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Maestro Vs. Magician - Can Belichick Draw Up a Game Plan to Stop Mahomes?

January 20, 2019
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is known as a defensive genius. He'll have to be today. AP PHOTO Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

Lynn Worthy is in his first year as a Chiefs beat writer for the Kansas City Star. He is a former Tyngsboro High School football player and a former Sun sportswriter.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Conventional wisdom would have made Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes out to be a lost puppy wandering in a dark and strange place with a storm about to unleash upon him. That’s the sort of helpless situation most young quarterbacks face when lining up against a Bill Belichick-coached defense.

Except Mahomes passed his initial test earlier this season, albeit with some early hiccups that gave reason for pause in anointing the 23-year-old as the next great passer and face of the NFL. The Mahomes vs. Belichick subplot will play a huge part in the outcome of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

It could also add a chapter to the Mahomes lore.

“Mahomes is a dynamic player,” Belichick said. “He’s probably the Most Valuable Player in the league this year. Certainly put him up there with anybody else you want to talk about. He’s had tremendous production, executing plays as they’re designed and also at time improvising and making great plays and great decisions on his own. So he’s been a terrific player for Kansas City this year.”

While Belichick’s words were complimentary and respectful, that’s been akin to the kiss of death to opposing quarterbacks in the past.

After all, one of the quarterbacks Belichick showed much admiration for and spoke most highly of was Peyton Manning. Belichick’s teams won 12 of 20 meetings between the two football savants, including forcing Manning, then quarterback of the Colts, into a four-interception, four-sack performance in the AFC Championship Game following the 2003 season.

Chiefs All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz postulated that what makes the Patriots’ defense special isn’t how the staff and Belichick game-plan to stop a specific strength or a specific look from an opposing offense. That part isn’t unlike what most teams scheme to do.

What makes Belichick’s defenses different and often confusing is their ability to morph from one play to the next without changing personnel.

“I think the thing they do a really good job of is putting guys in different spots,” Schwartz said. “So now you’re trying to figure out, you know, is 53 a linebacker? Is he a D-end? Is 54 a D-end? A D-tackle? A linebacker? All those types of things where it’s the same, mostly, six or seven guys, but they’re all playing different spots and different spots and different positions. You’re just trying to account for where they are on that play.

“At the end of the day, the structure of the defense is the structure of the defense, but who is playing what spots and where’s the blitzing coming from and all that stuff? Obviously, they’re really successful with it. On top of that, to be able to have guys that can do all those different things and do it as well as they do, credit to them for finding it. It’s hard enough to find guys in this league that can do one thing really well.”

The list of top-tier signal-callers Belichick’s defenses have bested on the way to the Super Bowl includes Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers and Joe Montana (including Belichick’s time as a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants).

“They have the talent where they can play the man coverage and do that stuff ... at the same time, they can change up the look and do stuff they haven’t necessarily been doing all season long and still execute it,” Mahomes said of the Patriots’ defense. “When you play veteran teams like this, you have to make sure you have a plan for everything every single play.”

In a Week 6 meeting between the Chiefs and Patriots in Foxboro, Mahomes finished the game with 352 passing yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions and a slightly higher quarterback rating than New England’s Tom Brady.

But Mahomes’ first half wasn’t great: He was 14 of 23 with two interceptions, including one backed up inside his own 25-yard-line and another while driving inside the red zone late in the first half.

“More than anything (the adjustment was) just settling down,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said of the first meeting. “Obviously, they came out and they did some things, but you’ve got to understand we had a young quarterback in a hostile environment. You’re playing against one of the most historic teams in the NFL at this point in time. Not just Patrick -- he was fired up and excited, and the whole team was (too).”

The Chiefs went from scoring nine first-half points to hanging 31 on the Patriots in the second half once they “calmed down.”

The Chiefs scored four touchdowns -- all on Mahomes throws -- and a field goal on six second-half possessions. Despite that offensive outburst in the second half, the Chiefs fell 43-40.

“You just can’t make mistakes,” Mahomes said. “They know how to capitalize on those. We had opportunities in the first half, and I missed them with throws, or we missed them with assignments or whatever the scenario was. You can’t make those mistakes if you want to beat teams like the Patriots who’ve found ways to win for a long time now.”

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