The Kansas City Chiefs started slow, finished slower, but still held on to defeat the Denver Broncos 30-23 on Sunday afternoon, completing a season sweep of their division rivals and advancing to 7-1 at the halfway mark of their season.
Here are five hot takes from the victory:
1. Division games are different.
It’s pretty easy to look at Andy Reid’s record against the AFC West over the last few years and conclude that Reid owns this division — and at the top level, he does. He’s now won 19 of his last 20 regular-season games against AFC West opponents. Seven straight against the Broncos. Nine straight against the Los Angeles Chargers. Six of the last seven against the Oakland Raiders.
But while familiarity breeds contempt — are there any teams Chiefs fans hate more than these three teams? — it also breeds competition. It’s a lot easier to game plan against a team you play a couple of times a year. Aside from the reps — an obvious factor — there’s another one: you can learn a lot more by playing a team than simply watching them on film.
For an offensive chessmaster like Reid, eventually, that gives him the advantage. Indeed, through his first two seasons with the Chiefs, Reid was 5-7 against the AFC West. Since then, he’s 19-2.
But even during those recent years, the AFC West games haven’t been cakewalks. Ten of them — almost half — were decided by a single score or less, and two of them went into overtime.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but all of this is why — regardless of the location, records or stats involved — I almost never predict a blowout in a division game. And there are three of those left on the 2018 schedule. Assume nothing.
If you’ve been waiting for Sammy Watkins’ big breakout, Sunday’s game might have been it. He had eight catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the game. That’s 453 yards and three touchdowns on 34 receptions so far this season.
Eight games in, it doesn’t take complicated math to see that Watkins could end up with a season on par with his productive seasons in Buffalo; for the season, he could easily land somewhere near 1,000 yards, with catches somewhere in the high sixties. On a team where Watkins is third in receiving yards, receptions and targets, that’s saying something!
Watkins is being paid a lot of money to be the third wide receiver, and the argument that this money might have been better spent on defense is indeed compelling. But that said, Watkins’ mere presence elevates the rest of the receivers; he’s one more weapon for which defenses must account. And regardless of how you feel about his paycheck, you have to love the way Watkins plays. He gets himself open, and once he has the ball, he’s a fearsome, hard-nosed runner who can get yards after catch.
So it’s OK that we argue about the team’s priorities with regard to Watkins’ paycheck. But let’s not act like he isn’t a good player who isn’t helping this offense. He got paid because there are a lot of teams that would have paid a lot of money for what Watkins could have brought to their tables. And he’s delivering that to the Chiefs.
3. The rushing quandary
On Sunday, the Chiefs rushed for only 49 yards on 18 carries. Meanwhile, the Broncos rushed for 189 yards on 30 attempts. That’s 2.7 yards per attempt to 6.3.
That’s not going to do it, my friends.
Everybody is convinced that in the NFL, the running game is dead — and there’s no doubt that in the 2018 season, the passing game is up significantly.
NFL Offense through Week 7, 2017-2018
Those are some amazing numbers. But none of this changes the fact that in a given game, being able to run the ball — and stop the run — can be very important.
Last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Chiefs were able to shut them down by rushing the ball late in the game, eating up the clock until there simply wasn’t enough time for the Bengals to overcome the Chiefs lead. Yet on Sunday, the Chiefs couldn’t even get a first down on their last three drives.
While the Chiefs defense was able to make some opportune plays late in the game to keep the Broncos down, with an ability to run the ball at will, the Chiefs could have — and should have — made the outcome of this game a foregone conclusion early in the fourth quarter, rather than on the game’s final play.
What they did on Sunday was enough to beat the Broncos. But it might not be enough against better teams. In the hours immediately after the game, I can’t identify the precise problem on either side of the ball; I’m certain that as the week progresses, we’ll begin to have some potential answers.
But the Chiefs are going to have to figure it out.
4. A step forward, and half a step back
It would have been nice for the Chiefs defense to continue the performance they had against the Bengals in Week 7. Five sacks of Case Keenum — one of them forcing a turnover — and Kendall Fuller’s interception certainly represented key defensive plays that helped put this game in the win column for the Chiefs.
However, the 411 yards of offense the Broncos put up — while better than most games this season — still isn’t an acceptable number.
But I’d really rather not focus on that. Instead, I’d like to focus on something the defense is continuing to do well: render opposing quarterbacks inefficient. Before the season began, I pointed out that in three of the last five seasons, the Chiefs defense held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating below 80. If your own quarterback can consistently perform 10-20 points better than your opponent, it’s a pretty good formula for success.
In Alex Smith, the Chiefs had such a quarterback — especially in 2017. Obviously, Patrick Mahomes is performing at a significantly higher level than Smith, which gives the defense some leeway in this area.
Even so, going into Week 8 — despite the problems we’ve seen on defense — the Chiefs have held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 88.8 in 2018, which is good for eighth in the league. Since the Chiefs have a team passer rating of 114.0 — third in the league — it helps explain how a team with a few truly awful defensive statistics could be 7-1 halfway through the season.
So while we’d all like to see the Chiefs defense do better, it’s not as if the team’s success to this point has been a fluke.
5. Mahomes keeps knocking ‘em down
Mahomes needed only three passing touchdowns on Sunday to pass a list of all-time great quarterbacks who had thrown astounding numbers of touchdowns in the first eight weeks of a season.
Three touchdowns also would have kept him ahead of the blistering pace established by Kurt Warner at the beginning of his NFL career.
But on Sunday, Mahomes threw four.
And also threw for 300 yards for the seventh consecutive week, which tied Peyton Manning’s modern-era streak that began in the 2012 season, but ended in the 2013 season. Drew Brees has had two streaks of nine games, but neither of those took place in a single season.
But only one player has ever had a streak of seven or more 300-yard games in a single season. Andrew Luck had such a streak in 2014. It went for eight games.
With one more next Sunday, Mahomes will tie Luck. With one more after that, he’ll be all alone.
This young man — I just can’t call him “kid” anymore — is amazing.