Everyone knew the Chiefs would have a serious playoff shot with Alex Smith quarterbacking the team. But few could have predicted that they would have as easy a path to the Super Bowl as they did — or that Smith would be the team’s quarterback. And yet they went 8-0 against teams with an overall record above .500 this postseason, missing only a 9-7 Texans team.

What started the run was Mahomes’ whirlwind rookie season, which culminated in his masterful QB1 performance in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots.

“That play in our back pocket” is how Steelers defensive tackle Daniel McCullers described what was happening on that Kansas City touchdown drive that kicked off the series. “(Sebastian) Janikowski got late on that kickoff and gave Patrick the field position, and it just gave them an advantage and they took advantage of it.”

Mahomes almost doubled as the drive’s head coach as the Chiefs lined up in the shotgun to the right. He was already changing the plays as the snap was taken.

“Alex (Smith) had a little time to talk to him and see what he was thinking about,” CBS analyst Rich Gannon said. “(Mahomes) was on the second play from the shotgun running all seven of those plays. That’s just a lot of responsibility, but I also think he felt that responsibility and he handled it.”

Linebacker Dee Ford said Mahomes was relaying the plays to the wide receivers.

“Patrick Mahomes puts his finger to the right, the right finger to the left, (and) talks to the receivers: ‘If they set off something, if they use one of these types of signs, hey, get it to me,’” Ford said. “If it’s a guy hitting it down the seam, we’re not even thinking about it. We’re running the route.”

Mahomes didn’t just keep his teammates happy. He was on his own offense, and his path to the third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history would end in New Orleans.

“I always felt like he belonged,” Gannon said. “To see the way he developed as a leader of the offense, to see the way he’s taken control of the team, he is the one that makes all the plays.”