will be breathlessly awaiting the results.
PATRICK MAHOMES:Reigning NFL MVP suffers knee injury vs. Broncos
So where does that leave us? Welp …
In the short term, we could be deprived of watching one of the game’s brightest stars, arguably the most electrifying passer in the league. Who else can throw it left-handed out of the stadium while blind-folded and still looking off a defender? Exaggeration, sure, but Mahomes has quickly become Bunyan-esque given his estimable talent and ability to leverage the elite play makers the Chiefs have placed around him.
Long term, if Mahomes’ knee is actually in worse shape than could be determined Thursday in Denver — again, premature speculation — we’re almost certainly going to spend the next three-plus months just waiting to see who the Patriots will face in Super Bowl LIV.
The Chiefs, who took New England to overtime in last season’s AFC Championship Game — and you can mark the Patriots down for the upcoming conference title tilt on Jan. 19 given that they haven’t missed one since the 2010 season — were already showing cracks in the armor in recent weeks, the “blueprint” to beat them entailing lots of man-to-man coverage, limiting the pass rush against Mahomes (gimpy of late on a bum ankle prior to Thursday’s setback) and, most important, keeping him off the field by ramming the ball relentlessly into Kansas City’s porous run defense.
Another blueprint for beating the Chiefs is forcing them to play journeyman backup quarterback Matt Moore.
But if Mahomes and his Kansas City bandwagon do come to a dead stop in the breakdown lane, another will take its place, right?
Perhaps the …
► Baltimore Ravens, who occasionally play defense, rack up more yards than anybody else right now, feature a Michael Vick-level weapon at quarterback in Lamar Jackson and have a history of giving the Patriots fits in January. But what do the Patriots do in winter? They take away your best player … and if a New England defense off to a historically good start puts the clamps on Jackson, what’s left in Baltimore’s holster?
► Cleveland Browns, whose hype train now seems pretty well derailed but will next pull into Foxborough’s station following a Week 7 bye. But even if the Brownies catch fire, you gonna bet so many young, immature players — particularly those on offense operating behind a sieve O-line — are going to oust Belichick, who led Cleveland to its last playoff win in the 1994 season?
► Buffalo Bills, a tough team off to a 4-1 start who gave the Patriots a dogfight in Week 4 … and a group that doesn’t have much firepower on offense and a young quarterback prone to boneheaded decisions who would have virtually no shot at decoding New England in the playoffs.
► New York Jets, who were intriguing on paper in August and also last week when they knocked off the first-place Cowboys. But the smart money is on the Patriots dealing any postseason aspirations they still harbor a mortal blow this Monday night.
► Houston Texans, who are 1-10 against Belichick in their history and 0-5 with ex-Pat (expat?) Bill O’Brien calling the shots. Nice team with some nice players … yet a franchise that’s never advanced beyond the divisional round. Deshaun Watson could make an MVP push in 2019, especially if Mahomes is no longer a contender, but I shudder to think of his fate against this Patriots defense given the suspect state of his blocking.
► Indianapolis Colts, who have a nice team and a coach you’d want to play for in Frank Reich. If Luck comes out of mothballs in the next few weeks, let’s revisit.
► Oakland Raiders, who are building something with a nice core of young players. Maybe they can also bury the ax with Brown and bring him back for some revenge against New England. Or maybe they’re still a year or two or three away — hey, it’s gonna take time to get settled into the Vegas Strip — and more likely to get Tuck Ruled again by Tom Brady and Co. than run them off the road to the Super Bowl. Knock on wood if … ah, never mind.
► Los Angeles Chargers, my preferred dark horses and perhaps the only other team that could stand toe-to-toe with the reigning champs … if Derwin James, Melvin Ingram, Russell Okung and a suddenly inept run game all return in time to salvage what’s fast becoming a flameout of a season.
Let’s hope Mahomes is OK, and the nascent post-game optimism proves justified. The NFL is a heckuva lot more fun when he’s slinging it and surely needs his scintillating talent to help sustain the #NFL100 celebration.
Yet even if he’s able to recover close to 100%, I’m not taking the Chiefs to win the AFC. However, I’d sure like the chance to pick against them rather than see the Patriots enjoy a 16-week bye before heading to South Beach for what suddenly feels like an inevitable berth to defend their crown.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
If you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders.