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We’ve all seen the movie 1,000 times. The young gunslinger swaggers into town to face the grizzled sheriff. Or some smart aleck challenges the drill sergeant to a fight in basic training. Or some punk who just acquired superpowers thinks he can take down Batman.
Patrick Mahomes is just the latest in a long line of young hotshots hoping to prove himself by beating the Patriots. He brings gobs of talent to the Week 6 prime-time showdown.
But wisdom, experience and tactics beat raw talent every time in the movies. And with its disguised coverages, unpredictable blitzes and precise execution, Bill Belichick‘s defense runs young guns out of town with their tails tucked every time, too.
Not so fast.
Look at the history, and it tells you there is some hope for Mahomes on Sunday night after all. He isn’t automatically doomed to a multiple-turnover meltdown against Belichick’s genius.
Many budding phenoms have received rude awakenings from the Patriots, but not all of them.
Mahomes needs some help from his teammates, along with a break or two. And he better be the real deal as a franchise quarterback, not just another flavor of the month for Belichick’s defenders to feast upon.
To better understand what Mahomes is up against, let’s travel back through history to see how other hot young quarterbacks have fared in their first starts against the Patriots. We’ll skip the likes of Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and J.P. Losman—highly drafted quarterbacks destined to struggle against the Patriots—and focus on passers who had some success entering their first showdown against the Patriots.
DeShaun Watson, 2017
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In the second start of his career, Watson learned what often happens when a young quarterback plays well against the Patriots: It still isn’t good enough.
Watson threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns last September, but his second-quarter interception led to one of Tom Brady‘s five touchdowns, and the Patriots outlasted the Texans in a back-and-forth 36-33 victory.
Watson had even more rising-star hype when he faced the Patriots in the season opener this year. But the Patriots turned an early Watson fumble into a touchdown and then forced the second-year quarterback to both scramble and settle for field goals too often, establishing a trend for the 2018 Texans offense.
As we’ll see throughout, Belichick doesn’t embarrass every young quarterback. But he forces many of them to play down to their worst habits.
Jared Goff, 2016
Goff was hardly a Mahomes-level sensation when he faced the Patriots in his third NFL start. But he was a No. 1 overall pick coming off a three-touchdown game against the Saints when the Patriots baffled him into two interceptions, four sacks and a long afternoon of three-and-outs in a 26-10 romp.
After the game, Goff explained the dilemma young quarterbacks face against the Patriots: “It’s just the way they mix everything up. They don’t really do the same thing twice often. … They were able to confuse us up front and do some good things.”
Goff’s teammates said the Rams offense came to the line early that game so the rookie could read the Patriots defense. Belichick countered by ordering his defense to use the extra time to read the offense and then shift into a new look before Goff could react.
Andy Reid has won a few chess matches against Belichick, so don’t expect him to be as easily fooled as Jeff Fisher, who was fired one week after the Patriots loss. But this example illustrates how Belichick has ways of making an opposing coach outsmart himself.
Russell Wilson, 2012
Wilson’s rookie performance against the Patriots makes perfect sense in hindsight, but it was a shocker at the time. He threw three touchdowns, including two in the final 10 minutes, to turn a 23-10 Patriots fourth-quarter lead into a 24-23 upset.
Remember, Wilson was a mid-round rookie and surprise starter at the time, not one the NFL’s reigning comeback engineers.
John Froschauer/Associated Press
Two Legion of Boom interceptions helped the comeback effort. As we’ll see later, the best defense a rookie quarterback can have against the Patriots is in fact a good defense.
Andrew Luck, 2012
Luck may have been the most Mahomes-like quarterback ever to face the Patriots early in his career: a young sensation riding a four-game winning streak.
Luck’s Colts hung with the Patriots early, building a 14-7 lead. Then came a Patriots pick-six, a Luck fumble and another Patriots pick-six. Luck finished with four turnovers in a 59-24 laugher.
“We’ve got a lot of rookies out there, so every week is a learning experience,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said after the game. “It was a bad learning experience.”
Colin Kaepernick, 2012
Here’s one you may have forgotten: Kaepernick threw four touchdown passes and helped the 49ers beat the Patriots, 41-34, just a few games after he replaced Alex Smith in 2012.
It was hardly a perfect game. Kaepernick had trouble fielding snaps during the Sunday night game, fumbling four times. He also threw an interception. But four touchdown passes and a win in Foxborough are four touchdown passes and a win in Foxborough.
Like Wilson did earlier in the 2012 season, Kaepernick got plenty of help from his defense, which forced three turnovers while building a 31-3 lead that not even Brady could overcome.
Tim Tebow, 2011
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The Patriots threw ice water on Tebowmania twice in the span of one month.
In mid-December, they beat Tebow’s Broncos 41-23 at the zenith of the hysteria, holding him to only 11-of-22 passing for 194 yards. They then sacked Tebow five times and held him to 9-of-26 passing and only 13 rushing yards in a 45-10 playoff massacre that shattered the Tebow illusion for all but the most faithful (or least attentive) fans.
The only way Tebow belongs in the same conversation as Mahomes is if he signed with the Chiefs as a running back or tight end. (Come to think of it, that would be awesome.) But the Tebow experience proves that no team in any sport is less impressed by hype than Belichick’s Patriots.
Mark Sanchez, 2009
Don’t pretend to have forgotten that Sanchez was “The Sanchize” as a rookie.
Sanchez led the Jets to victory over the Patriots in his second career start, although “led” may be too strong of a word. He threw for 163 yards and one touchdown in a 16-9 victory that had more to do with Darrelle Revis and Rob Ryan than the Jets offense.
Two months later, the Patriots intercepted Sanchez four times in the rematch.
The Jets and Patriots parried as genuine rivals for another full season until things began veering toward the butt fumble. Sanchez had good games and awful ones, but the Patriots did not humble him in his debut or at any time early in his career.
Vince Young, 2006
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Comparing Mahomes to Young may sound like sacrilege now. But Young was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2006, and his Titans were on a six-game winning streak when they faced the Patriots on New Year’s Eve day with a wild-card berth on the line.
Young threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and endured five sacks, completing only 15 of 36 passes in a 40-23 Patriots win. Belichick dunked on the Titans in true Belichick style by sending 43-year old Vinny Testaverde out to throw the final touchdown pass.
Mahomes appears to have a much more expansive skill set than the toolsy-but-erratic Young. But he must be ready for Belichick to take away what he does best.
Ben Roethlisberger, 2004
Roethlisberger knocked off the then-undefeated Patriots as a rookie in 2004, throwing two first-quarter touchdowns and completing 18 of 24 passes in a 34-20 rout.
The young Roethlisberger benefited from a strip-sack and a pick-six by the Steelers defense in the first quarter, and he focused on getting the ball to Plaxico Burress when Ty Law left the game with an injury. It was another example of a young quarterback getting a boost from his defense—and a lucky break—when he needed it most.
After the victory, Roethlisberger admitted he had his hands full with the Patriots defense: “It definitely was difficult. Their defense is all over the place. They bring guys in from all over the field.”
Carson Palmer, 2004
Palmer was the first pick in the 2003 draft and threw seven touchdowns in a pair of victories before facing the Patriots for the first time late in his rookie season.
Palmer was an impressive 18-of-24 with two touchdowns, but an early pick-six gave the Patriots a lead for good. Palmer sprained an ankle late in the third quarter of what became a 35-28 Patriots win, ending his season.
Injury aside, Palmer discovered that one mistake can kill you, and pretty good isn’t good enough, as Luck and Watson would later learn.
Drew Brees, 2002
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Brees was 10-of-18 for 104 yards and a touchdown in a 21-14 win over the Patriots in the fourth start of his career. If those stats look unimpressive, it’s because LaDainian Tomlinson ran 27 times for 217 yards and two touchdowns in the Chargers‘ victory.
Marty Scottenheimer’s assessment of his own game plan afterward? “I’m going to send the NFL back to the Neanderthal age.”
The old book on the Belichick defense is that you could beat it by running straight into the middle of it. The Chiefs ran the ball effectively in early-season upsets of the Patriots in 2014 and last year. If a dose of ground-and-pound was good enough for the young Brees, it may be the best tactic to help Mahomes.
What about Peyton Manning?
Manning threw three interceptions in a 29-6 loss when he first faced the Patriots. But that was back in 1998, before Belichick arrived.
Manning threw three interceptions in his first meeting with Belichick’s Patriots in 2000, but he was a well-established starter by then, and he threw three touchdowns in a rematch two weeks later. While the Patriots beat Manning’s Colts more often than they lost, the “Belichick has Peyton’s number” story, like the Patriots’ history with Sanchez, is more of a retcon than history.
In fact, Belichick’s reputation as a slayer of young quarterbacks is as much legend as fact. It’s built on the fact that the Patriots are tough on everyone and that a lot young passers like Trent Edwards, Cody Kessler, Brooks Bollinger and Chad Henne have been tossed on the bonfire over the past two decades.
The best young quarterbacks play as well against the Patriots as veteran quarterbacks do. Some—like Brees, Roethlisberger, Kaepernick and Wilson—even found ways to win, with the help of some great defense and coaching.
Look for Mahomes to hold up his side of the bargain on Sunday night. Whether the rest of the Chiefs are up to the challenge of helping him could help to decide the AFC.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.