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The Dixon Five: it turns out that defense wins championships

Five hot takes from the Chiefs’ season-ending 37-31 loss to the Patriots

The Kansas City Chiefs ended their 2018 season on Sunday with a 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium.

Here are five hot takes from the game:

1. Young Patrick

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was amazing in 2018 — so much so that we managed to forget that behind his incredible athletic talent, instinctual leadership and absolute command of the game, he’s still a young man.

Through most of the season — right up the game against the Patriots — I’ve been comparing the first games of Mahomes’s NFL career to those of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. On Thursday, I even went as far as to suggest that because Mahomes had exceeded all of Warner’s statistics from 1998-99, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that Mahomes might be named MVP for the season and win the Super Bowl — something that no one has done since Warner.

I forgot something — something that should have been obvious to me.

Warner was 28 when he accomplished those feats in 1999. He had played football professionally before getting his second chance in the NFL — first in the Arena Football League, and later in the short-lived NFL Europe.

Warner had multiple seasons of successful professional experience before he took his first NFL snap — and had the life experience to know that whatever came of his second shot at the NFL, it was all gravy.

Mahomes has had no such luxury. He’s gone straight from college to the NFL, and performed so far beyond expectations that it is mind-boggling. But it was probably unfair to expect him to achieve so much so fast.

The signs were there. In each of the season’s games in which he was under the greatest pressure, Mahomes struggled. He played poorly in the first half against New England in Week 6. and against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11, he threw three interceptions and fumbled twice.

Each time, he settled down performed admirably. It wasn’t so unreasonable to think he would learn how to deal with it before the postseason.

But the same happened on Sunday. Mahomes played poorly to start the game, but after halftime, his play was right up there with his best games of the season. Leading his team from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game at 31-31 with seconds remaining would be difficult for any quarterback, but to do so at his age and experience — and against a tough Patriots defense — was truly amazing.

With each passing game, Mahomes will learn. I’m more convinced than ever that Mahomes will truly be a generational NFL quarterback. So it takes him another year or two before he can consistently play at the highest level — regardless of the circumstances. We can live with that. And if we’ve learned anything about Mahomes, it might be that it will end up taking him less time to do it than we imagine.

2. It turns out defense does can win championships

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

It’s been a truism for a long time: defense win championships. But the prevalence of offensive teams in the NFL during this season gave rise to a theory that the traditional NFL defense — one that was among the top teams at limiting points and yards — might be on its way out. The theory is that as long as you can field a team that can score a lot of points — and get a few stops and turnovers at critical points in a game — you could ride your offense to a championship.

As I pointed out on Thursday, this theory gained less currency towards the end of the season, as teams with strong defenses made late runs into the playoffs. But then all of them were knocked out of the postseason, leaving the four top offenses to score themselves silly until some team won each of the remaining matchups.

Based on what we saw in the two conference championships on Sunday, the new theory isn’t completely disproven. But it’s only hanging on by a thread.

As we saw on Sunday, in an overtime game — something that’s more likely to happen between two evenly-matched teams — defense is critical. If you can’t trust your defense to make a stop in the one chance they have to keep the season moving forward, you’re more likely to fail than succeed. And unless your offense is so unstoppable that no defense can keep it from scoring at will in every quarter of every game — even against a good opponent in the postseason — defense is going to matter.

On Sunday, the Chiefs defense did indeed get some key stops in critical moments. They kept the game from getting out of hand in the first half — the Patriots could easily have led 28-0 before halftime — and kept the Patriots from the end zone enough in the second half to allow the Chiefs offense to work its way back.

But that overtime period was just... brutal. The kind of defense the Chiefs played in 2018 just can’t be relied upon if the Chiefs lose the toss in an overtime period during the postseason. Letting your whole season come down to a coin toss is no way to be successful.

That’s not to say that a defense has to be great in the traditional sense — the Patriots don’t field such a defense, and neither do the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams — but it’s got to be able to get a third down stop when the chips are down. With the whole season on the line in overtime, the Chiefs just couldn’t do it.

But all of that said...

3. Be careful what you wish for

Kansas City Chiefs v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In 2001, as we watched the Chiefs defense under head coach Dick Vermeil and coordinator Greg Robinson take a defensive unit that had been decent — but not great — under head coach Gunther Cunningham and coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer all the way to the bottom of the league rankings, a colleague of mine in the press box remarked that in Robinson’s defense, players were coached to think, while in Cunningham’s defense, players had been coached to kill.

We all laughed, but that comment has stuck with me for ever since.

At the time, it was hard to argue that Robinson’s idea was better. In 2003, Robinson would finally get the defense up to a level something akin to what it had been before he took the reins, but as we know, it wasn’t enough to do the Chiefs any good in the 2003 playoffs.

Ever since January 2014, there has been a drumbeat that has grown louder with each successive season: Fire Bob Sutton! In the coming days and weeks, this will certainly reach a new, even louder crescendo.

And those beating that drum won’t be wrong.

Even when I pointed out at the beginning of the 2018 season that Bob Sutton wasn’t going anywhere, I acknowledged that if the defense continued its downward slide in 2018, it would be time to consider whether Sutton should go.

That time has come.

I cannot predict what is going to happen. Sutton may not last the week. Then again, he might be back next season. I wouldn’t put money either way.

In my mind, it’s not complicated. Through most of the time he has been with Kansas City, Sutton has fielded an effective defense. In fact, you can argue that until the last couple of seasons, it was the defense that was keeping the Chiefs competitive; the offense certainly wasn’t anything to write home about. That by itself would be enough for Sutton to keep his job until things went completely south.

And you can now make a compelling argument that they have.

But there’s another aspect to this that we don’t seem to be considering: Reid and Sutton look at the game the same way. Each week, they go through the same routine — the process, as Reid likes to call it. They grind away on the film, looking for opportunities to exploit, schemes to consider against the upcoming opponent, and plans designed to catch them off guard.

So just for the sake of argument, let’s say that strictly on the basis of results, Andy Reid has had enough, and shows Sutton the door. Do you really think that as his replacement, Reid is going to hire some firebrand that yells and screams at the defense — someone who kicks butt and takes names? Someone who coaches defensive players to kill instead of think?

I don’t think that’s going to happen. That just isn’t Reid’s style.

If Sutton goes away, his replacement is going to be someone who views the game the same way Reid does. Their defense — just like Reid’s offense — will be scheme and preparation-dependent. That’s not to say it can’t — or won’t — be more effective than the defense Sutton has fielded in the last couple of seasons. After all, Sutton’s defense was damned good in his first three seasons in Kansas City; we know the approach can work.

But it’s also true that the defense could be just a player or two away from being very good once again — even with Sutton. What if the main problem is that Brett Veach (and Sutton) simply thought Anthony Hitchens was a better fit for for Sutton’s approach than he turned out to be? It wouldn’t be the first time a GM or coach made such a miscalculation. Maybe with a few tweaks over a whole season — the kinds of things we saw in Week 17 and the divisional round of the playoffs — Sutton can make it work.

So I’m not prepared to say that Sutton will stay or go. The only thing I can clearly see is that if he does go, his replacement — rightly or wrongly — will be a man in much the same mold as Sutton. Maybe a new face with a similar approach will immediately improve the defense — or maybe it won’t.

But if you’re thinking that if Sutton goes away, we’ll have an entirely different kind of defensive coordinator pacing the sidelines in 2018, I think you might be in for a disappointment.

4. It turns out the Patriots don’t suck

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On Saturday, I went out on the Interwebs and dug up a recording of a 25-year-old game: the 1993 AFC Championship between the Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills. As you’ve repeatedly been told in the last week, this was the last time the Chiefs had been to the AFC Championship.

I watched the game live as it happened, but when I was honest with myself, I knew that I didn’t remember it really well. It was a long time ago, and memories can be tricky. So I wanted to have a clearer sense of what it was like. I didn’t watch the whole thing — there wasn’t enough time on Saturday to do that — but I skipped around from one place to another, and saw quite a bit of it.

I was immediately struck by how much the Bills simply dominated the Chiefs that day. The vaunted Chiefs rushing attack couldn’t get anything going. Even with Marcus Allen and one of the greatest offensive lines the Chiefs have ever fielded, they weren’t getting their customary three yards — much less their cloud of dust — against the Bills defensive line. Joe Montana was generally ineffective until he was knocked out of the game in the third quarter. In fairness to Montana, this was often the case. When he played for the Chiefs, I lost track of the number of times he would have a terrible statline through the first half, and finish the game with a dozen straight completions. That day, he just wasn’t in the game long enough to get hot.

I bring this up because as fans, we tend to view everything that happens in a game through the lens of our own team. There’s no help for it. It’s just something we do — especially once some time has gone by.

I am not immune to it. If you had asked me on Friday, I would have said that the Chiefs lost that game because Montana was knocked out of it, rendering the Chiefs offense ineffective. Well, that was true — the Chiefs offense certainly wasn’t any better after Dave Krieg came in — but on that day, Chiefs offense couldn’t get it done even when Montana was on the field. And watching the game 25 years later, it’s easy to see why: the Bills were a damned good football team.

In the early 1990s, it was fashionable to make fun of the Bills because they lost four straight Super Bowls — the 1993 Super Bowl was the last one of the streak — but it wasn’t any easier to make it to the Super Bowl then than it is now. The Bills made it to four in a row because they had an extremely well-balanced team: a strong defense, an innovative, effective offense that did everything well, and in Jim Kelly, a great quarterback. For very similar reasons, the Patriots have now made it to the Super Bowl three seasons in a row. Tom Brady’s antics in this past week aside, we shouldn’t pretend the Chiefs lost the game simply because of their own shortcomings. They didn’t.

Like Marty always said... the other guy is on scholarship, too.

5. The tragedy

NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“Fifty years ago, for five minutes, you came within... you came this close,” marveled Ray Kinsella to Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in the 1989 film Field Of Dreams. “It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they’d consider it a tragedy.”

After a season of ever-increasing expectations, many Chiefs fans are feeling the tragedy right now. The team came so far beyond what we expected in 2018 — seemingly so close to the final goal that we could have reached out and touched it.

I can’t tell you it wouldn’t have been better to win Sunday’s game, play in Super Bowl LIII — and maybe even win it. There isn’t any doubt: it would have been better.

I can’t tell you it wouldn’t have been better to be able to stand proudly for a glorious, shining year, while holding the bragging rights over fans of all other NFL franchises. That would have been much better.

I can’t tell you it wouldn’t have been better to send the Patriots back to Boston with a resounding loss. That would have been way better.

But because all of that didn’t happen... it’s tragic? I’m not so sure.

Dr. Graham understood the distinction. “Son,“ he replied to Ray Kinsella. “If I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes... now that would have been a tragedy.”

I can’t put your appreciation for the Chiefs on the same level as that of a small-town doctor who has spent fifty years making a difference in people’s lives. But what I can do is tell you that for me, 2018 has been the most fun I’ve ever had as a Chiefs fan.

Several times in recent weeks I’ve been in crowds of people waiting for shows to begin, and a tomahawk chop has spontaneously broken out. Back in October, my wife Terri and I helped some friends pass out candy to children in a parade. For no particular reason, we wore Chiefs jerseys that day. Tomahawk chops broke out along the parade route.

It’s hard to beat the joy of something that those around you can embrace together. As 21st-century humans, we don’t get enough of that.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be back for more.

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