Last season, Kansas City Chiefs first-year-starter-turned-MVP Patrick Mahomes ripped through the NFL like it was easy mode on Madden. The offense was generational, setting record upon record en route to home-field advantage in the AFC.
But the defensive unit remained a question all the way to the end. When Charvarius Ward intercepted Tom Brady in the AFC championship game, fans thought they were witnessing history — an end to the New England Patriots dynasty. But Dee Ford had lined up in the neutral zone — and in overtime, Mahomes wouldn’t get a chance to touch the ball.
So in the offseason, Brett Veach and company made sweeping changes to the league’s worst defense. When defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired, players with inconsistent effort, bad attitudes and Kermit-Tea-Sipping-GIFs for excuses went with him.
Then came acquisitions like coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, defensive end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu — all to help ensure the defense could keep up with the most explosive offense in football.
Maybe that would be enough to get the organization into the Super Bowl.
But the screenplay the 2019 Chiefs have written is drastically different than the one we all expected. At the beginning of the season, the team had the look of one poised to win a title by dominating through the season (and thus the playoffs) with an already-incredible offense and an improved defense — at least on paper.
Instead, the Chiefs have had more issues than you could draw up — and those issues were much more than the defensive problems we saw in 2018.
Offensive players Tyreek Hill, Eric Fisher, Andrew Wylie, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy, Damien Williams, Darrel Williams, Martinas Rankin, Chad Henne and Patrick Mahomes combined to miss 44 games with injuries.
To say the offense has been a shell of its 2018 self is an understatement.
Mahomes has clearly been a large piece of that. For weeks, he played on the severe ankle sprain he sustained in Week 1, missed two games altogether after dislocating his kneecap in Week 7 — and then in the last two games, played through what is now being reported as a sprained hand. And through much of it, he played behind a patchwork offensive line — or without Hill, who is a key cog in the Chiefs offense.
It’s been a similar story on the defense. Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Anthony Hitchens, Alex Okafor, Kendall Fuller, Emmanuel Ogbah and Xavier Williams have combined to miss 27 games — and it’s not as if the defense started out as a well-oiled machine. Instead, it was a unit with an entirely new staff that was coaching an entirely new defense.
And yet... through all this, the team is 10-4. They’ve clinched the AFC West and a playoff berth — and still have a shot to get a first-round bye. That they have done so is a tribute to the team’s character.
Every week, we learn a little bit more about that character.
Frank Clark said with his health issues, including a neck/nerve issue, doctors actually told him to not play at the start of the season. Said he was about 20% in his health when the season started. Feels much better now.— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) December 15, 2019
Early in the season, Clark was a target for criticism for his lack of production. During a struggling start for a defense that didn’t look particularly in sync, the team’s $105 million man wasn’t showing the statistical impact some hoped he would.
But as it turns out, Clark has been fighting through a litany of issues — from neck and nerve pain to illness. He missed every practice preparing for the Patriots — and then played in the game. He was in the hospital last week as the team readied itself for the Broncos — and then played in the game.
The character he’s shown is part of what has turned this defense around; he’s helping build a new standard for the unit. And despite all the adversity, he’s stayed with it — and is playing his best football at the right time.
In fact, the defense as a whole is meshing at the right time.
Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense have allowed 17.2 PPG in the latter half of the season with two games to play.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 15, 2019
They've allowed 9.3 PPG in the three games since the bye week.
Offensively, it’s largely been ugly since Mahomes returned from his dislocated kneecap. But after the last two weeks — seeing Mahomes play through injury to beat the Patriots in Foxborough and then light up a division opponent for 340 yards and two touchdowns in the snow — it’s hard not to feel optimistic about both sides of the football.
The adversity with which this team has dealt would have derailed last year’s team. They’ve had some bad luck, played some stretches of bad football and have had more injuries than most. But what you’re seeing now from both offense and defense is sustainable.
The Chiefs still haven’t played their best football. They still have more work to do. None of what I’m saying means anything if they don’t continue to improve — and peak when it matters most. And after a huge win on the road against the Patriots — and the beatdown of a division rival in bad weather — they know it, too.
As long as Mahomes gets to the postseason healthy, the Chiefs be a tougher out than they were last year. Nobody in the AFC wants to face this Chiefs team in January.
It’s been an exhausting season to follow — but the payoff could be sweet.