The most amazing part of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ phenomenal career has been how easily he seems to play the position. But this is also exactly why stretches of his offense mustering around 20 points attracts so much worry and questioning.
That’s been the theme of the team’s current winning streak, which was extended in familiar fashion with a 22-9 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday night. After another first-quarter touchdown — the fifth in as many games — the offense coasted while the team’s stout, play-making defense and impactful special teams allowed them to outlast a division rival. After their initial possessions, the offense mustered only six points.
The victory put the Chiefs alone at the top of the AFC West — but it featured quarterback Patrick Mahomes throwing for one of his lowest yardage totals of the season, no touchdowns for the second-straight game and the lowest passer rating of his entire career: just 57.3.
It’s not just obvious to us watching from the stands and at home; after the game, Mahomes admitted that during an already-underwhelming stretch, it wasn’t much of a step forward.
“Obviously we feel like we aren’t playing our best football,” Mahomes told reporters. “We have spurts where we’re really good, then we have spurts where we aren’t scoring and we’re not finding ways to finish drives. As a competitor, you want to be better.”
It was especially disappointing coming off a bye week. This was the lowest scoring output for a Chiefs team playing a post-bye week game in the Mahomes era; the second-lowest was 35 points.
After seemingly mastering the opening script, the offense failed to create scoring opportunities outside of that; the same can be said about the previous four games.
It was hard to blame any part of the scheme and game plan against Denver — and Mahomes recognizes that frustrating, recurring theme.
“I say it every week: we just didn’t execute at certain positions,” he reflected. “There were throws I didn’t make, there were plays that didn’t get made and there were penalties at inopportune times. We had stuff there, we had plays that were open, we thought we did a good job of getting stuff going — [and] then we just didn’t finish drives.”
Kansas City capped off the first drive with a red-zone touchdown, but failed to score another offensive touchdown — even though they ended four other drives in Denver territory. The non-scoring drives ended in a similar fashion as many others this season: with self-inflicted mistakes or turnovers.
Looking to extend the 10-3 lead, Kansas City’s offense opened the second half with a promising drive — but a pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill deflected off his hands into the those of Denver’s Patrick Surtain II for an interception.
Patrick Mahomes finally shows some understandable visable frustration after the Tyreek Hill drop-and-pop pick. Just such a bad — and recurring — problem for the #Chiefs this season.— Pete Sweeney (@pgsween) December 6, 2021
Multiple drops by wide receiver Byron Pringle also negated potentially significant gains. Unfortunately, Mahomes is now used to answering questions about how to handle these moments.
“All I can do is have better ball placement on some of those,” he noted. “Like the one to Tyreek was a little high and hard — so just finding ways to make it easier on them. These guys make plays, so I’m going to keep throwing the football to them and they’re going to go out there and make plays happen. If [a drop] happens, it happens — and we’ll move on to the next play.”
It’s one thing for reserve wide receivers like Mecole Hardman and Marcus Kemp to have passes bounce off their hands and shoulder pads — but there’s naturally a heightened level of frustration when it happens with the elite players. The interception off Hill’s hands was the third such interception of the season.
It’s a unique issue, because there’s no strategy or practice plan to fix it — and the more you think about it, the worse it can be.
“They just have to be themselves, there’s nothing they have to do extra,” insisted Mahomes. “They have the talent, they have the play-making ability. [They need to] just continue to go out there and be themselves... we expect greatness from each other.”
For the game, Hill and tight end Travis Kelce finished with a combined five catches for 49 yards on 13 targets — one of the lowest combined production totals we’ve ever seen from them. Hill didn’t have a single catch after the team’s first drive — and neither had a reception that gained more than 14 yards.
Instead, running backs Darrel Williams and Clyde Edwards-Helaire stepped up to carry the (light) load through the air. They combined for six catches and 88 yards — each having a play of 29 or more yards as a receiver.
The two finished with 161 total yards, accounting for 60% of the offense. That speaks to how ineffective the unit was at what they truly wanted to do — but it’s also an example of what it takes to win when talented defenses force the ball away from Kelce and Hill.
“You figure when you get close to the playoffs and try to make a run at things, teams will try to take away those two guys,” said Mahomes. “Other guys are going to have to step up. This week it was the running backs out of the backfield — next week, it could be other receivers or tight ends.”
It’s understandable to hear players talk about poor execution in Weeks 3 or 4 — or even Weeks 6 or 7 — but this was a Week 13 performance out of a bye week. At this point of the season, the Kansas City offense just doesn’t seem to have the ability to play without these fundamental errors and costly turnovers.
In response, the coaching staff has resorted to trusting a strong defense and a sound special teams unit to get them to the finish line in each game — similar to how they treated the Alex Smith-led offenses of the past; an example of this attitude was not trying to score points on the team’s final possession before halftime — even though there was 1:12 remaining and the team had two timeouts.
That style of play has provided regular-season wins — and as we saw those prior teams do, it still can — but it’s not the right strategy when it counts; postseason success will depend on the offense’s ability to outscore another elite offense.