There’s rarely been a quarterbacking contrast quite as dramatic as the one we saw on Sunday night, especially not in a clash of 5-2, likely playoff-bound franchises. Hosting the game was Kansas City, led by a legend-in-the-making at QB in Patrick Mahomes. Visiting was Tennessee, forced by a Ryan Tannehill injury to start Malik Willis, a third-round draft pick out of Liberty, for the second straight game.
Their respective individual stat lines imply a heavy Chiefs blowout. Mahomes completed 43 passes for 446 yards. Willis completed five passes for 80 yards. It was the largest gap in completions by opposing teams in the Super Bowl era. And yet, still, the Titans managed to push the Chiefs all the way to overtime, because this game wasn’t just about Malik Willis vs. Patrick Mahomes—though Mahomes, a player who can do everything himself when he needs to, could be forgiven for making it seem that way.
The Chiefs took the early lead, scoring a field goal on their first drive and following up with success in the passing game that got them a touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter (plus a missed extra point to make it 9-0). But the Titans, after barely getting a chance to run any plays, briefly kicked into gear. Willis demonstrated that he could make a couple of throws, especially when the Chiefs sold out against the run, and he provided a running threat as part of the read option with Derrick Henry, the actual star of the show. Henry took 17 carries for 115 yards and both scores for the Titans, and on this run in particular he displayed his delightfully straightforward approach by powering through an opening for a 56-yard gain.
Willis’s flashes of competency dimmed in the second half, unfortunately, and the one-dimensional Titans got stuck in a loop of three-and-outs. KC, however, gifted them a few mistakes that kept them in the lead—another missed kick by Harrison Butker, and this awkward interception off a Travis Kelce bobble that put the Titans in field goal range.
The Titans’ pass rush bothered Mahomes enough to keep the Chiefs off the scoreboard for a chunk of the second half, but midway through the fourth quarter, Mahomes’s improvisation skills became too much to match. In a 13-play, 93-yard drive to tie the game, Mahomes made a series of 10-yard completions, but relied on his feet to make magic happen whenever he was most desperate. On third-and-17, he got all he needed and then some just by running into space.
On third-and-9 in the red zone, Mahomes again galloped through a silly-looking defense for the touchdown. He was similarly elusive on the two-point conversion, which eventually (after three punts in under three minutes) forced extra time.
“When you get to those end-of-the-game situations,” Mahomes said after the game, “You have to try to go out there and make it happen.” That sounds fairly trite on its face, but I really can’t come up with a better way to describe what he can do in the high-pressure spots. He knows what he needs to accomplish, and if the play as called doesn’t do it, he’ll find a way—or make one.
Overtime was where the difference between the two quarterbacks became painfully obvious. For the Chiefs, who got the ball first, Mahomes confidently shepherded his offense 64 yards down the field over six minutes, seemingly able to complete any pass at any distance until finally the Titans made a bit of a stand at the end. Three points didn’t immediately end the game, but with Willis forced to try and save the day, it might as well have. With the Chiefs dropping seven back into pass coverage, the rookie QB couldn’t find an open man, and multiple coverage sacks preceded an ugly incompletion on fourth-and-26 that gave Kansas City the win.
That the Titans almost took down one of the NFL’s best teams, on the road in prime time, with their QB only completing five passes, is in itself pretty impressive! If nothing else, it should give them the belief that they can be a worthy opponent when Tannehill returns and they can complete upwards of 10 or even 15 passes. It also shows how, for all the hoopla around star QBs airing it out, there are in fact other ways to win in the NFL. Some solid defense, a powerful running game, and a few lucky breaks almost lifted Tennessee to 6-2 without any kind of air attack whatsoever, and a lesser opponent or just one more successful drive would have led to just that. But also, it might be better to have Patrick Mahomes instead.