Patrick Mahomes And The Chiefs Are Red-Hot. For Once, They Might Stay That Way.

Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are officially the toast of the 2018 NFL season so far, after K.C.’s young quarterback threw an incredible six touchdown passes against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, bringing his season tally to 10 — and the Chiefs’ record to 2-0.

It’s only been two weeks, but the reviews for Mahomes have been nothing short of breathless. The latest opponent that will have to weather the Kansas City onslaught will be the San Francisco 49ers, who travel to Arrowhead on Sunday afternoon. Although the game doesn’t figure to alter the playoff odds too much — according to our NFL Elo predictions — it’s an intriguing showdown that ranks fourth-best of Week 3 in terms of our measure of matchup quality (which uses the harmonic mean of the two teams’ Elo ratings):

The best matchups of Week 3

Week 3 games with the highest average Elo rating, using the harmonic mean, plus the total potential swing for the two teams’ playoff chances, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions

Playoff % Playoff %
Team A Current Avg. Chg* Team B Current Avg. Chg* Total Change Game Quality
ATL 62.6% +/-13.8 NO 29.8% +/-12.5 26.3 1578
LAC 47.0 10.6 LAR 68.1 9.2 19.8 1561
PIT 39.9 11.7 TB 52.0 11.8 23.5 1548
KC 85.0 5.1 SF 28.3 7.1 12.2 1542
DET 12.3 5.7 NE 72.0 9.4 15.0 1539
CAR 42.6 10.9 CIN 56.6 10.7 21.6 1538
JAX 75.3 11.6 TEN 30.5 12.3 23.9 1529
BUF 11.5 4.5 MIN 73.7 7.3 11.9 1525
DAL 41.9 12.3 SEA 25.8 10.2 22.5 1523
IND 17.4 4.7 PHI 75.0 5.8 10.4 1522
BAL 44.1 11.7 DEN 32.4 10.7 22.4 1503
GB 30.4 11.5 WSH 20.7 8.6 20.2 1473
MIA 48.4 11.3 OAK 8.0 5.2 16.5 1463
ARI 8.4 4.5 CHI 23.8 10.0 14.5 1445
HOU 7.6 3.6 NYG 4.5 2.8 6.4 1386
CLE 1.9 1.4 NYJ 22.4 8.0 9.4 1378

Game quality is the harmonic mean of the Elo ratings for the two teams in a given matchup.

*Average change is weighted by the likelihood of a win or loss. (Ties are excluded.)

Source: ESPN.com

The Chiefs have certainly seen a boost in our ratings with this hot start. Before the season, they ranked seventh in the league, and it wasn’t clear that K.C. was even the best team in its own division. But since the start of the season, Kansas City has risen to third in Elo, adding the third-most rating points of any team in the league (behind only the Buccaneers and Bengals).

Mahomes has been leading the Chiefs’ charge. Going into the season, we noted that he would have a ton of weapons to work with in the Chief offense, and that his starting career could get off the ground quickly if he reined in his occasional “gunslinger” tendencies. Two weeks in, it’s worked out almost perfectly. Mahomes is making great decisions with the ball and has thrown plenty of absolute darts downfield. Since the 1970 AFL merger, only three QBs — Peyton Manning in 2013, Tom Brady in 2011 and, yes, Ryan Fitzpatrick this season — have produced more yards above backup QB (YABQ) through the first two games of a season than Mahomes has so far this year:

The best two-game QB starts to a season since 1970

Most yards above backup quarterback (YABQ) for passers in the first two games of an NFL season, 1970-2018

Quarterback YEAR Age Comp% Pass YDS Net Y/A TD Int YABQ
1 Ryan Fitzpatrick 2018 36 78.7% 819 12.9 8 1 585
2 Tom Brady 2011 34 71.6 940 10.2 7 1 510
3 Peyton Manning 2013 37 67.1 769 8.5 9 0 501
4 Patrick Mahomes 2018 23 69.1 582 10.1 10 0 488
5 Phil Simms 1984 29 66.0 594 10.2 7 0 477
6 Joe Namath 1972 29 47.6 609 13.4 7 2 466
7 Drew Bledsoe 1997 25 64.1 607 9.2 8 0 428
8 Lynn Dickey 1983 34 80.4 623 10.6 8 1 423
9 Steve Young 1998 37 60.3 666 7.9 6 1 415
10 Dan Fouts 1981 30 74.0 646 12.5 4 1 414

Age is as of Dec. 31 of the season in question.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

And unlike the names above him on the list, each of whom were seasoned veterans, Mahomes is just 23 this season — and he had just one game started under his belt before this season. Although he probably won’t stay on this record-breaking pace all season, Mahomes’s early career performance doesn’t look like a fluke. Since 1970, only two QBs (Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and Pro Bowler Jeff Blake) had more YABQ through their first three NFL games as a primary passer than Mahomes. Of course, not every hot three-game start presaged a path to Canton; for every Warner or Dan Marino near the top of the list, there’s also Eric Hipple, Scott Mitchell and Ty Detmer. But even if Mahomes’s career develops more like that of, say, Daunte Culpepper — whose stats at the same age are strikingly similar to Mahomes’s 16-game pace over his career to date — it would surely validate the Chiefs’ decision to jettison successful longtime starter Alex Smith in favor of his rifle-armed young successor.

We can already see how the Chiefs’ offense has changed with Mahomes at the helm. According to ESPN’s Stats & Info Group, his air yards per pass — which measures the distance the ball traveled downfield before being caught (or hitting the ground) — is 11.5 this season, which ranks first among all qualified passers. Smith’s number last season was 7.4, which ranked 23rd. Mahomes has faced more blitzes (and more pressure in general) than Smith, but he’s handled the heat much more capably — his Raw Total Quarterback Rating against pressure has been 74.0 (the league average is about 50 on all passes and 20 versus pressure), compared with Smith’s 31.3 mark last year. And for a team that went an entire season without a TD pass to a wide receiver a few years ago, Kansas City now ranks third in touchdown passes to receivers and eighth in passing yards to wideouts, with Tyreek Hill on track to surpass his 1,183 receiving yards from a year ago.

Kansas City is hoping this newfound offensive attack can prevent another midseason letdown like the one the team suffered last year. The 2017 Chiefs also got off to a blazing start, winning their first five games behind a dominating offense. Then they promptly lost six of seven at midseason to bring their record to 6-6, requiring a four-game end-of-season winning streak just to make the playoffs. That wasn’t exactly rare for K.C. under Andy Reid: The Chiefs finished the 2014 season on a 2-4 stretch after starting 7-3, and they went 2-5 down the stretch in 2013 after a 9-0 start. So Chiefs fans would be forgiven for tempering their optimism at the moment. But the versatility of this year’s attack — made possible in part by Mahomes’s unique arm strength and comfort level in a spread system — might be the missing ingredient that makes this hot start more sustainable than the ones that fizzled in years past.

In light of all this Mahomes mania, the 49ers are an especially interesting foil for the Chiefs this weekend. Niners starter Jimmy Garoppolo captured the NFL’s attention late last season with a five-game run that rivaled what Mahomes has done thus far. (Jimmy G. averaged 131.4 YABQ per game in his best two starts of that stretch, compared with Mahomes’s 243.9 per game this season.) But Garoppolo’s 2018 also illustrates the reversion that is sure to come for Mahomes sooner or later: San Francisco’s highly paid QB has seen his QBR drop from 82.7 in 2017 to 22.7 this season. He’ll almost certainly improve on that in the near future — perhaps substantially so against a K.C. defense that currently ranks a distant last in the NFL in defensive expected points added. But Mahomes can learn from his counterpart how quickly a QB can go from acclaim to adversity once opposing defenses study enough of his tape.

Until then, though, Mahomes and the Chiefs are riding high, with the league’s best projected record and playoff chances according to our model, plus a status as co-Super Bowl favorites (with the Eagles). It’s hard to imagine a better way for a young QB to begin his career as an NFL starter.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

In addition to our NFL Elo prediction interactive, which updates after every game to help you keep tabs on how your team stacks up, we’re also running a prediction game in which you make picks against our model (and your fellow readers). After the dust settles each week, we like to look at where Elo made its best — and worst — picks against the field. Here’s how it did in Week 2:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 2

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 2 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
BUF 53% LAC 69% LAC 31, BUF 20 +15.7

WSH 75 WSH 68 IND 21, WSH 9 +8.4

PIT 58 PIT 51 KC 42, PIT 37 +4.9

SEA 54 CHI 52 CHI 24, SEA 17 +3.9

LAR 74 LAR 82 LAR 34, ARI 0 +1.9

SF 58 SF 62 SF 30, DET 27 +1.2

MIN 60 MIN 56 GB 29, MIN 29 +0.0
NYJ 61 NYJ 61 MIA 20, NYJ 12 -1.2

DEN 63 DEN 63 DEN 20, OAK 19 -2.2

NO 85 NO 81 NO 21, CLE 18 -4.0

NE 56 NE 58 JAX 31, NE 20 -5.1

ATL 62 ATL 58 ATL 31, CAR 24 -5.2

PHI 63 PHI 67 TB 27, PHI 21 -7.6

CIN 50 BAL 55 CIN 34, BAL 23 -7.7

DAL 76 DAL 58 DAL 20, NYG 13 -15.1

TEN 70 HOU 51 TEN 20, HOU 17 -20.1

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

After a successful Week 1 performance against FiveThirtyEight readers, I expected Elo to tail off a bit in Week 2. But instead, it did even better! On average, Elo beat the typical reader by 32.2 total points in our game this past week, bringing its overall lead up to 60.5 points on the season. The readers cleaned up in the Bills-Chargers game, taking advantage of Elo’s reluctance to acknowledge that Buffalo is a pit of despair this season. But that was offset by Elo’s confidence in the Cowboys at home against the Giants, and the fact that its seemingly misguided faith in the Titans — who were starting Blaine Gabbert, one of the worst QBs in NFL history, instead of the injured Marcus Mariota — paid off.

We’ll see if Elo’s run of luck continues next week. Either way, congrats to reader Alexandre Augusto da Rocha, who led all (identified) users in points for Week 2 — and as a result leads for the season as well. And thanks to everyone who played last week. If you didn’t play, remember that it’s not too late to get in on the game, even if you missed the first couple weeks of the season. Make your picks now!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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