Final Score: Kansas City Chiefs 23, New England Patriots 16
Coming in to the season, most saw this as the AFC’s game of the year. By the time we got there, it may not have had the lead-up everyone had expected — but for both teams involved, it really was the game of the year.
Right from the first whistle, both teams are digging deep — disguising coverages and calling up trick plays. The Chiefs got rolling in the first half, executing a dynamic offense at a high level, but then stalled out in the second half. From that point, it became a matter of the Chiefs holding on to their lead as the Patriots tried to manufacture some offense. The Chiefs defense had to do it all — and came up big in a must-win game.
At the beginning, it appeared the Chiefs were in a little bit over their heads, as the Patriots came out playing a lot more disguised zone than the Chiefs expected.
Patrick Mahomes made a bad decision and had an early interception on a predictable over route. But after that, the Chiefs quickly got rolling as Andy Reid got back to some of his better play-calling of the season.
Unfortunately, that momentum hit a wall early in the second half when Reid returned to a conservative play calling style. It took two series for Reid to get back to his first half approach — and for the Kansas City offense to start clicking again.
Despite being under constant pressure, Mahomes really settled in after the interception. Between buying time behind the line of scrimmage and delivering dimes under pressure, he marched the Chiefs down the field for multiple scoring drives. In the first half, Mahomes was still battling the bad habit of drifting backwards in the pocket — and it actually cost the Chiefs some points — but he still looked mostly in control; he even connected on a long touchdown to Mecole Hardman while being hit.
In the second half, Mahomes was less than stellar. On far too many plays, he looked panicked and rushed. While he didn’t get much help from his offensive line, receivers or coaches, he still left plenty on the field.
The Chiefs struggled to get their running game working. LeSean McCoy got the bulk of the carries, but couldn’t find much running room. Early in the game, the moment looked too big for Darwin Thompson; he had easy drops and ran indecisively. But after a nice run on a screen play he settled in a bit. Spencer Ware mostly saw work on third downs as a pass protector — and absolutely leveled a blitzer on one of his first reps.
Tyreek Hill saw a lot more pre-snap motions, which helped the Chiefs get him away from double teams. Sammy Watkins looked lacksadasical at the beginning, but came back to make some key catches to move the chains. Hardman showed great concentration tracking and snagging an underthrown Mahomes pass that he took in for a touchdown.
Whether he was finding open spots in zone — or when the Patriots tried to cover him with Patrick Chung one on one — Travis Kelce was a nightmare matchup for the Patriots. Kelce continued to find open space in the second half — but also had a poor play that nearly cost the Chiefs the game. Catching a third-down pass beyond the line of gain, he ran backwards — and then fumbled the ball.
The Chiefs offensive line was up and down, continuing their struggles against stunts — and in their run blocking. Mahomes’ tendency to drop very deep behind the line continued to force them into covering too much area — but more concerning was the pressure right up the middle against blitzes and stunts. Even Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz had horrendous snaps that helped stall out offense in the second half.
The Chiefs run defense came out to play, filling nearly every run up the middle right at the line of scrimmage. Early in the game, the defensive line was making all sorts of plays against the run; Chris Jones, Derick Nnadi and Khalen Saunders were all getting in on run stops.
In his first game with the Chiefs, Demone Harris was frequently around the ball on the running plays, doing a good job setting the edge and getting off blocks. Outside of Frank Clark whooping up on Isaiah Wynn in the first half, the defensive line alone wasn’t getting a lot of pass pressure — but they got help from blitz packages. Alex Okafor had one of his best showings of the year, doing a good job hurrying Brady along and even getting home. When isolated over a third-string center, Chris Jones was dominant on the interior — making Brady’s job difficult.
Early in the game, Reggie Ragland and Damien Wilson both had major hits to stuff some runs. The defensive line did a good job keeping them free and allowing them to flow to the runner. Anthony Hitchens continues to struggle in coverage — both in man and in zone — and was even stiff-armed away by James White. It’s getting to the point I’m not sure Hitchens is the obvious MIKE starter over Ragland or Wilson.
In the the first drive, outside cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward were targeted on third-and-longs and gave up a 39 yards on defensive pass interference penalties. Breeland was hit with a few more penalties but also did a good job of breaking off his man to intercept an errant Tom Brady throw. Then — with the game on the line — a perfect coverage switch with Tyrann Mathieu allowed him to make the game-winning pass breakup against Edelman in the end zone.
The safeties played an excellent game after an early blunder, when Juan Thornhill when sucked up by a flea flicker. Mathieu drew most of the slot coverage against Edelman and did as well as anyone could hope. Steve Spagnuolo’s secondary blitz packages were beautiful; their erratic timing keep Brady on edge for most of the game.
The Chiefs have slowly transformed themselves into a defense-first team that is merely begging the offense to be average. Will that hold? Given the talent on either side of the ball, that seems unlikely. But lately — while the offense continues to struggle — the defense has done an excellent job picking up the slack.