Throughout the course of a season, all NFL teams face adversity. But rarely does a team face a fork in the road as early in the year as the Kansas City Chiefs did in 2021.
Sunday’s game against The Washington Football Team was billed as a get-right game for the Chiefs. Coming into Sunday, Kansas City had the league’s second-worst turnover differential at -9.
Improvement does not come without adversity. pic.twitter.com/N5JpY8Wene— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) October 11, 2021
Sunday’s first half of football at FedEx Field looked very much like more of the same. Mecole Hardman fumbled the ball on a catch and run. Tyreek Hill had a pass deflect off his hands that turned into another interception.
And then with Kansas City on the Washington 20-yard line, threatening to take the lead late in the first half, quarterback Patrick Mahomes fumbled the snap — and then threw an inexcusable interception while trying to get the ball to tight end Travis Kelce.
It might have been the worst play of his career.
“It was bad,” Mahomes admitted after the game. “First off, I dropped the snap trying to get it out of there too fast to Darrel. And then I picked it up. I was going to try to run outside and then I saw Trav — and the rest you can kind of see. It was bad.”
The situation felt all too familiar. While deep in the opponent’s territory, a crucial scoring opportunity had been wiped off the board by a mental error. The Chiefs went into halftime trailing 13-10.
“We were just beating ourselves like we’ve been doing — just making mental mistakes,” said running back Darrel Williams, who got the start in place of injured teammate Clyde Edwards-Helaire. “We had to learn from that — and stop beating ourselves.”
Kansas City’s get-right game had gone all wrong. During the last three seasons, it has seemed like if you gave the Chiefs a foot, they would take a mile. But in 2021, it’s seemed more like that if you give them a foot, they’ll just shoot themselves there.
The second half didn’t start much better. The Chiefs went three-and-out on their first possession — and then punter Tommy Townsend shanked his kick, sending it a mere 18 yards downfield. Washington had possession, the lead and great field position. But just as they did for most of the game, the Kansas City defense held firm — forcing Washington to attempt a 42-yard field goal that missed wide left.
“I think guys had to dig deep at the end of the day,” said Mahomes. “Obviously, the first half didn’t go the way we wanted to; I thought the defense is a great job of keeping us in the game. And then in the second half, we just executed — executed better. Guys relied on each other, believed in each other — and we were able to find a way to get a win.”
Sunday was — by far — the Chiefs’ best defensive outing this season. Washington is by no means an offensive juggernaut; throughout the game, backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke struggled with his accuracy, making it difficult for him to complete anything downfield. Still, the offense put their defensive teammates in precarious situations on multiple occasions — and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit answered the call, getting crucial stops and turnovers when the team needed them most.
“You have to have a sense of urgency,” said safety Tyrann Mathieu. “It’s not about anything outside of our locker room. So as long as we play with attitude — and play with energy- we [can] of handle the lows and highs of a game.”
There have been multiple times this season when the Chiefs needed a big play and came up short; Mahomes threw late-game interceptions against both the Los Angeles Chargers and the Buffalo Bills. But on Sunday, the Chiefs were able to overcome their early mistakes, slamming the door on a less-talented Washington team.
“It could have spiraled right there.” acknowledged Mahomes. “It could have — [considering] how this season has gone [and] the adversity we [have] dealt with. It could have spiraled. But I thought the guys [showed] a lot of mental toughness to go back into battle and believe in each other.
“And the defense, the way they played today... for them to hold firm while we were struggling. I mean, that’s what it takes in this league. It takes everybody. It’s not the offense, it’s not the defense, it’s everybody coming together at the right time.”
“I think the guys put their mind to it bore down and, you know, kind of [said] enough’s enough,” noted head coach Andy Reid. “And you know, there’s a point where you have to do that. I thought they did a nice job.
“They get tired of it. It’s got to change. And so you need a little bit of that fire — and everybody needs to feel it.”
This time, that fire was enough for the Chiefs to overcome adversity and walk out of FedEx Field with an 18-point victory. But if they continue to make mental errors early in games, the road ahead won’t be easy.