What Makes Travis Kelce & Patrick Mahomes the NFL’s Premier Duo

What Makes Travis Kelce & Patrick Mahomes the NFL’s Premier Duo article feature image

Ralf Ibing – firo sportphoto/Getty Images. Pictured: Patrick Mahomes (No. 15) and Travis Kelce.

What Makes Travis Kelce & Patrick Mahomes the NFL's Premier Duo

In the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, Travis Kelce broke Jerry Rice’s record for the most postseason receptions in NFL history. Rice, seen by most as the best wide receiver in NFL history, was the most tactically refined receiver the game has ever seen with pristine route running and technical discipline.

Kelce is a great route runner in his own right but unlike so many of the Hall of Fame pass-catchers who have come before him, Kelce’s game is primarily predicated on instinct and improvisation rather than discipline and technique. That makes for a remarkably perfect fit with Patrick Mahomes, the best quarterback the NFL has ever seen at extending plays with his legs while keeping his eyes downfield.

We’ve seen this style of “backyard football” already win the Chiefs two Super Bowl championships, and Kelce and Mahomes are looking to make it a third on Sunday against the 49ers. Let's break down some of the plays that highlight the brilliance of this tandem. Let’s dive into the film.

Super Bowl Player Props: Travis Kelce

The first play we’ll look at came in the AFC Championship against the Ravens. The Chiefs were in the midst of a long drive early in the second quarter with the score tied at 7, but they were at risk of stalling out in the shadow of the red zone. It’s third-and-five at the Baltimore 27-yard line, and they need a big play. Watch what happens next:

Marquez Valdes-Scantling (No. 11) is wide open on the right boundary, and I couldn’t tell you why Mahomes doesn’t make the throw to him. It looks like a true coverage bust by the Ravens as Kyle Hamilton passes off MVS to nobody. Mahomes dances in the pocket, buying time for a receiver to get open, giving Kelce time to make his move.

Kelce broke it down on his New Heights podcast, saying Mahomes audibled the play, telling Kelce to run a crossing route over the middle. Kelce instead ran a stop route and sat outside the numbers. “That’s not how you play football, ladies and gentlemen,” Kelce explained. “He’s got the keys to the car, he’s steering the ship, you have to listen to [the quarterback].”

Of course, that’s exactly how the Chiefs play football. Kelce is given the opportunity to work in unison with his quarterback in finding open space on the field, maneuvering the defense and constantly seeking out opportunities. This play is a great example of exactly that.

Mahomes is scrambling around in the backfield, waiting for a receiver to flash open with defenders bearing down on him. Kelce eventually makes up for running the wrong route, making his way over the middle of the field and creating space against cornerback Brandon Stephens (No. 21). Mahomes evades pressure, Kelce makes an absurd adjustment on the ball, and the Chiefs pick up the first down.

Rinse. Repeat.

Mahomes and Kelce have been executing that scramble drill play in the playoffs for years.

In the 2022 AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs were hosting the Bengals. With a 7-3 lead, they had an opportunity to extend their lead inside the red zone. Check out how Mahomes extends this play and finds Kelce in the end zone.

Unfortunately, NFL Game Pass isn’t currently providing All 22 film for this game. However, you can see in the Next Gen Stats cut up below how this play developed from that angle. Kelce starts off running a simple drag to the left, but he’s watching Mahomes all the way and mirrors his quarterback’s movement to keep himself open.

Kelce puts cornerback Mike Hilton (No. 21) in a bind, and his decision to pursue Mahomes as he escapes the pocket allows Kelce to separate from safety Jessie Bates III (No. 30) enough that he's able to receive the pass in the end zone.

According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes had 7.94 seconds to throw, which at the time was the longest of his career on a touchdown pass. His scramble covered nearly 30 yards, as he escaped both edge defenders and worked to the right side. Mahomes is lauded for his wicked arm talent, but this ability to extend plays with his legs is his superpower.

Patrick Mahomes & Travis Kelce (5-yd TD)

🔸 Time to Throw: 7.94 seconds*
🔸 Mahomes Speed: 15.44 mph
🔸 Scramble Distance: 29.6 yards

» Mahomes' longest time to throw on a TD pass of his career (including playoffs)#CINvsKC | Powered by @awscloudpic.twitter.com/16SjkJvPDI

— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 30, 2022

When you’re watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, keep an eye out for any seemingly routine Travis Kelce receptions. The subtleties in his game are what make him so special. The following play against the Broncos from Week 6 this season is a great example:

Kansas City left tackle Donovan Smith (No. 79) is beat off the line by Denver pass rusher Nik Bonitto (No. 42). That forces Patrick Mahomes to bail on the pocket and scramble to his right, but Bonitto, who possesses elite speed for an edge rusher, closes on Mahomes and forces him into a difficult throw through a would-be sack.

Kelce is watching all of this unfold, and he recognizes that he’s in a crowded area of the field with a few defenders converging on him. The defense has eyes on Mahomes and Rashee Rice (No. 4), the underneath receiver, allowing Kelce to drift toward the middle of the field. That would set up a difficult cross-body throw for most quarterbacks, but Mahomes makes it look easy.

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This wasn’t Kelce’s most efficient regular season by any stretch of the imagination. He dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season en route to a career-low 10.6 yards per reception. From Weeks 8-17, he averaged just 51 receiving yards per game and surpassed 90 yards just once.

However, Kelce has proven during the playoffs that he’s still an elite difference-maker with 23 catches on 27 targets for 262 yards and three touchdowns. The Taylor Swift stories are the big headline-grabbers when it comes to Kelce, but we should be talking about how he absolutely annihilated a Ravens secondary that seemingly had every answer for him, including All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton.

Mahomes has an average depth of target (aDOT) of just 6.8 yards this season, the lowest of his career and the 41st-ranked aDOT out of 45 qualified passers. He also has an average time to throw of 3.03 seconds, the longest of his career and the seventh-longest out of that same 45-passer sample.

In other words, Mahomes is holding onto the ball for longer than ever before while throwing it shorter than almost anyone.

Of course, that’s the root of the Chiefs’ offensive deficiencies this season, but it also heightens the importance of Kelce being a true difference-maker. With the 49ers blitzing at the third-lowest rate in the NFL this season, expect Mahomes to be scrambling around quite a bit in this game as he waits for receivers to get open downfield.

Will Kelce retire after this season, joining his brother Jason and freeing up more time for his new superstar girlfriend? Only time will tell. For now, Kelce will look to hook up with Mahomes on more backyard scramble drills like the two have done better than anyone in NFL history on their way to another Super Bowl.

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