TAMPA — Patrick Mahomes left Raymond James Stadium with a huge sense of relief.
It’s not that the big victory the Kansas City Chiefs scored before a primetime audience on Sunday night — complete with a magical highlight from the wondrous quarterback on a 2-yard TD pass — erases their setback on the same field in Super Bowl 55. But at least Mahomes and some of his teammates dropped off a bit of lingering baggage from the super bashing inflicted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Then there was the more recent history. Kansas City was eager to find its way and bounce back from its only loss of the season, a week earlier at Indianapolis.
“It was a relief to play this well against this defense,” Mahomes told USA TODAY Sports. “That is a heck of a defense. To be here makes it even more special because the last time we left this field it was one of the worst times of my entire life.”
Mahomes, who passed for 249 yards and 3 TDs, with one pick, wasn’t the only one to return with another layer of purpose, given what happened the last time. Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who set up a touchdown with his strip-sack of Tom Brady in the second quarter on Sunday night, talked about how long it takes to get over such a big loss.
“It lingered a lot … for the team,” Sneed told reporters. “We had that chip on our shoulder coming in here.”
Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire put himself in the mood Sunday by listening to the same playlist that he listened to before that dreadful Super Bowl in February 2021. Edwards-Helaire mentioned that the last time he was in the visitor’s locker room here, he left blurry-eyed.
“We should have executed better,” Edwards-Helaire rehashed.
You might think he should have picked a different playlist this time around. He saw it otherwise.
“It put me back to where I was,” Edwards-Helaire told USA TODAY Sports.
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The Bucs still have the rings won with Super Bowl 55, but the performance by the Chiefs on Sunday was another significant step in moving forward. Putting up 417 yards and five TDs against a defense that pulverized Mahomes in the Super Bowl and entered the game allowing a league-low 9 points per game — and yes, most of the starters from Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl defense were on the field this time around — had to provide quite a confidence boost.
These Chiefs, it must be noted, are seeking to remain one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses without big-play wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who was traded to the Miami Dolphins during the offseason amid contract talks. The new receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, are nowhere near the threats that Hill provided as perhaps the fastest player in the league.
So, as demonstrated against the Bucs of all teams, the Chiefs showed that they are up to the creative challenge of trying to thrive without The Cheetah.
Inside a wide array of personnel groupings and packages unleashed by coach Andy Reid and coordinator Eric Bieniemy was the typical imprint from tight end Travis Kelce, who opened the scoring with a 16-yard TD reception and finished with nine catches for 92 yards. But Kelce was just one of the tight ends who found pay dirt. His backups also scored, Noah Gray motioning to take a snap and sneaking in for a 1-yard TD and Jody Fortson later lining up wide and winning on a 10-yard route.
Credit the strategy for staying a step ahead of the fast, big-play Bucs defense.
In all, Mahomes threw to 10 targets. While Edwards-Helaire rushed for 92 yards, the Chiefs pounded away for 189 yards on the ground — pretty much unheard of against the Bucs defense — as Isiah Pacheco added 63 yards. Jerick McKinnon had some backfield snaps, too, including the one he took from the Wildcat formation and handed to Edwards-Helaire for a 3-yard TD.
Yet for all of that creativity, there are some things that even the sharp minds possessed by Reid and Bieniemy can’t account for.
Enter Mahomes. Sure, we’ve seen more than a few jaw-dropping highlights from the former MVP as he blazes his legendary trail. Yet the latest “wow” moment might have topped them all.
On a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line early in the second quarter, Mahomes rolled right as the play broke down. He began to run for the pylon, only to be met near the sideline by Devin White. Mahomes spun out of the tackle, then flipped a basketball shot-like pass to Edwards-Helaire for the touchdown.
“He’s the Houdini of our era,” Kelce marveled. “The guy just finds ways to make plays.”
Told of Kelce’s remark, Mahomes merely shrugged.
“Travis, always with the great nickname,” he said.
And Mahomes, always with the knack to create something special.
Reid said he didn’t remember the original design of the play that Mahomes improvised to create something else on the canvas.
“But it wasn’t that,” Reid declared.
Mahomes wasn’t sure if he would run for the end zone or throw when he took off. The decision came when he encountered White and wheeled away with spin move. That’s when he realized that coming out of the spin, he didn’t have enough momentum to run it in from there.
So, he threw. And of course, it worked.
Much to his relief.