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New Orleans Saints face biggest challenge yet in Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

'To be that young and to be as talented as he is, is rare'

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Already this season, the New Orleans Saints in five games have faced three quarterbacks who eventually will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, players who collectively have won seven Super Bowls, been named Super Bowl MVP five times and have collected six NFL MVP awards.

But neither Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers or Atlanta's Matt Ryan – the Saints were 4-1 against them – is Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes II.

Mahomes and the Chiefs (12-1) will face the Saints (10-3) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Mahomes, too, is a Super Bowl winner and MVP (LIV), and league MVP (2018). But the four-year veteran also is a next-level talent whom the Saints admittedly eyed in the 2017 draft. He was selected 10th overall in the first round, one spot ahead of New Orleans' choice.

"I don't know who was interested, but I felt like as high as we could get, we probably needed to get, with what we had there to move," Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said.

"I know we took a trip down (to Lubbock, Texas) and had a workout down there, a private workout," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "We were extremely impressed. I call it the 'Magic Week,' where we went from there to Tennessee, saw (running back Alvin) Kamara, then on to the next stop, (cornerback Marshon) Lattimore.

"(Mahomes) had all those things that you look for. He was in a hurried offense a little bit and the protection wasn't great, but man, you saw him survive rushes, you saw him throw without his feet set. You saw him do a lot of things that you don't get to see sometimes from a college player."

Both teams were draft-night winners; Lattimore, the 11th pick, is a two-time Pro Bowler, was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in '17 and has been a foundational piece in three consecutive NFC South Division titles. The Saints are one victory, or a Tampa Bay loss, from winning their fourth straight division title.

Mahomes has risen to the top of the league due to arm strength, instincts and improvisational skills that are rare. In 2018, his first season as starter, he passed for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. This season, the MVP candidate has 4,208 passing yards and 33 touchdowns, with five interceptions, and the Chiefs currently are the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC.

"He does a good job processing quickly the information, the protections," Payton said. "He does a good job evaluating the rush lanes instinctively – climb and escape, outside and escape, climb and throw. But his arm strength, his awareness and then his ability to process and throw it are very rare.

"The thing he does is he moves, and then is able to find a better throw. That's the one thing when you watch the tape – his ability to climb, to push, adjust a little bit. The pocket's always kind of fluctuating and he seems to have a great feel for that, to the right or to the left, and is able to extend plays, which obviously makes it challenging with those receivers."

Likely, the closest approximation to Mahomes is Rodgers, the one of the three aforementioned quarterbacks to own a victory over the Saints this season, 37-30 on Sept. 27 in the Superdome.

Rodgers, too, is able to fit throws into tight windows and manipulate amid a chaotic pocket. He completed 21 of 32 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions, against New Orleans. Brady and Ryan, in four games, combined to complete 83 of 150 passes (55.3 percent) for 953 yards and three touchdowns, with seven interceptions, and were sacked 17 times.

"Yeah, (Mahomes has) got a lot of pocket awareness and knows how to extend plays," Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. "Very similar to Aaron Rodgers, who knows how to extend plays and has been doing that for a long time in his career.

"He has the ability to roll out, left and right, outside the pocket, he does a good job of stepping up and through the pocket and then extending outside. It presents a lot of challenges for the defense for sure."

When the conventional is unavailable, Mahomes will go unconventional; he switched the ball from his right to his left hand and tossed a left-handed completion, during a game. He'll shovel pass, underhand toss, lob and laser in the name of stacking completions.

It's all working for the Chiefs, who lead the league with 317.5 passing yards per game (374.3 in the last three) and rank second at 31 points per game.

Reid, who saw his team move up in the draft – the Chiefs traded the No. 27 overall pick, a third-round pick and their 2018 first-round pick to Buffalo to move up to No. 10 – said Mahomes possesses a rare combination of attributes.

"To be that young and to be as talented as he is, is rare," Reid said. "Even at this level – which, any of these guys that are playing at this level are rare to start with since there's only 32 of them (starting quarterbacks). But for him to have excelled the way he has is a real tribute to the kid, and the genes that his parents gave him, too, is part of it, and how hard he works.

"For young people to watch, you watch he and (Saints quarterbacks) Drew (Brees) and Taysom (Hill) practice and you're watching guys that spend time doing what they do and they're just not great because of that. They're great because they work at it. That's what Patrick is and then on top of that, he's a good leader."

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