LOS ANGELES — Patrick Mahomes reached down to take the snap, faked a handoff to halfback Kareem Hunt and dropped back deep in the pocket, his eyes staring westbound across the grassy field that had served as his personal landscape. With 1:28 left in a surreal game that had sapped the emotional energy from 77,002 fans at the L.A. Coliseum and millions of Monday Night Football viewers, the Kansas City Chiefs‘ freakishly fabulous second-year quarterback was looking for an opening –and then, in a flash, he spotted it: wide receiver Chris Conley slicing through the Rams‘ secondary, running left to right 20 yards from the end zone with two steps on his defender and nothing but green in front of him.
So Mahomes wound up and prepared to do what he, only 12 starts into his career, currently does as impressively as any passer in the land — uncork a precise and powerful spiral toward a moving target. One of the most epic regular-season games in league history was there for the taking, and Mahomes was sure he had seized it. On a night when he and his counterpart, the Rams‘ Jared Goff, had painted the Southern California sky with pinpoint passes, this would be his masterpiece.
“I had him coming across,” Mahomes said later as he stood outside the cramped visitors’ locker room at the Coliseum, waiting to address a group of reporters inside an interview tent following the Rams‘ 54-51 (not a typo; you read that right) victory. “He settled down and found an opening, and I would have gotten it there, but I got hit — and it went straight to Marcus.”
As Mahomes stepped into his throw, Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam capped a phenomenal performance by slipping inside K.C. tight end Travis Kelce and lunging across the quarterback’s body, draping his left arm across Mahomes’ throwing shoulder as it released the ball. That turned the pass into a pop fly, and as fate would have it, the ball headed toward the waiting arms of Marcus Peters, the former Chiefs corner who was traded to the Rams last February and has struggled to regain his All-Pro form.
“All I thought was, ‘Don’t drop that mother——!’ Peters said shortly before leaving the stadium. “It felt good. It felt real good. You’ve gotta take the good with the bad — all of it — and when you get that ‘W,’ it all pays off. But man, this game was wild. That was some s—. I mean, that was some s—!‘
What he said.
If this marquee Monday night matchup between two teams with high-octane offenses and 9-1 records had merely lived up to billing, it would have been a great night in the professional sports universe. In truth, it was way, way better than advertised.
Originally scheduled to take place in Mexico City, the game was relocated to L.A. after NFL officials deemed the grass at Azteca Stadium to be unplayable. Thus a raucous Coliseum crowd was treated to three hours and 42 minutes’ worth of head-spinning emocion, with 105 total points (the third-most in league history), 1,001 combined yards and six lead changes, including four in the fourth quarter.
And amazingly, despite an offensive orgy that shattered records — and produced the first-ever NFL final score in which each team had at least 50 points — there were a slew of game-turning defensive plays that served as checks and balances against these seemingly unstoppable offenses.
“It was a crazy, crazy game,” said Mahomes, who completed 33 of 46 passes for 478 yards and six touchdowns, but also was responsible for five turnovers. “All that offense, and both defenses made plays that were huge momentum-changers. I basically gave them 21 points — and you can’t do that against a great team like that, or you’ll pay.”
That’s especially true when the opposing quarterback, Goff, is positively golden — as was the case once again on Monday. Now in his third NFL season, the former Cal star and No. 1 overall draft pick has quietly become one of the league’s best passers, and he was money against the Chiefs, completing 31 of 49 throws for 413 yards and four touchdowns — including the exquisite game-winner, a 40-yard, over-the-shoulder beauty to tight end Gerald Everett down the right sideline with 1:49 remaining.
Going into Monday’s game, it was presumed that the two leading MVP contenders, by far, were Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Mahomes, who would push his league-leading touchdown pass total to 37 by night’s end. Perhaps it’s time to add Goff’s name to the list and make this a three-man race, especially if the Rams (10-1) keep ripping through opposing secondaries.
Make no mistake, however: This victory over the Chiefs (9-2) required some big, big plays by Peters and his fellow defenders: Most notably Ebukam, who had a breakout game, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who seems to have one every weekend.
After jumping out to a 13-0 lead, the Rams trailed 17-16 late in the first half when Donald blasted into the pocket and strip-sacked Mahomes. Ebukam, a fourth-round pick out of Eastern Washington in 2017, scooped up the ball and raced 11 yards for a touchdown.
Each player was far from done: On the Chiefs‘ first drive of the second half, Donald did it again, once again sacking Mahomes and dislodging the ball, with teammate John Franklin-Myers recovering at the Chiefs‘ 46-yard-line. Donald, who pushed his league-leading sack total to 14.5, is running away with his second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award — and if another contender were to attempt to seize the trophy, Donald would probably knock it out of his hands.
Eight plays after Donald’s second strip-sack, Goff felt pressure in the pocket and surprised everyone by taking off through a deserted middle of the field and running seven yards for a touchdown, giving the Rams a 30-23 lead.
“Hey, everybody did their thing today — that’s what it’s all about,” Donald said as he headed up the tunnel and out of the stadium. “That’s team football. It’s huge, cause that’s what you need against an explosive offensive like this, and a quarterback like this. He’s a heck of a football player.”
Apparently, Donald — who in late August signed a six-year, $135-million contract extension that made him the highest-paid defensive player in league history (a total eclipsed shortly thereafter by Chicago Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack) — doesn’t subscribe to the stereotype of interior linemen getting massive paydays and then, in a relative sense, chilling.
“Ain’t no chill,” Donald said, laughing.
Said one of the men assigned to block him, Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz: “You know he’s usually gonna get one or two big plays; you try to limit the strips and turnovers. He’s the highest-paid guy at his positon of all-time, and deservedly so — and he’s the rare guy who gets record money and is underpaid. It’s tough. That dude’s a freak.”
So, too, is Mahomes, who benefited from a couple of big plays by the Chiefs‘ defense. The first came with 6:50 remaining in the second quarter, when defensive end Allen Bailey sacked Goff, forced a fumble and recovered it. Mahomes and Hunt connected for a 21-yard touchdown on the next play, putting the Chiefs up 17-16.
Then, with 11:16 left in the game, K.C. linebacker Justin Houston pummeled Goff at the 2-yard line and dislodged the ball, and Bailey snatched it off of Houston’s back and cruised into the end zone, giving the Chiefs a 44-40 lead.
Two Goff-to-Everett touchdown passes later, with a Mahomes-to-Conley score sandwiched in between, and the stage was set for a Kansas City comeback. Peters’ interception squelched it, but not permanently: The Chiefs forced a three-and-out, giving Mahomes one last chance, as K.C. took possession at its own 12 with one timeout and 50 seconds remaining.
The suspense finally ended when Mahomes, from his own 26, threw a desperation pass toward speedy target Tyreek Hill (10 catches, 215 yards, two touchdowns) that was picked off by safety Lamarcus Joyner.
“We should’ve closed out the game after Marcus’ interception — I was sick that we didn’t,” Goff said. “We put our defense in a bad position, and they made plays, just like they had all day.”
For what it’s worth, you can count Goff among the growing legion of Mahomes fans.
“He’s incredible,” Goff said. “He’s the toughest guy in the NFL to defend right now, including Drew (Brees).”
He’ll get no argument from Peters, who got a glimpse of Mahomes’ potential last year while playing against him in practice. Mahomes, who backed up Alex Smith, typically quarterbacked the scout team before starting the final game of the regular season, when the Chiefs had already clinched a playoff berth.
Did Peters know how ridiculously good the young quarterback was a year ago?
“F— yeah,” Peters said. “It’s crazy. He used to throw insane passes in practice without even looking. He’s gonna be special. Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton (Manning) — you name it, he’s gonna up there… right along with Jared Goff.”
On a night full of superlative performances, such over-the-top praise didn’t seem like hyperbole. This was a special football game that left both teams drained as they headed into their respective bye weeks — and underscored the notion that the only way for opponents to combat such explosive offenses is try to keep pace, get some game-turning plays on defense and hope that the onslaught doesn’t overwhelm.
“I’m really tired,” Schwartz said as he prepared to head to the team bus. “I know this game was supposed to be played in Mexico, and I’m pretty glad it wasn’t at 9,000 feet, because I’m not sure I could have made it through.”
A few seconds later, Goff emerged from the locker room and stopped to greet Schwartz, his fellow Cal alum. They talked for a couple of minutes and posed for a photo, and neither player seemed bothered by keeping the interaction brief.
“I’m exhausted,” Goff said.
So, too, was a football-watching nation.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.