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Player leadership has played a role in Chiefs’ defensive resurgence

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After their success against the Patriots, defensive players said it’s because the unit is learning how to play together.

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

The Kansas City Chiefs have clinched the AFC West and a postseason berth after defeating the New England Patriots 23-16 on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

It wasn’t an easy victory. Penalties against the Chiefs, an injury to Mahomes’ throwing hand and a very good Patriots defense kept Kansas City from putting a lot of points on the scoreboard — but as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary anyway.

That was due in no small part to cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who blunted a second-quarter Patriots drive with an interception — and on the game’s final significant play, sealed the victory with a brilliant fourth-down pass breakup against Julian Edelman in the end zone.

“[There wasn’t] one step in that fourth quarter that we really felt like we were going to lose this game,” said the veteran cornerback in the locker room. “The defense — the whole time — we were confident enough knowing that we were going to continue to do what we were doing. You know Tom Brady, he’s the G.O.A.T. You’re not just going to shut him out a whole entire game. So for us to do what we did against him? It was a glorious moment.”

Breeland denied that the team has been intent on passing the Patriots. Instead, he said the team’s focus has been on building a cohesive unit.

“I’m not really into who is passing who,” he said. “We came out here and did a job as a team — together. We built cohesiveness and that’s all that really matters to us. We’re getting to the next level.”

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

“At the beginning of the year we felt like it would take some time to gel and mesh,” said defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, who blocked a Patriots field goal in the first quarter. “That’s what it is. Time has caught up to us. We are understanding the scheme and how people work within that scheme.”

That scheme has been a good fit for Kpassagnon, who had difficulty finding a niche for himself in Bob Sutton’s defense after being taken by the Chiefs in the second round of the 2017 draft. But with four sacks and 26 tackles in his first season under Steve Spagnuolo, Kpassagnon is clearly having his best season.

Even defensive tackle Mike Pennel — a Topeka, Kansas native who has only played in five games since he joined the team in mid-October — is seeing it.

“I’m just thinking, we’re all playing together right now,” said the sixth-year pro. “It’s all just building — and right now, we’re not even at our peak. We’re just going to keep going up from here. Guys are getting more comfortable in our system and guys are coming back. It’s going to be something good to see.”

After the game, head coach Andy Reid said that the players had decided on a theme of their own.

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

“You know, I kept hearing all week about ‘four quarters of football’ — I mean, the guys,” he explained. “‘Four quarters of football’ — they kept talking about that. And you’ve got to do that. You want to play against the best. I mean, these are the reigning world champions. If you’re going to do that, then you better be mentally prepared to play for four quarters. I thought the guys did that. I mean, that’s what ended up happening — and I’m proud of them for that.”

Reid said he feels that the defense’s progress has been consistent — especially in the last three weeks, in which the defense has hauled in eight turnovers, collected seven sacks and allowed just 14 points a game.

“I can tell you that every week, we’ve gotten better,” he said. “You know, we had a little hiccup in Tennessee, but other than that, it’s been consistent progress forward. I think Spags and the coaches have done a heck of a job. Most of all, the players have bought in. I mean, they were flying around and making plays.”

Reid pointed to Breeland as one of the players who had exemplified the attitude.

“So you look at him — he’s another one. [He] banged his knee on the last play before half and shook that off. Got it alright and came back, had some penalties, shook that off, came back [and] competed. You have to be able to do that. Everything is not going to be roses, there are going to be ups and downs; [you’ve] got to persevere through it. I mean, you’ve got to make sure you battle — and that’s where that whole four quarter thing comes in.”

“It’s taking us in the right direction,” said Breeland. “This is the type of game that we wanted to come play — to really test where we’re at. We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the season. We felt like this was our point that really can help get us over that hump and propel us to where we want to be.”