In an otherwise empty Kansas City Chiefs locker room, long after they had rallied to beat the Ravens in overtime and clinch a playoff berth, chairman Clark Hunt was asked what makes this year's team different than all those that suffered postseason letdowns.
His answer was refreshingly simple and candid: Patrick Mahomes.
"I think he's shown even more than what we thought he'd be during the draft process," Hunt said with a hint of a smile. "In so many ways he's exceeded our expectations, and when you have a guy like Patrick under center, you always have a chance to win games."
Even when things aren't going perfectly.
The Chiefs had watched offensive lineman Cam Erving leave with a knee injury, running back Spencer Ware hurt both his shoulder and hamstring, and wide receiver Tyreek Hill hurt his wrist and heel but remain in the game. Mahomes had thrown an interception into heavy coverage, special teams had made a rare mistake that allowed Baltimore to take a late lead, and the game was hanging in the balance.
Mahomes responded with the kind of magic Chiefs fans already have come to expect.
First there was the audacious, cross-body throw some 40 yards downfield to convert on fourth-and-9 and keep the Chiefs alive. Then there was the savvy dump-off pass on another fourth-down play to backup running back Damien Williams that forged a 24-24 tie with 53 seconds left in regulation.
After winning the coin toss in overtime, Mahomes deftly led the Chiefs downfield for a go-ahead field goal, which wound up being the winner when the Kansas City defense stopped the Ravens on downs.
"This game here, this was a big test for him," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "The rest of the season will be a big test for him, too. But this was a big test to this point, and I like the way he handled it."
Mahomes wound up throwing for 377 yards and two touchdowns against the NFL's top-ranked defense, and his daring schoolyard plays helped the Chiefs (11-2) inch closer to a third straight AFC West title.
"You see it on film, but the things that he did, it's just hard to practice that," Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "We work on drills when the quarterback is out of the pocket and you keep your eyes on your man. That big fourth-and-long that they had, it was all on the right side of the field and then he threw it up and made a great play. At the end of the day, they made more plays than we did."
Yes, the Chiefs' record-setting quarterback didn't do it alone. Hill made big catches in overtime, Travis Kelce had another monster game, and Justin Houston and the Chiefs' defense made a series of crucial stops in overtime to help KC escape with a playoff-like victory over the Ravens.
Now, they can clinch the division title and at least a first-round bye with a victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in another high-profile showdown Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
Mahomes also can continue to scribble his name in the record books.
He's already set a franchise record with 43 touchdown passes, three behind Peyton Manning's record for most during the first 13 games of a season. He needs 292 yards passing to break Trent Green's franchise mark of 4,591 in a single season, and Manning's NFL record of 5,477 yards isn't out of reach.
"He's a great quarterback," Chiefs wide receiver Demarcus Robinson said. "I think he always plays good. He's got people who are 250, 260 (pounds) rushing him — he's the quarterback, he's got a tough job. So we just try to do everything we can to make it easy for him."
Mahomes is the first to point out that nothing he does happens in a vacuum. He readily deflects praise to his wide receivers and offensive line, along with Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, even as the owner of the franchise heaped it on him.
"He has emerged as one of the key leaders of the team, which is very hard for a 23-year-old player in his first year as a starter," Hunt said. "But the guys really gravitate to him. I think it says a lot about his character. ... I don't run into anybody either here in Kansas City or somewhere else who doesn't say, 'Wow, that young man seems like he's really special.'"
NOTES: Chiefs president Mark Donovan said the team expects to return to Missouri Western for camp next year, even though no contract has been signed. "We're fully expecting to be back there," he said. ... Reid said Monday that SS Eric Berry could play against the Chargers. "We will just see how it goes these next couple of days," he said, "but there's a chance."