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Five things we learned as the Chiefs edged the Falcons

What lessons can we take from the Chiefs’ narrow victory?

The Kansas City Chiefs won a heart-stopper on Sunday afternoon, defeating the Atlanta Falcons 17-14 to clinch the first seed of the AFC playoffs.

Here are five things we learned from the game:

1. In the NFL, there’s no such thing as a gimme

Atlanta Falcons v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Do I really need to say this? Was the Cincinnati Bengals’ defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers last Monday night not enough to make the point? Or the New York Jets’ victory over the Los Angeles Rams the day before? Or the Jets’ subsequent victory over the Cleveland Browns just on Sunday?

In fact, we see examples of such victories in virtually every week of every NFL season. And if we’re being entirely honest with ourselves, we wouldn’t want it any other way. It would be boring to watch the favored team win by the predicted amount in every contest, wouldn’t it?

But somehow, it’s a lot more palatable when upsets (or near-upsets) happen to other teams — not to our favorite team. I’m like anyone else. I’m a lot more comfortable when games end up closer to what I expected they would be. But over many years, I’ve learned that a “good” team getting a close win against a “bad” team says nothing more than what it actually says: that on that day, in that weather in that stadium, with those players, coaches and game plans — and with a healthy dose of random luck sprinkled in — one team scored more points than another.

Or once in a while, the same number of points.

So as the kids say these days, I’m not trippin’ on the Chiefs’ three-point win against the Falcons — because a year from now (and in the years to come), the only thing we’ll clearly remember are the two numbers we’re now savoring: 14-1.

Those are the ones that truly differentiate the “good” teams from the “bad” ones.

2. It’s true: Patrick Mahomes can play poorly

Atlanta Falcons v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There are no two ways about it: reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes played what was arguably the worst game of his career on Sunday, completing just 24 of 44 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His passer rating for the game was a lowly 79.5 — which wasn’t the worst of his NFL career but was damned close to it.

We can’t even say — as we did after the victory over the Saints — that Mahomes played well above what his box score shows.

Some of that was due to the effort of the Falcons’ defense, which kept Mahomes under pressure for the whole game. While they never registered a sack, they did collect five quarterback hits and had four passes defensed.

Mahomes was often rattled. His accuracy and decision-making were way below his normal standard. He mostly failed to make the ‘Oh, wow’ throws that we have become accustomed to seeing — and even missed some that were routine. Even worse, he deserved at least two more interceptions than went on the record; Falcons defenders just couldn’t bring them in.

But you know what? That’s OK — for two reasons.

The first is that the man is human. He’s going to be playing for the Chiefs for a very long time, so we’d better get used to seeing him for what he is: a man — not Superman. And because he’s already had a handful of bad games — and bounced back from all of them — we know he will do so this time, too.

The second is that when everything was on the line, Mahomes did what he does: he made an amazing throw to the unlikeliest of heroes — wide receiver Demarcus Robinson — at just the right time, securing the go-ahead touchdown with just two minutes remaining.

There will be more games like this one. Sometimes he’ll make that throw to make it all OK. Sometimes he won’t. Sometimes it will be in a game the Chiefs can afford to lose — and sometimes it won’t be. But he’s still the greatest quarterback I’ve ever seen — and I cherish every day he is a Kansas City Chief.

Besides...

3. The defense can find a time to shine

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs’ defense picked exactly the right time to show they do have the ability to hold an opposing team to fewer points than the standard they have set for themselves. They may have failed a number of times since then, but they succeeded on Sunday — and did it against a pretty good offense that was expected to come out and put up a lot of points.

To be sure, they did give up a couple of bad drives. Still, their performance was well within the range that defines success for an NFL defense.

They did it by putting heavy pressure against a depleted Falcons offensive line — and making plays at the right moments. The most critical of these was after Mahomes’ third-quarter interception that gave Atlanta the ball at midfield. Consecutive sacks by Chris Jones and Frank Clark forced a three-and-out, keeping the Falcons from taking advantage of a golden opportunity to seize the game’s momentum. Without that stand, Atlanta likely would have left town with a victory against the world champions.

And it’s worth noting that the defense pulled this off while missing key starters at the second level. You may not personally think much of Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson or Ben Niemann, but these are the guys who have been leading this defense — one which has been among the NFL’s top 10 all season. The first two were out for the game. The third left with an injury before halftime.

It was a defensive performance in which Chiefs fans should take pride. And the fact that it took place in what might be the last time we’ll see some of the unit’s core players until mid-January — when the stakes will be even higher — was a good sign.

4. Tyreek Hill has (apparently) been taking part in defensive drills

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Another key defensive play came from the unlikeliest of actors: wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who leaped over a scrum of players, turned on the jets and made up at least 10 yards of distance while giving chase to Falcons defensive back Foyesade Oluokun, who had intercepted a Mahomes pass at his own 1-yard line.

Oluokun had blockers — and plenty of green field in front of him — when Hill caught up with him at midfield. Hill not only wrapped up and tackled the 215-pound safety, but arrived wielding an outstretched fist that he used to excellent effect, expertly punching the ball from Oluokun’s grasp.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the play was so close to the sideline that the fumble went out of bounds before any Kansas City player could get it back. But fortunately for the Chiefs, Hill made an incredible play. Without his skill and effort — and the defensive three-and-out that followed — the Chiefs probably would have lost this game.

Of course... I really don’t know if Hill has been participating in the team’s defensive drills. But based on what we saw on Sunday, there’s a case to be made that he should be leading them.

5. This squad deserves consideration as the best in franchise history

Atlanta Falcons v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Given that Sunday’s win was what we might call an ugly victory, this might not seem like the best time to bring this up.

So let’s start with this: there’s definitely room for argument here. And as a person who remembers (and reveres) the great Chiefs teams of the late 1960s, this is hard for me.

But I also think there’s a compelling argument that this is the best Chiefs team... ever.

With Sunday’s victory, the 2020 iteration of the team guaranteed itself the best record in franchise history; worst case, the team will finish 14-2. They’ve earned a postseason bye in three consecutive seasons. No Chiefs team has ever done that — or ever won five straight division championships.

But if you want to argue that it’s too soon to make this judgment — that it would take at least a second Super Bowl victory in February to claim the title — that’s fair.

You could also argue that position for position, the 2020 team doesn’t match up with the greatest all-time Chiefs teams. And that’s fair, too.

But that’s kind of my point. I think there’s a solid case that no Chiefs team has ever accomplished more with less. The team is obviously blessed with a generational quarterback — not to mention a relatively small group of other significant stars. Still, many of the team’s players have talent well below NFL norms — or they are experienced veterans who are playing on minimum-salary deals for one last chance in the sun.

And considering that the team is committed to using the biggest chunk of its resources for its starting quarterback over a long time, that’s a formula we’re likely to see in use for a while.

Yet... the team keeps winning — often in unexpected (if not heart-attack-inducing) ways. I ask you: is there a better way to define a great team than one that is much greater than the sum of its parts?

Whether or not the current team is the greatest in franchise history will ultimately be decided in the future. But as the team embarks on its next postseason journey, it’s a conversation that’s worth having.