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Five things we learned as the Chiefs beat the Patriots

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The Chiefs are going to the postseason as AFC West Champions. What do we know that we didn’t know before?

In the season’s 14th week, the Kansas City Chiefs clinched the AFC West with a 23-16 victory over the New England Patriots in Foxborough.

Here are five things we learned from the game.

1. The West is not enough

The T-shirt that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid pulled out of his back pocket when he appeared before the team on Sunday evening was emblazoned with the slogan, “The West is not enough.”

Perfect.

In their 59-year history, the Chiefs have never won the AFC West championship in four consecutive seasons — not during the years they appeared in two Super Bowls, those in which they appeared in the playoffs for six straight seasons or even around the time they won their first AFL championship.

It’s an impressive accomplishment. But it’s not enough.

None of this will mean anything if the Chiefs can’t find a way to succeed in the postseason. A late-season defeat of the Patriots — even if it is a version of the team that might not be as dangerous as the one that had won 21 straight games at home — says a lot about the Chiefs’ ability to do just that.

But I’m from Missouri. You’re just going to have to show me.

2. The Chiefs defense is for real

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no longer necessary for us to use qualifiers. The Chiefs defense can play ball. They are significantly better than they were in 2018.

Don’t be distracted by the statistics — even though they’re generally trending upward. Pay attention to what you saw on the field on Sunday. The Chiefs defense gave up some plays — even great defenses give up plays against good teams — but more often, they made plays. And they made those plays in the biggest moments.

Perhaps more importantly, they didn’t allow themselves to be dragged down by the Patriots’ opening drive. That was clearly their worst moment of the game — and it didn’t get them down. They came back out and played like a championship defense for the rest of the game.

We’d all love for the Chiefs to get a bye week. But a defense like this one travels well. Maybe a bye week doesn’t matter as much as we thought.

3. The Chiefs offense is (mostly) just fine

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

I know the numbers for this game don’t reflect it.

But if we’re going to give credit to the Chiefs defense for holding down the Patriots offense in this game, we also have to give some credit to the Patriots defense for holding down the Chiefs offense.

I know the New England defense has played against many subpar offenses — and that would count for a lot more if Bill Belichick weren’t in charge. But Belichick is in charge. His ability to adjust his defenses to another team’s offense is well-known. It’s perfectly reasonable to automatically respect any defense Belichick fields — just as it is reasonable to give that respect any offense Andy Reid puts out there. But right now, they both have a lot of talent to go along with their own considerable expertise.

So I don’t really care what the numbers say. On Sunday, I watched them defend against a really good offense — and I don’t need to be convinced: New England has one of the league’s best defenses. And the Chiefs offense was still able to do enough to win in one of the NFL’s most fearsome environments.

That’s not to say there aren’t some offensive problems to be solved. They need to figure out how to make the running game work for when they need it — and Patrick Mahomes needs to re-learn how to trust his offensive line. But there’s no reason to think the offense can’t be running on all cylinders in January.

4. Penalties matter

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It was something I didn’t get into after last week’s game — except for how it impacted the Oakland Raiders — but the Chiefs didn’t have a single penalty assessed against them in their 40-9 victory. That was the first time the Chiefs had played a game without being penalized since 1974 — when Hank Stram was still the head coach and Len Dawson was still the starting quarterback.

But on Sunday afternoon, the Chiefs didn’t waste any time proving why that had been a big factor against the Raiders, committing two pass interference penalties — both on third-and-medium — that added 39 yards to the Patriots’ opening drive, putting them in a perfect position to trot out a trick play that resulted in a 37-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman.

Then on the Chiefs’ second drive, a holding call on Mitchell Schwartz wiped out a 19-yard pass to Travis Kelce that would have put the Chiefs in the red zone. It completely removed the offensive momentum the Chiefs had managed to re-establish after Patrick Mahomes was intercepted on the team’s opening drive, forcing the Chiefs to settle for a field goal.

The Chiefs won this game, but without these penalties — and seven others — the outcome would never have been in doubt.

5. Coaches don’t save plays — until they do

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

One of the persistent narratives about head coaches like Reid and the Belichick is that they save plays until just the right moment at the end of the season — as if at a critical moment in a late-season game, they’ll suddenly throw in a play they installed during spring OTAs.

Those kinds of narratives will get a boost after Sunday’s game, in which both teams called trick plays to score touchdowns in the first half. The Patriots had their flea-flicker to Edelman, while the Chiefs scored on a direct snap to Travis Kelce from a Wildcat formation.

None of us know whether either Reid or Belichick saved these plays for this particular game, but the whole narrative sort of depends on the idea that in any given game, coaches are in a position to call anything that’s in the playbook.

But that’s just not how it works.

Every team in the NFL talks about the game plan they create for each opponent. But exactly what is that?

It’s looking at the upcoming opponent, and then deciding which plays in your playbook will be best-suited to be used against them. These are the plays — along with the best situations for their use — that are ultimately printed on the laminated sheets coaches consult during the game. During the week’s practice sessions, these plays are practiced against a scout team that mimics what they expect the opposing team to do.

So while it’s possible that Reid has been holding the Wildcat play to Kelce in his back pocket specifically to use against the Patriots, it’s just as likely that he might have used it earlier in the season against another opponent — that is, if the coaches thought it might work. Maybe it was the first time this season that the play turned up in a game plan — or maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps the opportunity to use it had just never presented itself.

In Kansas City, this narrative is driven — at least to some extent — by the famous 65 Toss Power Trap play Stram called in Super Bowl IV. The oft-repeated film clip of Stram sending in the play gives the impression that coaches will call whatever play comes into their head — and fifty years ago, that might have been a little bit more true. But even on that day, Dawson questioned the call in the huddle. “Are you sure?” he asked flanker Gloster Richardson, who had brought in the play. “We haven’t practiced that play in three or four weeks!”

Even in those days, teams tended to spend the week practicing a set of plays to use. Perhaps Stram's exuberance was simply because the play had worked anyway.