The Kansas City Chiefs ended a two-game skid by defeating the Denver Broncos 30-6 on Thursday night, improving their record to 5-2 on the season.
Here are five things we learned during the game:
1. The Chiefs defense can play
Even though they gave up a touchdown drive to open the game — more about that in a moment — the Chiefs defense looked like a different unit against the Broncos. They looked like the one we expected to see from Steve Spagnuolo: one with an aggressive attitude and an eye for turnovers.
And somehow, in just four days, they learned how to tackle.
Just in the first half, the defense gave up only 23 yards on the ground, sacked Joe Flacco six times and scored a touchdown after a strip-sack by Anthony Hitchens that was recovered and run in by Reggie Ragland.
The list of Chiefs observers who would have predicted those two names would be associated with such a play is likely to have been very short.
The defense ended the game having given up just 71 yards rushing to the Broncos — the lowest since the team gave up only 65 yards to the Cincinnati Bengals in their 45-10 victory last season. All told, the Chiefs sacked Flacco nine times — more than any other game since they had nine against the Oakland Raiders in 2013.
Yes... it’s not as if the Broncos field one of the finest offenses in the NFL — and one good game doesn’t make a season. But to get where they want to go, the defense needed to make a first step. Whatever else is true, Thursday’s performance was certainly that.
2. Penalties are still costing the Chiefs
The Chiefs stopped the opening Broncos drive. Twice.
But a face mask penalty called on Frank Clark ruined a three-and-out. Then a holding call on Bashaud Breeland on a third-and-9 play — a pass that fell incomplete — gave the Broncos another first down on what should have been a three-play drive.
The Broncos scored a touchdown on this penalty-induced drive — and to make things worse, Derrick Nnadi jumped offsides on the extra-point attempt. The Broncos elected to go for two points from the 1-yard line. But the Chiefs stuffed Phillip Lindsey on the attempt — pretty much just as they done throughout the drive.
And as they continued to do for the rest of the game.
I’m not giving you earth-shaking news when I point out that defensive penalties extend drives — often leading directly to points for the opposing team. But it wouldn’t be hard to find other examples of such drives in either of the Chiefs’ two losses — drives that if stopped, could have made the difference in those games.
Let’s be fair: the Chiefs had a lot fewer penalties on Thursday than we’ve been seeing this season. But when they’re so costly, the Chiefs absolutely, positively need to get this problem cleaned up.
3. The Chiefs can run the ball
On Thursday night, the Chiefs passed the ball on just 53.4% of their offensive snaps — the lowest percentage of the season — and well below the percentage of passing plays in their losses to the Indianapolis Colts (75.4%) and Houston Texans (75.4%). It wasn’t even a result of Matt Moore being in the game after Patrick Mahomes was injured; the Chiefs passed the ball a little more often in the second half than they did in the first.
The Chiefs weren’t particularly effective in the running game — they gained just 3.0 yards per carry — but that isn’t the point. Instead, the Chiefs ran the ball enough to keep the Broncos defense honest when the Chiefs were using their preferred (and statistically most efficient) method of moving the ball: passing.
But like other things we learned the Chiefs can do on Thursday night, the question still remains: will they keep doing it?
4. There’s still some special on special teams
Dave Toub’s units have taken a lot of heat this season. Numerous penalties against the unit have pushed the team back after punts and kickoffs. Long returns have become the exception rather than the rule. The lengths to which the team went to find a way to retain defensive back and kick returner Tremon Smith — moving him to offense as a running back, of all things — left some fans scratching their heads. For many, the decision to re-sign De’Anthony Thomas — rather than use that roster spot for a player like Cody Thompson — was equally mystifying.
Thomas hasn’t helped his cause with sometimes-baffling decisions on when to field kicks and generally-poor decisions on returns — and while he ended up fielding the ball, muffing a catch on Thursday night didn’t help, either. In a third quarter punt return, Tanoh Kpassagnon was also called for one of the unit’s ubiquitous block-in-the-back penalties — and I’ve already referenced Nnadi’s offsides on the extra-point attempt.
But rookie Mecole Hardman had a very nice 35-yard punt return that gave the Chiefs excellent field position on a first-quarter drive that ended in a field goal. And when the Broncos attempted a fake punt at their own 45-yard line after their next possession, the Chiefs weren’t fooled at all. Second-year safety Armani Watts made a heads-up play to drop Denver punter Colby Wadman for a 7-yard loss. That also set up a Chiefs field goal.
Over the years, we have seen much more — and much better — from Toub’s units. But it was nice to see some steps in the right direction.
5. It doesn’t help if you don’t talk about it
I can’t speak for every member of the Arrowhead Pride staff, but for the past year or so — ever since it became clear that Patrick Mahomes was everything we hoped he would be — I haven’t wanted to talk about the 900-pound defensive lineman in the room: what if Mahomes is seriously injured?
I guess I just didn’t want to take the chance that I would be the one to “speak it into existence,” as my wife Terri would say. I’m sure I was also influenced by beer commercials that promised me, “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”
But it’s too late for that now. Mahomes has been injured — seriously enough to be removed from a game, and perhaps enough that he could miss weeks of the season. Chad Henne’s preseason injury — which left the Chiefs with Matt Moore as the only quarterback on the active roster — now looms large.
To his credit, Moore probably performed above our expectations — once hitting Tyreek Hill perfectly in stride with a 57-yard touchdown pass — but this is a moment for truth: our expectations were low. Moore isn’t a replacement for Mahomes. Instead, he is a placeholder. You know it. I know it. He knows it.
That isn’t to say the Chiefs are doomed to lose every game until Mahomes returns. But everyone understands that it’s now going to be harder — that it’s going to require extra effort from every coach and player on the team to make up for Mahomes’ absence.
Will that be difficult? You can bet the price of an MRI on that. But it’s not going to be impossible.
Fifty years ago last month, Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson suffered a serious knee injury against the Boston Patriots. The following week against the Cincinnati Bengals, his backup Jacky Lee was lost for the season when he was injured, too. That left only second-year quarterback Mike Livingston — who hadn’t attempted a single pass during the one game in which he had played during the previous season — to take over.
That afternoon, the Bengals came from behind to win 24-19.
Without Dawson and Lee — and after seeing Livingston play in that game — most people thought the Chiefs were finished that season.
But then something happened: the team rallied behind the young quarterback, winning six straight games until Dawson returned in Week 10, setting the stage to wrest the final AFL Championship from the Oakland Raiders — and Super Bowl IV from the Minnesota Vikings.
Since it’s a time for truth, I won’t promise you that history will repeat itself — that somehow, the Chiefs will get this done. I will only tell you that it can be done.
So chin up. This ain’t over — not by a damn sight.
And let’s get one other thing settled: it didn’t help at all to avoid speaking of the possibility Mahomes could be injured; it happened anyway.
To put it in beer-drinking terms: “It doesn’t work, so it’s weird.”