Kansas City was as close to perfection as any team over the past three years. In each season: 12 wins or more, a top five finish in either total yards or total points (the Chiefs were never not a top six team in scoring since Mahomes took over) and a legitimate MVP run from their starting quarterback, who won the award in 2018. They did this despite the unprecedented speed at which NFL teams catch up in the modern game. Technology, combined with an ever-expanding pool of talent, are destroyers of dynastic aspirations. Just ask the Eagles, who loudly extended all of their core players through a window in the early 2020s, only to trade their franchise quarterback and dismiss their Super Bowl winning head coach a few years later.
To say these things are inevitable is to not excuse what has been happening. The Chiefs have struggled to expand their running game beyond middling. There are (despite some strengths) some obvious soft spots on their offensive line. Their defense, which came into the week 28th in both yards surrendered and points surrendered, as well as 30th in net passing yards per attempt and 30th in net rushing yards per attempt, is atrocious. The roster has taken on a kind of top-heavy feel, in which they are dependent on a few critical pieces to carry the load.
1. Winning consistently is hard
We need to acknowledge that great teams have down seasons. Winning each week is tough in the NFL, let alone for multiple years in a row.
The Chiefs have been elite. They have made three straight AFC Championship Games and two straight Super Bowls, one of which they won to snap a 50-year title drought.
They’ve won games with a high-powered offense that has finished first, third and second the last three seasons in Offensive DVOA.
The Kansas City defense was bad in 2018, improved considerably in 2019 (especially in the second half of the season) and then regressed a bit last season.
Whatever warts the Chiefs had, Mahomes always has made up the difference. He won the league MVP in his first full season in 2018 and hadn’t shown any signs of regression heading into 2021.
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Nothing went right for the Chiefs on Sunday. Patrick Mahomes threw for just 41 yards in the first half while the Titans jumped out to a 27-0 lead. The defense couldn’t stop Tennessee’s receivers, the offensive line couldn’t stop the pass rush and Mahomes was inaccurate. The “worry level” for the Chiefs reached a new high on Sunday.
In a season where the common refrain has been for the league, collectively, to await this team returning to its perch atop the AFC, it may be more salient to consider why that is, and what evidence this outfit has provided that 2021 will be anything like 2020, or 2019 or 2018. Sure, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid are super special, but this team is seriously flawed, lacking any balance on offense, with Mahomes becoming a mistake machine and now having to deal with adversity the likes of which he has never seen before as a pro, and with Kansas City’s defense threatening to go down as the worst in league history.
Some of the credit belongs to offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who called a beautiful game in the first half on Sunday. Aware that the Chiefs would be focused on slowing Henry, who leads the league in rushing by a large amount, he used play-action, screens and passes from the Wildcat formation to exploit the defense.
What could help put the Titans over the top, however, is the defense. It has struggled at times this season, largely because of injuries, but Sunday was a glimpse of its potential. After ranking last in the league in sacks per pass attempt in 2020, the front office made additions such as outside linebacker Bud Dupree, whose strip-sack on the Chiefs’ opening series set the tone. Sunday was indeed a reminder of what could be.
Patrick Mahomes runs out of magic. The star quarterback threw another forced pass that turned into a turnover, lost a fumble, and was knocked out late after taking a knee to the facemask late in the blowout loss. Facing a defense that’s been decimated in the secondary, the Chiefs offense was unrecognizable, unable to sustain drives, making unforced errors and looking out of sorts all afternoon. The Chiefs generated a measly 67 total yards in the first two quarters, averaging 3.9 yards per play, never crossing midfield. With the defense unable to get a stop, it seems like Mahomes feels he must be perfect each drive, which has led to forced passes that have ended in turnovers. Sunday’s loss was a culmination of issues that plagued K.C. as it fell to 3-4, further behind in the playoff race as we near the midway part of the season.
The Titans gave Henry the ball six times on their eight-play touchdown drive to open the game. But they did it creatively: Sure, there were four inside handoffs to Henry, along with one short swing pass, as the Titans roamed down the field easily.
Once they got within sniffing distance of the end zone, however, the Titans mixed things up.
Hearkening back to the Titans’ stirring playoff victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the 2019 season, the Titans called on Henry to throw a pass instead. Henry lofted his pass to tight end MyCole Pruitt for an early 7-0 Tennessee lead.
Is there anything this man can’t do? Henry came into Sunday with back-to-back three-TD games and is starting to receive some serious early MVP mention.
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However, on Sunday, after the Rams defeated the Lions 28-17, Stafford expressed relief that he could finally put the reunion behind him.
“Am I happy it’s over with? Yeah,” said Stafford, who requested a trade from Lions ownership after last season. “Got a lot of great friends, got a lot of people I care about that are on that team or from that city and just glad to have this one over with. Can put the storylines away and just go out and play football the rest of the year and just enjoy it.”
Why the Raiders won
There was nothing more to say about how good Derek Carr was in this game. Arguably the best performance of Carr’s career, he finished with just three incompletions on the day and a 91.2 completion percentage — the second-highest in a game in league history (minimum 30 attempts). Drew Brees, who went 29 of 30 (96.7%) two years ago, holds the top honor.
Carr had his fifth 300-yard passing game of the season (most in the NFL) as he delivered from a clean pocket all day — without his top target in Darren Waller. The Raiders quarterback delivered throws in a few tight windows, but overall had his pass catchers wide open throughout the day.
He finished with 323 yards and averaged 9.5 yards per attempt. Carr took whatever the Eagles defense gave him — and capitalized.
Wilson said after the game that a PCL injury would be a best-case scenario and that he and the team are hopeful that’s the case. He added that he heard a “pop” in his knee when the injury occurred and that his knee feels “loose,” per SNY’s Ralph Vacchiano.
“We’ve just got tough, resilient guys that don’t back down under pressure,” Burrow said. “(Baltimore) puts the most pressure on you of any team that I’ve played in the league. We really responded today.”
Burrow was 23-of-38 passing for a career-high 416 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The bulk of those receiving yards went to Chase, who had eight catches for 201 yards and a touchdown, setting the NFL record for most receiving yards by any player in his first seven games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
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2. The offense can lose games, too
Through the team’s first three losses, we have tended to blame turnovers for the team’s offensive woes. And that wasn’t wrong; those turnovers played a big role in those losses.
But it’s hard to say that about this loss to the Titans. The team certainly might have been able to succeed on one or two drives that were cut short by turnovers — but it’s not as if the offense was succeeding on the drives where they were able to hang onto the ball, either.
To put it more simply: turnovers in previous losses kept the offense from scoring enough touchdowns to win. On Sunday, turnovers prevented the team from scoring touchdowns at all.
I’m previously suggested that quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been pressing too hard — and that it is part of the reason he has made an uncharacteristically high number of turnovers.
But in this particular game, it’s difficult to criticize the quarterback for pressing too hard — because nothing was working. To be sure, Mahomes himself played a significant role in the team’s offensive failures on Sunday — we can’t even say his two turnovers weren’t really his fault — but it isn’t fair to blame it all on him, either. On Sunday, there was plenty of offensive blame to go around.
Trey Smith: The right guard had two holding calls go against him — and gave up a sack to push the Chiefs to fourth-and-21 and a missed field goal. He’s been great this season — but it wasn’t his best performance.
Orlando Brown Jr.: The left tackle allowed two sacks on one fourth-quarter drive when the Chiefs were finally putting something together. Even before an in-depth analysis, it’s safe to say that Brown didn’t have a good day.
Andy Reid: This team wasn’t ready for the Titans. Period. There were also some questionable play-calls. But what confirmed he’d be on this list was the confusing sequence where the Chiefs took a sack, ran the punt team on, then the field goal team, burned a timeout and missed a 57-yard field goal — all of this while they were down 24 points. When the failure is as widespread as it was in this game, the buck stops with the head coach.