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The Dixon Five: making up for Kareem, keeping focus, and Mr. Kelce

Five hot takes from the Chiefs win over the Raiders on Sunday

The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Oakland Raiders 40-33 on Sunday, extending their record to 10-2 and maintaining their lead on the rest of the AFC. Here are five hot takes from the game:

1. Making up for Kareem

Kansas City Chiefs v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I know when the thunderbolt of Kareem Hunt’s release hit us on Friday afternoon, a lot of Chiefs fans immediately thought this would change the calculus of the game against the Raiders — if not the Chiefs’ chances of winning a Super Bowl in 2018.

I wasn’t one of them. I never did think that the Chiefs rushing attack was going to be a key factor in this game. Instead — even when I thought Hunt would be playing against the Raiders — I figured the Chiefs would prefer to attack the Raiders defense where it is weakest: against the pass.

But as it turned out, the Chiefs passed on about 56% of their snaps on Sunday. Only twice this season — in Week 1 and Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers — did they pass on a smaller percentage of their plays.

And the Chiefs gained more yards on the ground — 174 — than any game this season except against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Does that mean I was wrong? It might. Or it might not.

Through the first three quarters, the Chiefs were leading 33-16. Up to that point, they had passed on 61% of their offensive snaps. In the fourth quarter, they passed on just 41%. So you could argue that the strategy that put the Raiders away depended more heavily on the pass.

Further, a big chunk of the rushing yardage came from two outliers — a Patrick Mahomes scramble that gained 28 yards, along with a 33-yard end-around from Tyreek Hill.

Spencer Ware’s rushing numbers actually weren’t very good on Sunday. He had just 47 yards on 14 carries — just 3.4 yards per attempt. Those aren’t impressive numbers. It would be pretty easy to look at them and say, “Oh, boy! We’re in trouble!

But it might be more instructive to compare what the Chiefs have done this season with Hunt and Ware together with what Ware and Damien Williams did together against Oakland. When you look at it that way, Hunt and Ware combined for 4.7 yards a carry through 11 games. Ware and Williams combined for 5.0 against the Raiders.

This is not to say that Kareem Hunt is easily replaceable. He just... isn’t. He is a special player. If nothing else, he brought another dimension to the Chiefs with his ability to make yards after catch as a receiver — something we really didn’t see from either Ware or Williams against Oakland. And this is also just one game to compare against 11. Next week against the Baltimore Ravens could easily be much different — and very likely will be.

Putting aside the off-the-field issues — boy, it wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that? — we’d surely agree that we’d rather see Hunt on the team instead of on the street. But rightly or wrongly, that ship has sailed. The Chiefs will just have to figure out a way to adjust to his absence. On Sunday, they managed to do it. We’ll just have to see how — and how well — they can do it going forward.

2. Keeping the focus

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

The other thing Chiefs fans started worrying about on Friday afternoon was whether Hunt’s release would upset the apple cart — that is, whether the team would suddenly implode because Hunt had been released.

Honestly, that wasn’t an unreasonable thing to worry about. I worried about it a little bit, too — but I took comfort from the lessons of the 2015 season. That was the one where the Chiefs started 1-5, and had been written off by all but its most ardent fans — and also the season where Jamaal Charles tore his ACL in the Week 5 game against the Chicago Bears.

In those days, Charles accounted for about one-third of the Chiefs’ offensive output. It was fair for fans to think that the Chiefs season was finished when Charles was carted off to the locker room — especially when the Chiefs lost the following week’s game, too.

But the Chiefs won 10 straight to finish the season, and won their first playoff game since 1994. Part of it, of course, was that the Chiefs’ schedule happened to be much easier in the second half of the season than it was in the first half.

But it was also because Andy Reid knows how to keep his players focused on the task at hand: winning the next game on the schedule. The players all talked about it at the time, and they still talk about it today: Reid is a man who genuinely cares about his players, and gives them the respect they deserve. That respect is returned. Such a coach is well-suited to lead a team through adversity.

We can certainly find fault with some of the things that happened on the field against the Raiders. The game was much closer than many expected. The defense — as usual — gave up a lot of yards. Typically dependable players dropped passes. The Chiefs fumbled away the ball on their opening play from scrimmage.

But none of that held them back. As Reid would put it, they kept battling — and won the game anyway.

That’s not the kind of thing you see from a team that’s imploding.

3. Mahomes is the difference-maker

Kansas City Chiefs v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I’m sure I’m not the only person watching Sunday’s game who started feeling a desperate sense of unease when the Raiders — after trailing by 16 at the end of the third quarter — pulled to within three points of the Chiefs with just seven minutes remaining in the game.

When they got the ball back, the Chiefs not only had to score a touchdown, but they also had to do it without leaving the Raiders enough time to put two scores on the board. The Chiefs got some help when the Raiders committed two penalties, but hurt themselves when Mitch Morse was called for holding. It helped the Chiefs when Mahomes managed to gain eight yards when he had to scramble from the pocket, and also when he gained nine more on a designed run.

Any of those things could easily have happened when Alex Smith was the Chiefs quarterback. But there’s one thing that probably wouldn’t have happened with Smith under center: the third-and-five play from the Raiders 29-yard line. Mahomes was chased out of the pocket, and had to improvise — ultimately hitting Travis Kelce with a 25-yard pass that broke the Raiders’ back.

I love Alex Smith. But he wouldn’t have made that play.

So if you wish, go ahead and worry about Bob Sutton’s defense giving up all those yards. Complain about the prevent defense that allows subpar offenses to stay in the game during the fourth quarter. Be concerned that without Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs will end up squandering this splendid season.

Anything could happen in the remaining games; it’s not a sure thing that the Chiefs will make it all the way to Atlanta and win it all. But the Chiefs have now proved they are no longer a team that can’t take care of business against a bad team, or can’t be expected to win against a good team.

Why? Because Pat’s got this.

4. Mr. Kelce

Kansas City Chiefs v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

On Sunday — with 168 yards on a dozen catches, and two touchdowns to boot — Travis Kelce surpassed 1000 receiving yards on the season. Kelce has now been the Chiefs’ leading receiver in seven of the Chiefs’ 12 games this season. He is easily having the best season of his career.

Tyreek Hill — whose blazing speed is sure to get anyone’s attention — still leads the team in receiving yards, and gets most of the press ink. But Kelce just keeps keeping on — making the tough catches when it counts the most, and fighting for the extra yards that make the difference.

Kelce was the guilty party on the fumble on the opening play of the game, but I’m long past worrying about that kind of thing with the sixth-year tight end. Nowadays he only fumbles the same way other great players sometimes fumble — when another player finds an opportunity to strip the ball. He no longer loses his cool on the field. He’s finally matured into the player the Chiefs hoped they were getting.

Kelce is now on pace to have 1400 yards (or more) this season. Only two have ever had more than 1300.

Rob who?

5. The opportunistic defense

Kansas City Chiefs v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

We keep having this conversation about the Chiefs defense — the one that routinely gives up huge numbers of yards against offenses that (sometimes) aren’t very good, and gives away rushing yards like it’s Christmas every day from September through New Year’s Day.

And yet... over the matter of six points in two games, the Chiefs would be 12-0.

I admit it: I’m a hard sell. I’m old enough to have seen a lot of things, and I’m hard to convince that historical trends can change appreciably. It’s always been true that strong — even elite — offenses have trouble surviving in the postseason without at least an average defense.

And yet... against the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago, the Rams gave up 546 yards — and won the game. But it’s reasonable to say they would have lost the game by at least two touchdowns without big, opportunistic plays by their defense.

It’s always been true that winning the turnover battle in a given game vastly improves a team’s chance to win it; since 1940, teams with a turnover margin of one or more have won over 75% of their games. But it’s possible that rule changes favoring the offense in the last couple of decades may have had enough cumulative effect to turn things in a new direction.

What if the formula for a championship is now a strong offense coupled with a defense that can allow lots of yards, but can still generate enough turnovers and other big plays to turn the tide of games?

By accident or design, the Chiefs certainly fit that bill — as they demonstrated again on Sunday. It’s not hard to argue that without the four fumbles the Chiefs forced, they might have left Oakland with a loss.

It will take a lot more than the Chiefs (or another team like them) winning a championship to convince me this is a long-term trend. But if what’s going on is enough to make an old guy like me even consider the possibility that a change is underfoot, something must be going on.

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