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MAHOMES VS. HURTS WOULD BE THE PAIN-AND-PERSEVERANCE SUPER BOWL
The great ones stare down injuries, and the NFL’s best two quarterbacks of the moment could be on a collision course as Mahomes treats a high ankle sprain and Hurts plays through a shoulder sprain
To call it a limp wouldn’t be fair to his pain threshold. Patrick Mahomes was in a personal torture chamber, surviving on one foot, gingerly trying to remain upright, ambling to the sideline with a heavy step followed by a few pitter-patter skips, unable to place weight on his injured right ankle.
When he was told to join medical personnel in the locker room — the only sensible call when that ankle is attached to the NFL’s most valuable player, the would-be king of sports in this land, owner of the most lucrative contract in the history of American team sports — Mahomes reacted as the great ones often do. He slammed his red parka to the turf. He screamed in anger. And he grudgingly followed instructions, knowing he would return to the game and build his legend unless the ankle was dangling from tendons, whereupon he’d still probably go back in.
He continued to hobble around in the second half, robbed of his mobility and scrambling skills after Jacksonville’s Arden Key fell on his ankle in an awkward heap. But magical as he is when fully healthy, Mahomes is one of these rare creatures who reveals more about his superhumanity when he’s wounded. Normally delivering his enchanting jump passes off his right foot, he threw one off his left foot Saturday, lifting only a couple of inches but finding Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a touchdown nonetheless, lending just enough inspiration to push the Kansas City Chiefs into the AFC championship game for the fifth straight year.
Go ahead and doubt him. Wonder if his high ankle sprain, as diagnosed Sunday morning, will limit him and slow his quest for a second Super Bowl trophy. But you’d be a dummy to predict his demise, knowing he’ll be indoors and on turf next Sunday in Atlanta if the Chiefs play Buffalo, or at home in his adoring kingdom if they play Cincinnati. And that he has seven full days to baby his ankle and shoot it with painkillers — sorry, that’s what training staffs do to players — and prove definitively that he’s the premier quarterback in his sport as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers fade into mothball piles.
“I did not want to go back there and see it. I didn’t wan’t to get the x-rays. They kind of gave me the ultimatum: I wasn’t going back in (the game) unless I went back there,” said Mahomes, referring to the tests demanded by coach Andy Reid. “I’m not coming out unless they take me out. I’m just going to play. I love this sport too much. I love being with my teammates and being able to go out there and enjoy it together. We prepare all year to be in the playoffs and to play in these games, and I’m glad that I was able to get back in the game. It’s something that I just love — competing in this sport. And pain is pain. You’re going to have to deal with it either way.”
“He’s our fearless leader,’’ said Travis Kelce, his favorite receiver and close friend, after the 27-20 victory over the Jaguars. “As he goes, we go. He’s the ultimate competitor. Even when he’s down, he’s still not out. I think I’ve seen all the grit out of that guy I need to see. You know he’s going to do anything he can do to help us with that game. Nothing’s ever surprising.”
How fascinating, about 90 minutes later, to see what happened after Jalen Hurts threw his second touchdown pass in what would be a laugher of an NFC divisional-round game. Mahomes was shown in another State Farm ad, the latest in a series of fun commercials that swarm the TV airwaves these days, standing beside a hot tub filled with bubbles. He’ll be in such a tub all week, without the bubbles. “I’ll hop right in with the treatment and try to do whatever I can to be as close to 100 percent by next week,” he said. This as Hurts was overcoming his own worrisome injury, a sprained joint in the right shoulder he uses to throw, and a late-week illness that left him “nowhere near 100 percent” against the New York Giants.
To watch him scrap though discomfort, as Mahomes did, brings a common denominator of adversity to a postseason dictated by attrition. Built in the badass image of his adopted city, Hurts was part of a nighttime celebration of all things Philadelphia, setting up an NFC championship game in front of the rowdies who made life difficult for Daniel Jones and certainly will for the next quarterback. Days earlier, Hurts told teammates during a meeting, “I ain’t hungry. I’m starving for this s—.” He elaborated after accounting for three touchdowns in a 38-7 romp.
“I love the fact that we’re starving. We’re starving for growth,” Hurts said. “There’s a special type of togetherness that we have. I think it’s a beautiful thing, and that was a little motivation as a team. We wanted to come out and play our best ball. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.”
Said tight end Dallas Goedert, who related the story: “With everyone in the locker room, he sets the tone, and we follow along. Whatever he says, goes. He is the leader of this place. He has it in him, so we all follow suit.”
Playing through pain is the calling card of the all-timers, notably Michael Jordan, forever known for his “sick game” during the NBA Finals in Utah. It was powerful to hear Eagles coach Nick Sirianni, who has tapped into Hurts’ greatness, to make the comparison even if accused of a slight overreach.
“I know this is high praise, but to have him out there is like having — I shouldn’t even go there — but it’s like having Michael Jordan out there,” said Sirianni, spitting it out. “Hopefully, that’s the biggest respect I can pay to him. This guy leads. He’s your guy. He brings this calmness to the entire team. He plays great football. He’s as tough as they come. To me, nobody has played any better football than him this year.”
Other than Patrick Mahomes.
Which positions us for a delicious showdown, possibly, in Super Bowl LVII next month somewhere northwest of Phoenix. If Mahomes and Hurts do meet, it’s what we should want from a football angle, while saluting those rooting for the Bills in the Damar Hamlin aftermath. What would be better than the two teams atop the conferences, with the two leading MVP candidates, colliding for a title? That is where the similarities would end.
Because if preeminence was apparent from the NFL get-go for Mahomes, who is seeking his second championship and second MVP at 27, Hurts has been challenged to prove himself throughout his football life. He wasn’t heavily recruited by college powerhouses, but he wound up at the address that mattered, Alabama, where Nick Saban made him the starter. He was efficient, leading the Crimson Tide to the national title game, but he didn’t survive Clemson. The next year, sluggish against Georgia in the national title game, he was replaced at halftime by Tua Tagovailoa. That could have been the end for Hurts, as his successor led a memorable rally and overtime win and kept the job the following year. But Hurts never sulked, saving the season and beating Georgia when Tagovailoa was injured in the SEC title game. He transferred to Oklahoma and polished his passing skills under Lincoln Riley, but at 6-foot-1 with an unreliable arm, he was viewed as a backup. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman drafted him anyway, with the 53rd pick in the 2020 draft, and the intention was to use Hurts as a backup to Carson Wentz or an all-purpose weapon.
The locals weren’t happy, chanting “Fire Howie!” at a Phillies game only 2 1/2 years after the Eagles won a Super Bowl with Nick Foles and coach Doug Pederson’s legendary “Philly Special” playcall. You know the rest. Wentz fell apart, mentally and physically, and was benched and eventually traded. Hurts assumed the job, but not until Sirianni was hired the next year did he begin to emerge as a two-way threat and MVP candidate. It helps to have monstrous weapons — receivers DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown and running back Miles Sanders the scariest, thanks again to Roseman — and look at the Birds now, favorites to win the NFC, playing the best football in the league at the most opportune time.
“Scars,” Hurts tells Sports Illustrated of the slights, somehow finding “the thrill in the hate, the disbelief, the doubt.” He says his mission is about being unsatisfied, which brings him to this moment in time where a city that once cursed him now loves him. Would the narrative not lead to a rich matchup against Mahomes, who has been an American treasure and a Kansas City darling for years?
He has thrown for more than 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns in four of his five seasons as the Chiefs starter and is more renowned as a competitor than even a dastardly dual-threat. He has gained fans around the world, none more unlikely than actor Henry Winkler, who was playing “The Fonz” on TV long before he was born. It didn’t stop Mahomes, still humble and grounded, from making sure Winkler appeared in the team’s postseason hype video. He is the consummate quarterback of a youthful uprising that includes Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence and, now, Jalen Hurts. What they have in common, along with breathtaking skill and command, is toughness and resolve. They have no rivalry, despite their Texas roots.
But that could develop quickly, in the coming weeks, assuming they avoid strategic enemy hits to wounded body parts. Hurts managed to protect his right shoulder from the Giants; calls for him to run were kept at a minimum. He knows what’s coming. “It’s football. I got a bounty on me every week I go out there on the field," he said. “So I’m going to go out there and play my game. Whatever happens, happens.”
As for Mahomes, Reid is understandably protective. It’s time for the Chiefs to win another Super Bowl, after too many near-misses. “Listen, he’s a tough kid, so he wanted to be in there. He wanted to be competing and that’s a tribute to him and his competitiveness,” Reid said. “However, you’ve got to make sure he’s OK — physically OK, where he can protect himself. If he can’t, then he can’t play. You have to go with the next guy. But he’s a tough nut and he’s very — when I tell you he’s competitive, he’s very competitive. It was hard getting him out of the game.”
And when they do pry him away, the Chiefs have veteran safety blanket Chad Henne, who only led a 98-yard touchdown drive when Mahomes was away. The MVP didn’t stop being the MVP. He limped up and down the sideline in his red parka, cheering on his backup. “He doesn’t get any reps during the week — and he prepares himself to be able to go in for stuff like that,” Mahomes said. “To be able to drive the ball down the field (and) make some big throws versus some pressure looks? That was a big point in the game, because that gave me the ability to come back and rest — and wait until halftime, (when) we re-taped and did everything we could to get me ready to go in the second half.”
Jalen Hurts is compared to Michael Jordan.
Patrick Mahomes, often compared to Stephen Curry, also deserves the Jordan treatment in such moments.
If that’s where we’re at, on the precipice of historic perseverance, then let them have at it in the desert. Their pain is our pleasure.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.