Here are five things we learned during the game:
1. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team ready to leave it all on the field
After winning the coin toss before the opening kickoff, the Panthers chose to receive. Once upon a time, every NFL team would have made that choice. But these days, NFL teams choose to play the odds, recognizing they have a better chance at one more possession if they defer to the second half.
The Panthers’ decision telegraphed their attitude throughout the game: they were going to gamble at every opportunity — knowing that as an inferior team, it needed every opportunity to put a touchdown on the board.
On their very first drive — after the Chiefs had held them on a third-and-8 at their own 13 — the Panthers completely fooled the Chiefs on a fourth-and-3 from the 9-yard line. Christian McCaffrey was untouched on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater when the Chiefs appeared to have gotten their safety assignments confused.
On their next possession, the Panthers rolled the dice again, catching the Chiefs off guard with a fake punt that gained 28 yards on a fourth-and-7 from their own 45, setting up another touchdown.
Then, with just over 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter — and trailing the Chiefs 26-17 — the Panthers spun the wheel again, going for it on fourth-and-14 from the Chiefs’ 46-yard line. The Chiefs left Bridgewater nowhere to throw, forcing him to run up the middle. Chiefs defenders swarmed to him short of the sticks, but his amazing second effort converted the play.
All three of these gambles extended Panthers drives that eventually resulted in touchdowns — and turned what was expected to be a relatively easy Chiefs win into a nail-biter.
We’ve known for a while that the defending Super Bowl champions would have a big target painted on their backs — especially by middling teams like the Panthers with nothing to lose and everything to gain. We must credit Carolina for executing these gambles so well — and remember that other middling teams on the horizon will be gunning for the Chiefs, too.
2. The defense’s declaration of a 17-point limit was... poorly timed
Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens’ Friday declaration that the defense’s goal was to limit every opponent to 17 points was... unfortunate. The Panthers reached that threshold before the first half came to an end.
While it’s easy to blame Hitchens for talking too big, it’s fair to say that this should be the goal of every NFL defense. (In fact, reading between the lines of what he said, he was really saying that’s the goal they’re being coached to achieve). Going into Week 9, NFL teams were averaging 25.4 points per game, so holding opponents to no more than 17 will win you a lot of games. But if you’re the Chiefs — now averaging 31.8 points per game — it’ll probably take you to the Super Bowl.
To be sure, the Chiefs defense could have played much better on Sunday. In his first game back from an ankle injury, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey gashed Kansas City for 151 yards from scrimmage. And the Chiefs should have been able to hold back at least one of the Panthers’ long-shot fourth-down conversions. If they had, the game would have had an entirely different complexion.
Right now, the Chiefs simply don’t have the talent they need at all levels of the defense in order to be the soul-crushing unit that can hold opponents to 17 points in every game. As it is, they went into Week 9 ranked third in the league — averaging 19.3 points per game. With Sunday’s performance, they’re now averaging 20.3. That will likely drop them a couple of spots in the rankings, but the unit is performing well enough in the ways that matter most to keep the Chiefs chugging towards their goal.
3. Andy Reid’s selection of creative plays is limitless
On a first-and-goal at the Carolina 1-yard line with just under four minutes remaining in the first half, the Chiefs lined up in shotgun. Patrick Mahomes started shifting left before the snap, taking the ball while in motion — and then looped around to the right.
This razzle-dazzle allowed wide receiver Demarcus Robinson — lined up wide left — to earn an Academy Award nomination for selling a block on the cornerback before stepping to the right and running across the back of the end zone, where Mahomes hit him for an easy touchdown — the Chiefs’ first of the game.
The play was noteworthy not only for its creative design, but also for when and where it was called. Who expects razzle-dazzle on first-and-goal inside the five? The best part was that even if the play had failed, the Chiefs would still have had a couple of chances to punch it in.
There aren’t many 62-year-olds who can be labeled the most creative and innovative in their professions — but Reid is one of them.
4. The offensive line remains a merry-go-round
The Chiefs started Austin Reiter at center on Sunday, leaving veteran Daniel Kilgore on the bench after he had started three games. Mike Remmers — who has been holding down right tackle while Mitchell Schwartz has been out — was injured during the game (rookie Yasir Durant took his place) but was back on the field before the final gun. Meanwhile, Nick Allegretti and Andrew Wylie remained in their starting positions at left and right guard.
Results seemed mixed. Mahomes appeared to have plenty of clean pockets in which he could operate — but Chiefs rushers Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell gained just 22 yards on just nine attempts.
To be sure, part of this was a greater reliance on the passing game than we expected to see against the Panthers; the Chiefs were in the unaccustomed position of playing from behind until late into the third quarter — and the passing game was working. As long as that’s the case, we can expect Andy Reid to continue leaning toward passing plays.
Still, I think we’d all feel a whole lot better if there was more consistency on the offensive line. With veteran Laurent-Duvernay-Tardif and rookie Lucas Niang choosing to opt out of 2020, the Chiefs certainly had to start the season in a position they didn’t expect. Just the same, some stability would be welcome.
5. Name a record — and Patrick Mahomes can break it
With four touchdown passes on Sunday, the Chiefs’ quarterback now has 101 of them in just 40 games. According to Elias Sports, that’s the fastest any quarterback has reached 100 touchdown passes in NFL history.
The previous record-holder was Miami Dolphins (and Hall of Fame) quarterback Dan Marino, who reached 100 in the first game of the 1986 season, when he threw three touchdown passes in a 50-28 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
That was thirty-four years ago. Yeah... that Marino guy was pretty good for his time.
With 30 completions on 45 attempts against the Panthers, Mahomes now has a passer rating of 115.9 on the season. On his career, he now has 12,099 passing yards on 1,428 attempts, with a passer rating of 110.5. As AP user CoachJA noted in a FanPost earlier this week, sometime during this season — likely against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 12 — he’ll reach 1,500 career attempts, which will make him eligible for all-time NFL quarterback records.
So barring a meltdown before then, he’ll enter the charts at No. 1, ranking first in career passer rating. The current leader is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose career rating is just 103.1. All five of the current leaders — Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Dak Prescott and Tom Brady — are active.
So yeah... that Mahomes guy is pretty good for his time, too.