The Kansas City Chiefs faced one of their toughest opponents of the regular season on Sunday, emerging from a very physical contest with the New Orleans Saints with a 32-29 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
1. Patrick Mahomes’ incredible memory can be turned on and off at will
When Mahomes was preparing for his first season as a starter, we heard over and over again about his machine-like powers of observation and recall — his ability to not only see what a defense is doing but also to store it in a seemingly-inexhaustible memory and instantly recall it at game speed.
But in these last two weeks, we’ve seen Mahomes also demonstrate an ability to do exactly the opposite: to forget what just happened. Against the Miami Dolphins a week ago, Mahomes made multiple costly errors in the opening quarter. Most quarterbacks would have difficulty shaking that off.
But not Mahomes.
On Sunday, after a first half in which he had completed just 48% of his passes for a measly 4.5 yards per attempt — admittedly with little help from his offensive line or receivers — Mahomes sat on the sidelines and watched the Chiefs defense self-destruct on the opening Saints drive of the third quarter. Four plays and 75 yards later, the Saints had gone ahead 15-14.
What did Mahomes do?
Once again, he simply forgot everything had happened in the first half, going 5 for 5 on Kansas City’s opening second-half drive — including one of the most impressive throws Mahomes has ever made: an incredible touch pass to Mecole Hardman in the corner of the end zone.
Mahomes never forgets — that is, unless that’s what he needs to do.
2. The Chiefs defense can do the job
On Sunday, the Chiefs defense allowed the NFL’s seventh-ranked scoring offense to 29 points — not quite a point above their season average. On that basis alone, it can hardly be described as a dominating performance.
But in many ways, it was. The Saints had only five possessions that went for more than three plays. (Unfortunately, one of those three-play drives — the one that started on the Kansas City 25-yard line after Mahomes’ fourth-quarter fumble — led to a touchdown). Of the remaining possessions, only two went for more than five plays. No Saints drive lasted longer than 2:40 — and the Chiefs forced eight punts.
The Chiefs didn’t do it with flashy stats; they recorded just one sack. But they notched nine passes defensed, a pair of tackles for loss and seven hits on Brees. Aside from the opening drive of the second half — when defensive penalties gave New Orleans entirely too much help — they played with fire and passion.
And they got the job done, allowing the vaunted New Orleans rushing attack just 60 yards on 17 attempts — and holding Brees to his lowest passer rating since Week 2 of last season.
Even when Patrick Mahomes has to work his way back from a bad start, that’s enough to win a lot of football games.
3. L’Jarius Sneed was a fourth-round steal
After the rookie cornerback intercepted two passes in his first three games — and broke his collarbone going after a third — it was possible to reach that conclusion. But you never know how a young player will return from injury — especially when he returns from injury six weeks later and finds himself holding down a new job.
In Sneed’s case, the new gig was being the Chiefs’ nickel cornerback — a position that requires not only athleticism but intelligence. After a couple of games in which his snaps were steadily increased as he returned from injury, Sneed came into Week 15 ready to play.
And he did.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ return from injury was ruined in no small part to Sneed’s efforts. Brees started the game with no completions over his first six attempts. One of those was a Sneed interception. Another was a pass to Taysom Hill that Sneed broke up.
And then there was Sneed’s corner blitz. Usually, these don’t work unless the defender is unblocked; it’s a lot to expect for a cornerback to get home if he has to fight through offensive linemen. But Sneed was able to stay in the play until he found an opening to bring Brees down for a 9-yard loss.
This young man is a keeper.
4. Drew Brees wasn’t quite himself on Sunday
All week, there have been questions about the 41-year-old Saints quarterback. Would he be able to play against the Chiefs? And if he did, would he play the whole game, or would he start and give way to Taysom Hill? And if he did play the whole game, would he be anything like his usual self?
As we now know, the Saints had been intending to start Brees all week; they just did their best to keep everybody guessing for as long as possible. And they clearly intended for him to play the whole game; except for a couple of situational snaps where Hill came in at quarterback, Brees was on the field for every play.
But L’Jarius Sneed (and the Chiefs defense) notwithstanding, Brees was nothing like his usual self. After the game, he even admitted as much to reporters.
But we really didn’t need Brees’ admission; it had been clear in his play on the field.
Like Mahomes, Brees had a poor start. While Mahomes seemed to (mostly) recover from his, Brees never seemed to get back in the groove. In addition to Sneed’s interception, he probably deserved to give up at least two more — one to Daniel Sorensen and another to Tyrann Mathieu; both had one of Brees’ throws in their hands. (And to be completely fair, Mahomes had a pass that the Saints did intercept — but the play was called back).
So while this wasn’t quite the dream quarterback matchup most of the NFL was looking forward to seeing, there could still be another: Super Bowl LV. If both teams are able to make it that far, Brees should be closer to being himself: a quarterback who has been among the NFL’s elite for the better part of two decades.
That matchup will be something to see.
5. The Chiefs are road dogs
Now 13-1 on the season for the first time in franchise history, the Chiefs have won 22 of their last 23 games. And here’s something else: the Chiefs have now finished their 2020 away schedule without a single loss.
They’ve actually done that once before. Back in 1966 — the year they won the AFL Championship to advance to the first AFL-NFL Championship game, now known as Super Bowl I — the Chiefs were 7-0 on the road during the 14-game season of that era. But during a 16-game season, the team has never before been undefeated in its away games.
Since the NFL adopted that 16-game regular-season schedule in 1978, just seven teams have gone undefeated on the road: the 1984, 1989 and 1990 San Francisco 49ers, the 2001 St. Louis Rams, the 2007 and 2016 New England Patriots and the 2014 Dallas Cowboys.
Six of those teams reached the Super Bowl. Three of them won it.