The Kansas City Chiefs were in a wonderful situation even before their game against the Las Vegas Raiders kicked off Sunday night. With losses by both the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos earlier in the day, the winner of the Chiefs–Raiders game would have the lead in the AFC West.
This was not lost on Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu.
“Every game from here on out is a must-win game for us,” he told reporters after Kansas City’s 41-14 win on Sunday Night Football. “That’s really how we’re looking at it. Every game is important. Every series is important. And in those critical down and distances, you want good on good. Whoever you think your guy is — and whoever you think their guy is — let’s play.”
A big part of Sunday’s victory was the Chiefs’ ability to contain standout Raiders tight end Darren Waller, who was leading Las Vegas both in targets and receiving yards. Mathieu thought part of that owed to how Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo chose to cover him
“He wasn’t necessarily featured as much as he’s been featured in the past,” said Mathieu of Waller. “I thought Spags had a couple wrinkles for him: I think [Melvin Ingram] bumping him sometimes at the line of scrimmage, obviously me covering him [and L’Jarius Sneed] in certain situations — just trying to mix up the looks that he sees. I think it’s going to pay a lot for us going forward.”
Throughout the broadcast, Waller was shown running routes with little space against an array of defenders — including Mathieu, who covered him in a critical drive before halftime. The Chiefs were able to hold the Raiders' biggest receiving threat to only four catches on seven targets for 24 yards.
But limiting Waller wasn't the only thing that stood out. The defense also displayed sure tackling and strong coverage throughout the game. Sneed followed up his great Week 9 performance against the Green Bay Packers’ Davante Adams right from the very first drive, making great open-field tackles to force fourth downs.
“He’s coming into his own,” noted Mathieu of the second-year cornerback. “I know he probably [wasn’t] making the plays early in the season that I thought he would make — and he thought — but he’s coming along, man. I think the whole world would know his name by the end of the season.”
For three consecutive games, the Chiefs’ defense has held opposing teams to under 17 points. The first two matchups were against the New York Giants with Daniel Jones — and the Packers with first-time starter Jordan Love. But in Sunday night’s game, the unit was facing Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr, who shredded the Kansas City defense in both of 2020’s games.
“I think every year, defensively, you deal with what teams are going to present to you next,” said Mathieu. “So it took us a couple — obviously, more than a couple — of weeks to kind of start to communicate and see what teams are really trying to do against us. But we’ve got some good coaches — and then the guys we got on our team, they’re all in. So we knew it was going to get there. And we still feel like we could be much better.”
As our Ron Kopp Jr. noted shortly after the game, the Kansas City defense has been superb on third down in the last two games, holding the Raiders and Packers to only a 14% success rate.
#Chiefs held Raiders and Packers to a combined 3/21 on 3rd down conversion attempts last two weeks, a 14% success rate— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 15, 2021
“I think we’re going to continue to get better — just like the last couple of seasons,” said Mathieu. “I see us being one of the better defenses when it matters the most: late in the season.”
After putting together three straight wins and taking over the lead in the AFC West, there is optimism around the team that they are putting together those kinds of performances.
“We got a strong team. We got a strong character,” explained Mathieu. “I think our coaches are well-seasoned and experienced men. So we know that we have a chance and we have a shot every time we prepare — each and every week. And at the end of the day, it comes down to execution — and that falls on the players. And I thought tonight we executed the right way. And I thought our coaches did what they needed to do as well.”
Mathieu said that while the team has struggled to meet expectations to begin the season, he has confidence in his teammates — and his coaches.
“I think it’s always going to be people kind of nitpicking,” he noted. “Everybody has expectations for the Kansas City Chiefs, [after] being [in] the last couple of Super Bowls. This game is hard — and flows [with] ups and downs — but I wouldn’t want to be in this with nobody else. I think Spags is one of those guys I want my foxhole — and you have to go on and on. So those are the things that we believe in. And so that’s what we’re going to continue to believe in.”
But Mathieu and the Chiefs aren’t counting their blessings just yet.
“They’re not crowning anybody in November,” he reminded his listeners. “We’ve got a lot more games left. The Chargers coming up, the Cowboys — [we] got some big games coming up. That’s really where our focus should be at. But obviously, with the way we started the season, this position is very humbling. And so we’ve got to keep it going.”