KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- His first experience in the AFC Championship Game last year taught Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes a few truths about football this deep into the season. The main lesson: to be ready for anything the opponent might throw his way.
Mahomes will take those lessons into this year's AFC title game against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium (3:05 p.m. ET, CBS).
"Last year they caught us a little off guard with the coverages they played at the beginning of the game," Mahomes said of the Chiefs' overtime loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. "We made adjustments and were able to score points later in the game, but you want to make sure that you're just preparing for everything. You know that [the Titans have] a good defense. They do a lot of different things, play a lot of man, play a lot of zone and so you know they're going to throw different coverages out there against you."
The Chiefs were the NFL's highest-scoring team in the 2018 regular season but were shut out in the first half of the championship game when the Patriots blanketed Mahomes' receivers with man-to-man coverage. The Chiefs eventually adjusted and came back to take the lead on the Patriots before losing in overtime.
Falling behind 14-0 at halftime again is something Mahomes and the Chiefs are trying to avoid.
Succeeding against man coverage is an area where Mahomes and the Chiefs have improved since early this season. In the first seven games, Mahomes threw against man coverage 69% of the time, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and had a QBR of 65, a completion rate of 58% and a touchdown rate of 3.6% on those throws.
Since he returned from his knee injury in Week 10, Mahomes has a QBR of 77 against man coverage, a completion rate of 62% and a TD rate of 8.3%. Mahomes threw four touchdown passes in last week's divisional round win over the Houston Texans.
"They played quite a bit of man, almost every snap," coach Andy Reid said of the Texans. "Our guys have battled through it. I think we've gotten better at releases. ... I think we've done a better job coaching it. I'll take responsibility for that. We've spent a lot of time at that. The faults were my problem. ... Changed some things up and got it straightened out."
The Chiefs are now confident against any coverage.
"I feel like nobody in the NFL can guard any of us," wide receiver Tyreek Hill said. "That's no disrespect to [anybody]. That's just the confidence I've got in myself and just the wideouts I've got around me, including the tight ends and the running backs. No DB unit, no secondary unit, no linebackers or any defense can guard any of us. Man-to-man, it's just easy for us to beat. If you just allow us to run through zones, it's even easier."
The early struggles against man-to-man coverage were part of the learning experience for Mahomes in his second season as a starter.
"The second year in the NFL is a tough year for quarterbacks, a tough, tough year," Reid said. "There are some great minds in the National Football League that are coaching the defensive side of the ball. They have a whole year, offseason, to study, and they're going to come back with their absolute best against you and he answered it and he did it through some adversity with injuries or players that weren't playing, whatever it might be.
"He didn't flinch. He kept the same attitude, the same work ethic, and he went after it. He had a major injury that he pushed through where the coaches and the trainers and the doctors all had to back him off."
Mahomes played through three significant injuries this season, though only the dislocated kneecap prevented him from playing in a game. He missed 2½ games in the middle of the season.
The Chiefs had a rash of other offensive injuries as well. Hill missed four games early in the season and the Chiefs were forced to start five different offensive line combinations.
The Chiefs scored 114 fewer points than in 2018 but had their highest-scoring game of the season last week when they tallied 51.
"He's learning how to win when things aren't perfect,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said of Mahomes. "Now he's making plays with his feet in the pocket. He's making a call at the line of scrimmage and giving us an opportunity to pick up pressure from a late-rotating safety.
"Don't get me wrong: You always want to see those games where we can have 400, 500 yards passing and a lot of points. But you have to know how to win when things aren't perfect.”
Mahomes in 2018 threw 50 touchdown passes and for more than 5,000 yards during the regular season, becoming only the second player in NFL history to accomplish the feat. This season, his touchdowns were down to 26 and his yards down to 4,031.
But his interceptions also were down, from 12 last season to five.
"Understanding Coach Reid's game plan and knowing the big plays are going to come," Mahomes said in explanation. "He's going to dial up the plays where you can take the shots. Having the experience of more and more games, I really understand that more now. I obviously want to go for the big shot with all the speed and playmakers we have on the field but just let it come to you and not force it.
"In general I'm more prepared just [because of] the experience I've had this year. I still feel there are times where the defense gets me. But that happens. ... Whenever I get an unscouted look, I'm able to fall back on stuff I've done in my short career and hopefully I'll keep building that memory as I go."