Here are five things we learned in Week 11.
1. Sometimes, being so wrong isn’t so bad
Here’s the prediction I wrote for the Chiefs-Cowboys game:
If I were totally convinced that the Kansas City offense would repeat its Week 10 performance against the Las Vegas Raiders, I’d pick the Chiefs to win this game. I’d also do it if I were completely persuaded that the team’s defensive performance during the last three weeks is more a result of its ability than a reflection of the offenses it faced. Unfortunately, I am not yet convinced. All it will take for me to get there, however, is for the Chiefs to win this game convincingly. Please make it so, Chiefs — but until you do, I have no choice. Cowboys 28, Chiefs 24
I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier to have a game prediction be so disastrously wrong.
But I was right about one thing: all it would take for Kansas City to beat Dallas was for either the offense or the defense to play up to the standards we expect. The offense may have been only a shell of the unit we saw against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 10 — but that defense? Man... that was something to see. It wasn’t quite what I would call a convincing win... but in the NFL, sometimes that’s all you get.
2. On offense, it’s just about consistency
As the Week 10 victory over the Raiders made abundantly clear, it isn’t necessary for the Chiefs to be making huge plays downfield in order for the offense to dominate — or for quarterback Patrick Mahomes to be the player we all want him to be. But as we saw far too often during Mahomes’ five-game slump, it’s just not possible for him to play sandlot ball in the NFL. Defensive players are just too good — and defensive coordinators are just too smart.
And while Mahomes did an excellent job of successfully adapting to a different style of play against Las Vegas — essentially returning to head coach Andy Reid’s West Coast offense that worked so well before Mahomes took the reins in 2018 — on Sunday, he simply backslid.
It’s hard to blame him. He’s spent his entire career relying on his instincts his athletic ability to make plays — and up to now, it’s made him extremely successful. But as we’ve now seen in six of the last seven games, defenses now know exactly how to defend against his instinctive style of play. In order for Mahomes to sustain his career, he can’t just pay lip service to “taking what the defense gives him” in press conferences. He must fully adapt to it.
As we have now seen over and over again, Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are perfectly capable of designing an early-game script where Mahomes can do exactly what is required of him. But once those 15 plays have been exhausted, the quarterback apparently has enough leeway to return to his instincts — and he does. It is time for the Chiefs to do whatever it takes to provide a consistent offensive framework in which their star quarterback can not just succeed, but thrive.
3. Shock and awe works
It was very impressive to see the attitude and physicality the Chiefs displayed during their opening drives on both offense and defense. Throughout the first half, it was clear that one team had shown up to play — and another one had not. That — along with an amped-up Arrowhead crowd — helped the Chiefs to force numerous mistakes.
Frank Clark’s first-quarter strip-sack of Dak Prescott — which Chris Jones recovered — happened because Clark was unblocked on the play. It’s not a coincidence that on the two previous plays, Nick Bolton and L’Jarius Sneed had made spectacular tackles for loss.
Later in the first quarter — with the crowd roaring as Dallas lined up for a third-and-5 at the Kansas City 10-yard line — La’el Collins was called for a false start. On third-and-10, Charvarius Ward stuck to Michael Gallup like glue in the end zone — and the Cowboys were forced to kick a field goal.
On a third-and-9 in the second quarter, Prescott found Dalton Schultz for a 17-yard gain that put the Cowboys at the Kansas City 37-yard line. But the play was negated when Terrence Steele — who had failed to block Clark in the first quarter — was called for holding. Pushed back across midfield, the Cowboys were eventually forced to punt.
Eventually, Kansas City’s physicality caused the Cowboys to lose their cool. Just before halftime, Prescott was sacked on consecutive plays. On the ensuing punt, Dallas cornerback C.J. Goodwin did his very best to remove Rashad Fenton’s head using the convenient handle attached to the front of Fenton’s helmet. Naturally, the Kansas City corner objected to this treatment — drawing a well-deserved unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — but it took much too long for the officiating crew to recognize that there should have been two flags on the play.
After that, both teams cooled off — but by then, the damage was done. The Cowboys would never threaten again.
4. Five games don’t make a whole season
It was just five weeks ago that the Chiefs had a record of 2-3. Over five games, they had allowed 32.6 points a game — worst in the league — and 437.4 yards per game, which was second-worst. They possessed the league’s worst marks in touchdowns allowed and sacks made. Only the winless Jacksonville Jaguars had a worse turnover margin.
People often used the word “historic” to describe the team’s defense — and they weren’t giving compliments. Some were demanding that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo be fired... immediately.
But during the next five weeks of the season — including the blowout loss to the Tennessee Titans — the Chiefs were 4-1. They allowed 15.6 points per game — tied for the league’s second-best mark — and 309 yards per game, which ranked eighth. They were tied for seventh in touchdowns allowed and 23rd in sacks made. And their team’s turnover margin was tied for 19th-best.
And then there’s the defense’s performance against Dallas on Sunday: just nine points and 276 yards allowed. No touchdowns were given up, while the team made five sacks — easily the season’s best mark. And the team ended with a turnover margin of plus one.
And this came against the league’s top offense.
This doesn’t mean that the defense will finish the season as the league’s top unit — or guarantee that on the other side of the bye week, there won’t be some defensive performances that look more like the season’s first five. But now, there is no longer any question: we know the defense can play at a level high enough for the Chiefs to be real contenders.
5. Something old is new again
With this defensive resurgence, more than a few have been reminded of the suffocating defenses fielded by the great Marty Schottenheimer in the early to mid-1990s. While it’s a little early to go there, it’s certainly a worthy goal for Spagnuolo’s unit.
But part of that comparison has to do with the relative inefficiency of the Kansas City offense during recent weeks. And therein lies the irony: except for the two glorious seasons during which Joe Montana was under center, Schottenheimer’s teams never had a quarterback capable of doing much more than handing the ball to running backs behind an overwhelming offensive line — or receivers who could threaten any defense. It worked well enough for the Chiefs to be one of the most successful teams of the era — but not well enough for the team to succeed in the postseason.
Now, of course, we know that the team has the quarterback (and receivers) it needs to contend in January and February. And with the newly-revamped offensive line — and a pair of running backs who know how to run behind it — all it’s going to take is for the Chiefs to find a way to properly balance those threats.
If they can, this team will be unstoppable.