How Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs have mastered third-and-long

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Facing a third-and-18 -- as the Kansas City Chiefs did during a Week 16 game against the Chicago Bears -- is often the cue to get the punt or field goal unit ready for fourth down.

In fact, NFL teams converted a first down on 21 of 251 plays of third-and-18 or longer this season -- about 8% of the time.

Never tell Patrick Mahomes the odds.

On third-and-18 yards or more this season, the Chiefs quarterback has completed 10 of 11 passes for almost 21 yards per attempt. He has five first downs, three touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

"That's speed, speed and skill," Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said recently in explanation for how good Mahomes and the Chiefs have been in such situations. "They have a 4x100 relay at the wide receiver position. Their tight end is one of the best in the game. Of course, Patrick can make every throw in the book, extend plays with his legs. That makes them very dangerous."

In the scenario against the Bears, the Chiefs picked a play that had mirror routes on each side with Tyreek Hill lined up from the slot on the left.

Mahomes had to slide in the pocket to avoid pressure, and when he let go of the ball, Hill was about 4 yards from the top of his route. But by the time he turned around, the ball was there for Hill to make a 19-yard gain.

"That throw made me say, 'Wow!'" said former Chiefs quarterback Rich Gannon, now a game analyst for CBS. "I watch a lot of throws, and when I look at a throw and go, ‘Wow!' that's a pretty significant throw because I don't do ‘Wow!' a lot. I've seen it and I've made some throws myself, so it takes a lot."

It helps that Mahomes has options. Hill, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins are three of the fastest wide receivers in the league, nicknamed the Legion of Zoom. Even tight end Travis Kelce is fast for a 260-pound player.

Then there's the strong-armed Mahomes, who is fearless yet forces few throws. On one of his third-and-long touchdowns -- a third-and-18 in Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts -- Mahomes was flushed by pressure to his right and threw on the run for 27 yards to Byron Pringle.

The play prompted Al Michaels, calling the game on TV for NBC, to shout, "Only Mahomes!"

"We believe Pat can get us out of every situation," Watkins said. "I honestly think we can get a third-and-30 when it comes down to it. That's how we operate. We have so many plays for every situation. It's hard for the defense to have everything down. Then we have so many guys. It's kind of a situation where people have to pick their poison."

But there's more to the Chiefs' third-and-long success. They don't thrive on those plays by accident -- they actually spend time working on those situations in practice.

"We have times in training camp where it's just third-and-long, where we're third-and-11-plus and we're working against a defense knowing they're more in the prime position they want to be in to try to get stops," Mahomes said.

The Chiefs also go into each game with options they like for third-and-long situations based on the particular opponent.

"There's a lot in the playbook every week for third-and-long," Hill said.

Mahomes has a lot of trust in most of the Chiefs' receivers to be where they're supposed to be on a given route. The throw in Chicago to Hill is an example. Mahomes wouldn't throw to Hill several yards short of his break if the two hadn't worked on the route during practice.

The result is the completion to Hill against the Bears, a 42-yard touchdown to Hardman on third-and-20 in September against the Oakland Raiders, a 46-yard touchdown to Hill on third-and-21 in Week 6 against the Houston Texans and other big plays that might be warm-up-the-special-teams circumstances for other teams.

"Everybody may think we like being in those situations, but we don't like being in those situations," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "We'd rather play ahead of the chains on first and second down and not put ourselves in that predicament, because when it's third-and-whatever, now we've got to find a way to make a play."

But frequently they do, and now the Chiefs are confident they can convert in those situations all the time.

"As long as you're out there on the field and you have Pat Mahomes on your side, you've got a chance," Kelce said. "That's the key right there."