GLENDALE, Ariz. — In perfect sync, three Arizona Cardinals defensemen — linebacker Isaiah Simmons, cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. and star safety Budda Baker — gave off the same body language, the ultimate demonstration of this that one feels in the midst of an embarrassing defeat.
The trio, midway through the third quarter against the Chiefs, dropped their heads after yet another completion from superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. They shook their heads. And then, hands on hips, the three players looked up at the big JumboTron inside State Farm Stadium, watching the replay to see how they let Mahomes make an intermediate pass to star tight end Travis Kelce, which was wide open.
Mahomes, just about every moment of his performance Sunday, a 44-21 spanking by the Chiefs, left the Cardinals irritated, overwhelmed and, ultimately, demoralized.
The Cardinals, the hapless opponent the NFL picked to open the season against the Chiefs, were really just a conduit for a larger and fairly explicit message that Mahomes wanted to convey to the rest of the league: even without star receiver Tyreek Hill, one of the most powerful players in the league, the Chiefs still be an offensive juggernaut.
“I always feel like I have something to prove,” Mahomes said with a smile. “I’m just a Texas Tech guy who (some analysts) said he can’t play in the NFL. I still have that mindset to go out there and prove that we’re the Chiefs and we still have a shot at winning the AFC championship and winning the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs’ second drive in the third quarter ended with a touchdown, another highlight in an opener full of them from Mahomes. The score extended the Chiefs’ lead to 30 points (37-7), and it led to one of Mahomes’ signature celebrations, as he used his fingers to tally his number of touchdown passes. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, the man who coached and helped develop Mahomes at Texas Tech, saw his former quarterback show him five fingers.
Mahomes finished with 360 passing yards and 🖐️ TDs against the Cardinals pic.twitter.com/OGjbATu58p
— Sports Center (@SportsCenter) September 11, 2022
For months, Mahomes knew Sunday’s game would be the start of a new chapter in his six-year career, one without Hill, who the Chiefs traded in the offseason to the Miami Dolphins. Coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach backed Mahomes by acquiring four new receivers: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson and rookie Skyy Moore. The first result of Reid and Veach’s biggest offseason decisions was a deep and balanced Chiefs passing offense that dismantled the Cardinals’ defense. Mahomes was unsacked and did not commit a turnover, finishing with 360 passing yards to go along with the five touchdowns.
“Throughout the offseason, everyone asked us about what this offense was going to look like,” said Mahomes, who played most of the game with a sore left wrist after an early knock. “We always thought we were going to put on a show. I thought guys did that. I know a lot of different guys have made games.
In his 30 accomplishments, Mahomes has connected with nine skill teammates.
The Chiefs’ first touchdown was a familiar play, as Mahomes threw a 9-yard pass to Kelce, who won their one-on-one clash and grabbed the ball in the corner of the end zone. Then, in short-range situations near the end zone, Mahomes used his eyes to manipulate Cardinals defenders before throwing two easy touchdown passes to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Even when defenders got close to him, Mahomes scrambled or improvised enough to make midfield passes to Smith-Schuster, Valdes-Scantling and Moore.
The best illustration of Mahomes’ mobility was when defensive tackle Zach Allen — amid the Chiefs’ crushing drive in the third quarter — was able to wrap his arms around Mahomes. By the end of the game, Allen was so stunned that Mahomes still completed a 7-yard pass to Valdes-Scantling that he unleashed his frustration by slapping the turf.
“Pat had a great game, an amazing night,” Reid said. “I joke about it, but it’s true: He (Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph) brings everyone but the popcorn seller. He’s gonna bring it from everywhere, and you better be quick.
Last season, the Cardinals made 35.7% of their defensive snaps, the third-highest rate in the league, according to TruMedia. Meanwhile, in blitzes last season, Mahomes passed for a first down on 55.3% of his attempts and had the lowest sack rate of any quarterback.
For the first time in his career, Mahomes has been blitzed by the Cardinals on more than half of his comebacks (54%), according to Next Gen Stats. The Cardinals’ strategy to attack him was ruthlessly and effectively thwarted, as Mahomes threw a career-high four touchdown passes against the Cardinals’ blitzes, tying the most in a Next Gen era game. Stats (since 2016).
Perhaps the Cardinals’ best blitz was when linebackers Victor Dimukeje and Devon Kennard crushed Mahomes inside the red zone. The play ended, however, with Mahomes throwing an accurate one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jody Fortson.
– NFL (@NFL) September 11, 2022
The Chiefs have never lost their season opener since Mahomes became their starter; they hold the longest active streak in the league with eight straight wins.
“It’s Coach Reid who has more weeks to plan his game,” Mahomes said. “It’s always a good thing for me because he makes the guys open up wide. The coaches do a great job, man. We know when the blitzes are coming and where the best (routes) are. It’s always good when you’re a quarterback and you know who you’re going to throw it to before the game even starts.
The Chiefs started the game scoring one touchdown pass on three straight possessions.
One of Reid’s biggest concerns going into the game proved to be one of the attack’s biggest strengths. The Chiefs revealed to the Cardinals a plethora of formations, some featuring five receivers spread across the field, others featuring three tight ends or condensed looks in which multiple skill-positioned players were in the backfield alongside Mahomes. Reid knew that the variety of formations could cause leaders to have problems with their replacements, mixing and matching groups of personnel. These players impressed Reid. The Chiefs only committed three penalties, none of which occurred before the snap.
Reid is known for conducting grueling training camps, fast-paced workouts in which leaders practice in various situations that can arise in a game. Mahomes and several of his offensive teammates said such practices were the preparation they needed to perform well against the Cardinals.
“As far as everything presented, we felt like we had seen it before,” Edwards-Helaire said. “The thing about our offense is you can tell we’re trying to do one thing. But being able to have a quarterback and some checks that we know we can go out and do different things, I wouldn’t say we were trying to do a thing. We can do whatever we think we can based on the look we see. Nothing shocked us.
“All you can do is just smile into your helmet – and really try not to give it away. When you know the call (center) that Creed (Humphrey) is going to make, you know what Pat wants do, you know what (Kelce) wants to do, it’s an endless rating cycle.
– NFL (@NFL) September 11, 2022
Next up for the Chiefs is their first major showdown — and quickest turnaround of the season: a primetime home opener on Thursday against the AFC West rivals Los Angeles Chargers (1- 0).
But the first hour after the Chiefs’ win on Sunday was a party inside the locker room. While peeling off their pads to the booming hip-hop music, the Chiefs knew they were dominating the Cardinals. One of the most satisfying moments for Mahomes and Kelce was watching the facial expressions of new teammates such as Smith-Schuster, Valdes-Scantling and Moore.
“All smiles, man,” Kelce said, smiling himself. “The most important thing was to make sure those smiles didn’t get too crazy.”
The only downside to Sunday’s game is that the Chiefs left State Farm Stadium with several injured players.
Kicker Harrison Butker left the field early in the first quarter with a left ankle injury, but returned just before halftime, scoring a 54-yard field goal. Right guard Trey Smith injured his left ankle late in the second quarter and did not return. Smith, who played the most snaps of any guard in the league last season as a rookie, watched the second half from the sideline, ready in case the Chiefs needed him in the event of a ’emergency. Guard Nick Allegretti, a four-year veteran who was the Chiefs’ only uniformed backup inside lineman, replaced Smith.
Rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie strained his left hamstring early in the third quarter and failed to return. Justin Watson left the game in the fourth quarter with a chest injury.
“We have to see what it is,” Reid said of Watson, a five-year veteran.
The Cardinals also played without star receiver DeAndre Hopkins (suspended first six games), defensive end JJ Watt (calf), left guard Justin Pugh (neck), cornerback Trayvon Mullen (toe), wide receiver Rondale Moore (hamstring) and guard Cody Ford. (ankle).
Read more: Week 1 takeaways
(Photo by Patrick Mahomes: Norm Hall/Getty Images)