Having the loftiest of expectations for a football team means excruciating stretches are possible — and these last two weeks have been just that.
Kansas City Chiefs fans’ minds are largely focused on January. Everything is about how this team will perform in the playoffs. Home field advantage is the focus, the bye week an assumption. And six weeks in, the Chiefs appear headed for a dogfight to avoid wild-card weekend.
How quickly things have changed.
Things are not going well on defense. The Texans dropped three deep touchdown passes, and the run defense was awful for the duration of the day. But make no mistake about it — this Chiefs machine is all contingent on the offense doing what it does. Good quarterbacks mask deficiencies. They help you get away with things. They bail out bad performances. The Chiefs quarterback has been limited by a nagging ankle injury to prevent him doing what he does.
There are two very distinct acts in the Chiefs two losses this season: the first one is glimpses of Mahomes-as-usual.
You feel comfortable with the game’s outcome because you’re getting what you’ve come to expect from Mahomes.
#SomethingGood Mahomes continues to make free plays lucrative. 3rd and 21, Houston in a soft prevent defense. Mahomes gives Tyreek Hill a chance and he comes down with it, immediately providing a spark to a struggling unit. pic.twitter.com/K57BLG7nFg— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) October 15, 2019
It became obvious rather quickly the Chiefs desperately needed wide receiver Tyreek Hill the last few weeks. It is third-and-21 in the first drive. Houston jumps before the snap on the defensive line and Mahomes knows he has a free play. He smartly gives one of the best receivers in the NFL an opportunity to make a play down the field.
Mahomes throws the ball up in the middle of the field with Hill running a post route. Hill does an excellent job going up and getting the football. For such a small receiver, he has an outstanding ability to win at the catch point. Even if he is not always extending his arms to get it, he has excellent jumping ability, body positioning and control that allows him to put himself in situations where he can come up with the ball in contested coverage. Hill beats two defenders and comes down with the ball just short of the goal line. He finishes the play through contact and fights his way into the end zone to give the team a 7-0 lead.
The first act ends all too quickly. It’s followed by the broadcast cutting to shots of a limping MVP. The limp is a reminder of offensive line failures since Eric Fisher’s last game. After each re-aggravation, everything looks different.
Mahomes did not seem remotely the same after the injury during Sunday’s game. There is more than one example of balls lacking some of the usual zip and throws coming in to receivers lower than usual. When you don’t trust your plant foot, mechanics can be thrown off and more variables come into play when delivering the throw. It appeared to be the case against Houston.
Shortly after Mahomes came up limping, he recorded his first interception of the season. If you take him for his word post-game, he was targeting Kelce on a double move that he never got to execute because Lonnie Johnson tackled him without penalty. #notbitter #tottallybitter pic.twitter.com/vCugYjzN6v— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) October 15, 2019
Shortly after Mahomes was hobbled, he faced a first-and-10 near the red zone. If you take Mahomes at his word in his post-game press conference, you’ll find that he was intentionally targeting Travis Kelce on this play; he expected Kelce to be able to run a double-move. Unfortunately, Lonnie Johnson did everything but tackle Kelce, giving him no opportunity to break free and make a play down the field.
Mahomes lofts the ball up into the end zone, hoping to give Kelce a chance to run underneath it. After an initial pass interference call to extend the drive, the referees huddle to determine that the ball was not catchable for Kelce — and therefore was not pass interference.
Something should have been called against Johnson — whether it was holding, illegal contact or pass interference. Regardless, the throw from Mahomes — if he intended to throw to Kelce — was not a particularly good one. The vast majority of the game following the re-aggravation, he struggled to utilize his plant foot in throwing the ball. He was much more stationary, less creative and visibly trying not to put too much weight on his front foot. That left balls short — with less velocity — and inhibited his ability to deliver throws down the field with touch.
If it was truly intended for Kelce, then it was still going to be intercepted. I do wonder if he was maintaining that statement after trying to sell that to the referee and that’s why he said it in the presser. Regardless, there was inconsistency in his touch and delivery of the ball. This play was horribly officiated, poorly executed and resulted in a 14-point swing.
This play changed the outcome of the game. Chiefs get an interception by Juan Thornhill and the Chiefs try a PA shot right out of it. Wish Hill was in. Also wonder if he gives a vertical a chance or tries to scramble if not hobbled. pic.twitter.com/HFBIR3yXGX— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) October 15, 2019
Beyond the re-aggravation, the biggest turning point of the game was the fumble deep in Houston territory late in the first half — the one that led to the Texans getting three points. Safety Juan Thornhill came down with his first interception of the season just before this play. I would argue that he made the right decision in trying to come down with the football, avoiding the risk a Texans receiver would catch a batted or deflected ball.
After getting the football back, the Chiefs elect to run a play-action pass right out of the gate. It calls for vertical routes with Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle from a condensed formation. They motion Mecole Hardman on a return motion jet and run a play-action fake to running back Darrel Williams. Kelce is working in the middle of the field. I think Mahomes is probably looking to Kelce early, but there is too tight a window.
With Mahomes limited in his ability to throw with as much drive and athleticism than he’s used to, it was a wise decision to not try it. You could also make the argument that were he healthy, he could have more easily challenged down the field — perhaps to Pringle, who was in single coverage — or try to drive a football to Robinson on a double move even though the middle-field safety was playing tighter to the boundary.
Mahomes also could possibly have thrown to the outlet — Hardman — early on the swing route out of the motion. Had he been perfectly healthy, Mahomes might have been able to scramble. Instead, he was more of a stationary target than we are used to seeing, and Austin Reiter gave up a sack on an attempt at an explosive play.
Instead, the ball was fumbled backward. The Texans recovered it on the 3-yard line. Shortly thereafter, they took a 23-17 lead.