The Kansas City Chiefs came back in the second half to snatch a 33-29 victory over the Cleveland Browns to open the 2021 season at Arrowhead Stadium. Here are five things that we learned from the game:
1. Intangibles matter
Among some Chiefs fans, it has become fashionable to say that Kansas City defensive end Frank Clark isn’t worth the money he is being paid — or to quote Pro Football Focus grades that show All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu is only the 36th-best safety in the league.
And strictly based on each player’s statistical production, they’re not wrong.
But the Chiefs didn’t give a first and second-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks — and make a five-year, $105 million deal — just so Clark would put up pretty sack stats. Nor did they give Mathieu a three-year, $42 million deal just to accumulate PFF grades.
Instead, they acquired both players to set the tone for the defense being assembled by new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. To be sure... Clark’s ability to set the edge against the run has been an important part of the Kansas City defense. And Mathieu’s ability to fulfill multiple roles in the secondary — and keep his back-end teammates lined up in the right way — has also been a key part of the defense’s effectiveness.
But against Cleveland, both of these players were on the sideline. That’s the first time that’s happened since they joined the team in 2019. And as a result, the defense looked a lot more like the one the Chiefs fielded before they arrived. It gave up 318 yards to the Browns in the first half — 98 yards of it on the ground — and 22 points. It also looked disorganized — and frankly, outclassed.
Give the defenders credit: in the second half, they worked their way back, getting key stops and coming up with two turnovers that changed the flow of the game. But if you’ve ever wondered how a player’s intangibles — that is, their attitude and leadership — affect a football team, look no further than the first half of Sunday afternoon’s game.
2. The offensive line played about as well as we should have expected
There’s a reason I was a late convert to the idea that the Chiefs could start multiple rookies on the offensive line in 2021: as a contending team (with the franchise quarterback of franchise quarterbacks), they could little afford a learning curve on the front five.
Just the same, it’s been fun to imagine that the line would open the season by dominating the opposition, giving Mahomes all day to throw and creating running lanes that your Uncle Jake could turn into big gains.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Playing against the Browns’ front seven, that’s exactly what we should have expected. But what the line did do on Sunday was hold its own. After what was (for him) a rough opening half, Mahomes played brilliantly after halftime. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was rendered ineffective through two quarters— but starting in the third, he was effective enough to give the offense the balance it needed to maximize its effectiveness.
None of that would have happened without a competent offensive line — and in the second half, that’s what it was.
So let’s temper our expectations a little. There’s clearly enough talent on the line for it to be a top unit. But during the first few weeks of the season — perhaps even through the opening half — it’s probably unreasonable to expect them to be among the league’s best. Fortunately, Sunday’s game proved that they don’t have to be. Right now, they’re good enough to keep the offense moving. Later — when it matters most — they’ll be the unit we’ve been dreaming about.
3. Andy Reid will always be dreaming up trick plays
I’m going to guess that with the team’s newly-revamped offensive line, most fans expected that we wouldn’t see the head coach bring out many new trick plays in the first game of the season.
The Browns blew up a tackle-eligible pass to offensive lineman Mike Remmers in the second quarter. In the third quarter, the offense was lining up in a formation with tight end Blake Bell and wide receiver Tyreek Hill flanking Travis Kelce in the shotgun — with Mahomes lining up behind Kelce — but Hill and Mahomes jumped before the snap, turning the play into a 5-yard penalty. Both of those plays were inside the 10-yard line — but were on first and second down, allowing both drives to end in touchdowns anyway.
A little later, in the third quarter, the Chiefs ran a clever trick play that actually worked. With Mahomes in the shotgun on third-and-1, Bell went into motion across the formation, pausing behind Creed Humphrey to take the snap and run for a first down — a sort of “tight-end sneak.”
I know many fans think the team will be better off leaving these plays behind, depending on the offensive line to open holes for running backs at the goal line. But as I have noted, those days are coming. Until then, we’re still going to see Reid try these plays in those situations. The really good news is that once the offensive line can threaten to impose its will in those situations, the plays will work a lot better. And that will make them what they’re supposed to be: fun.
4. Sometimes, the officials do get it right
During the opening Kansas City offensive drive, a first-and-10 play at the Chiefs’ 47-yard line gained 11 yards with a completed pass to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Browns’ Mack Wilson and Ronnie Harrison Jr. combined for the tackle along the right sideline in front of the Kansas City bench. After the whistle, there was a scuffle. It appeared that Harrison was standing on Edwards-Helaire, who was on his back. A Chiefs assistant coach — I believe it was running backs coach Greg Lewis — tried to shove Harrison away, getting a punch in the face for his trouble.
At first, officials called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on “the Kansas City bench,” which would have made the next play a first-and-25 at the Kansas City 43. But after officials stepped off the penalty (and endured a tongue-lashing from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid), it appeared that those watching in New York intervened. Ultimately, officials called another penalty on Harrison, creating offsetting penalties — but Harrison was also ejected from the game.
Both penalties were deserved. The Chiefs’ assistant coach shouldn't have made contact with Harrison. Harrison shouldn’t have retaliated. Offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — giving the Chiefs a first down where Edwards-Helaire was tackled — was the correct result. And Harrison should have been ejected. NFL coaches shouldn’t get involved in these situations — but it’s even worse for players to slug them when they do.
It may have taken an intervention from New York — but in this particular case, the officials got it right.
5. It’s wise not to bet against Patrick Mahomes in September
Going into Sunday’s game, Mahomes had appeared in 10 September games during his four-year NFL career — all of them as the starting quarterback. In those games, he completed 250 passes on 370 attempts (68%) for 3,304 yards and 32 touchdowns — with zero interceptions — along with 190 yards (and a touchdown) on 37 rushing attempts. His passer rating in those 10 games was a smoking 124.8.
And oh, yes... the Chiefs won every one of those games.
With Sunday’s game — in which Mahomes was 27 of 36 for 337 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, along with five rushes for 18 yards and a touchdown — he now has 3,641 yards, 35 touchdowns (and still no interceptions) over 11 September games. His passer rating for the season’s first month has now improved to 125.4.
To give you a sense of how well Mahomes plays to open every season, consider this: extending these 11 games over an entire 17-game season, it would be 5,627 yards and 54 passing touchdowns. That would be a new single-season record for passing yards — and just one touchdown shy of the all-time record for passing touchdowns.
This streak won’t last forever. But it is truly amazing (and a lot of fun) to watch.