Eight minutes prior to the game, Jeff Duncan of The Athletic New Orleans dropped an interesting note.
The Saints designated today's Chiefs game a "bat game," meaning the players are being challenged to bring the wood. Saints want to turn this game into a street fight.— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) December 20, 2020
The Saints wanted the Chiefs in a “bat game,” which essentially translated to roughing up the Chiefs as much as possible. This reminded me of when Travis Kelce described how the Patriots were physically aggressive at the line of scrimmage in the 2018 AFC championship game. The Patriots jumped out to a 14-0 halftime lead and an eventual win, and Kelce admitted the Chiefs just weren’t ready for that type of game.
It could be considered a tactic that is thought to even the playing field when there is a talent disparity. And to the Saints’ credit, they did “bring the wood” on Sunday.
The Saints were physical with wide receiver Tyreek Hill, Kelce and the rest of the Chiefs weapons. They were able to get to Patrick Mahomes with four rushers against a somewhat-makeshift offensive line — especially early in the game — collaborating for 4.0 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. In the fourth quarter, Mahomes took perhaps the biggest shot of his career when he was sandwiched by two Saints defensive ends.
The Saints almost found a way to pull out the game, but the problem was that these 2020 Chiefs are a far cry from those 2018 Chiefs.
When New Orleans pressured Mahomes in the pocket, he navigated it well, slicing and dicing the Saints on the run. After he took the aforementioned “big shot,” he seemed to return to the field angry — and somehow, more accurate.
Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz — who now watches and live-tweets the game with the rest of us — noted how Mahomes has a mastery of the game, completely aware of where everybody is located on the field at all times. We see it in his ability to look up after running and knowing exactly where to place the football. When a referee throws a flag, he already has the call. In short, Mahomes is the conductor of the orchestra.
In the red zone, which has recently been a point of struggle for the Chiefs, they were 4 of 5, including touchdowns to Hill as he shook off Marshon Lattimore and Kelce on a unique screen pass. Mahomes’ touchdown connection with Mecole Hardman to take back the lead was ridiculous. Le’Veon Bell had the final score on a well-designed pitch play. The Chiefs ran for 179 yards on the night — which was a key in their victory, as the Saints were dropping many of their defensive backs into coverage. Bell finished the job after Edward-Helaire’s ugly injury.
Drew Brees looked as though he may have returned from his injury too soon, and the defense took full advantage. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up different looks — and between that and Brees’ injury and rust, the Chiefs held the Saints close to their average of 28 points, which was enough for the win. Running back Alvin Kamara — whom I projected would be a significant problem for the Chiefs — was mostly held in check.
It wasn’t at all pretty — and coming out of the game, the three biggest concerns have to be pass protection, the health of Edwards-Helaire and winning the sixth consecutive game by just one possession.
But my grand takeaway has to be Kansas City’s response to the Saints’ physicality.
As the reigning champs, the Chiefs have had a target on their back all year. This has never been emphasized as much as it was on Sunday. The Saints made it a street fight — but it was one that they lost.