KANSAS CITY CHIEFS tight end Travis Kelce's route on third-and-3 in the third quarter of a Week 3 matchup against the Chicago Bears was supposed to take him to the back-right corner of the end zone, but he saw the defense leaving the middle uncovered.
So Kelce stopped there instead. That's when quarterback Patrick Mahomes spotted him and got Kelce the ball for an easy, 3-yard touchdown.
With thousands of throws and countless hours in the video room between them, Mahomes and Kelce made the play work even though it wasn't as the Chiefs designed it.
"You're talking about two guys that have the instincts that not many people have," Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. "There's a balance, because sometimes when you're watching tape with rookies or guys that come in, [they ask], 'Why did Kelce do that or do this?' Well, he has an innate ability to recognize defenses. It's on another level. What's crazier is the fact that Pat knows it, too.
"Sometimes we don't even practice it. They just do it. ... There's some stuff in there, DNA-wise, between those two guys, that a lot of people don't have. They have that connection."
The connection started in 2018 when Mahomes became the Chiefs' starter, and it's one of the NFL's all-time greats between a quarterback and tight end. Kelce has 50 touchdown catches from Mahomes, making them the fourth QB-TE duo to reach that mark. They are also fourth for a quarterback and tight end in catches (550) and yards (6,895).
Most of those catches, yards and touchdowns have come from plays that were run just as coach Andy Reid designed them. But not all.
"I'm trying my hardest to just run this thing like Coach Reid dials it up," Kelce said. "You want to get creative, but at the right time. ... Coach Reid does a great job of putting a lot of work into making these plays make sense for the quarterbacks, so you don't want to get off script too much.
"All that creative stuff is fun. But for the most part, I would say about 99% of the time, I'm doing what Coach wants me to do."
Things don't always go so well when the two players improvise. Mahomes nearly threw an interception against the New York Jets in Week 4 when Kelce stopped a route in the middle of the field and Mahomes threw it to the spot Kelce was headed.
But when it does work, it can deliver big results. In the 2021 AFC divisional round against the Buffalo Bills, Kelce told Mahomes he would alter his route to run up a seam in the pass coverage on the Chiefs' final offensive play of the fourth quarter as they were scrambling to get into field goal range.
Kelce's 25-yard catch set up the field goal that sent the game into overtime. The Chiefs went on to the Super Bowl.
"He does a great job of whenever he's open, he doesn't get himself covered," Mahomes said. "Coach Reid gives them the freedom [that] if you're open, stay there and don't get yourself covered and run the route like we've run it in practice a thousand times. [Kelce] does a great job of that.
"It's something that you can't take for granted. It's almost like he's playing Madden, like he can read the coverage and stop in the windows and be open and be on the same page as me at all times."
Over a stretch of three games this season, Mahomes completed 28 straight passes to Kelce. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the odds of all 28 passes being completed based on completion probability was 1 in 3,000.
Statistics like that are why Nagy said he has this advice for young receivers who come to the Chiefs wanting a connection with Mahomes like the one Kelce has: It's going to take a long time, and in the meantime, don't do what Kelce does.
YOUNG RECEIVERS AREN'T the only ones who marvel at how Mahomes and Kelce connect. Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley has watched his defense get beat many times by the two players.
In five games against the Chargers with Staley as their head coach, Kelce has 40 catches, 640 yards and six touchdowns.
"He does everything at such a premium level," Staley said. "I think the thing that is tough is just the chemistry that he and Patrick have. No matter what the coverage is -- man, zone, pattern-match zone -- it doesn't matter. He just has an outstanding feel of how to attack and beat leverage. When you have that type of feel in the passing game, he can get open when the play isn't necessarily designed to go that way.
"Then he and Pat just have that eye contact, that chemistry of feeling space and areas and going to it. The other thing that Travis does such a good job of is running with the football after the catch. He's one of the top tight ends to ever play. A lot of respect for him."
Mahomes said even backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, in his 12th NFL season but first with the Chiefs, asked him after the touchdown against the Bears why Mahomes goes off script with Kelce so frequently with desired results.
In fact, Mahomes and Kelce have connected for more yards (5,598) and touchdowns (40) than any quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL since 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs have 36 TDs, as do Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen. Cousins and Justin Jefferson have the second-most yards in that span (5,348).
"Travis sees defenses like a quarterback, and he has that feel that we see and he can see it as the play is developing," Gabbert said. "So it's something that a lot of people on our team try and emulate, but you really can't duplicate because of who he is as a player and the relationship that he has with Pat throughout the game. ... They make it almost seem like basketball, and as a quarterback, it's very friendly that he's always working to get open to give us an open throw.
"I'm fortunate to be here now to really see it on a firsthand basis, because in [the past] you watch them on film, but you really didn't know what was going on to know the reasons behind it."
KELCE JOINED THE Chiefs in 2013, five years before Mahomes became the starter. A quarterback for a time in college at Cincinnati, Kelce had a similar working relationship with Alex Smith, Mahomes' predecessor at quarterback.
It didn't take long for Mahomes and Kelce to develop what they have now.
"It just took a couple years of just working with him," Mahomes said. "Not only did I get a feel for how he runs routes, but he got a feel for how I was seeing stuff, so just that combination of stuff I think developed that connection where we can kind of go off the radar screen and kind of develop some stuff that isn't necessarily called."
Kelce was a big booster of Smith and has said he was not thrilled initially when the Chiefs traded him to Washington to clear room for Mahomes.
But his career has blossomed since Mahomes took over. The five best statistical seasons of Kelce's career have come with Mahomes at quarterback, and he is on pace for a sixth this season.
"Pat has the instinctual ability to do things that I've never seen anybody else do on the football field," Kelce said. "That's where he separates himself and he kind of shows his own personality in that regard. In terms of situational football, understanding of the rules of the game, time management, all those things that coach Reid is the guru of, Pat is as well. [Their connection is a result of] being in the same meetings, understanding how coach Reid does things and in training camps, having countless amount of time to be able to just go over all those things."
The result is plays like the touchdown against the Bears. Kelce saw it, Mahomes saw it, and they trusted it would work out well, as it has for them many other times.
"I just kind of understand what he's going to do, some stuff that he's not really supposed to do," Mahomes said. "There are times in practice where we were thinking about making a call for that when we get that look for him to run that route.
"I remember I was telling the coaches, 'I don't know why we need a call. He's going to do it anyway.' So of course he does it, and it's a touchdown."