If you're a fan who likes to experience the full swing of emotions throughout a football game, the Kansas City Chiefs provided that opportunity very well this past Sunday in Denver against the Broncos.
Early on, it appeared it was going to be a nonstop fun, stressless Sunday of viewing for Chiefs fans, as the team dominated early in what would become the 14th straight win over the Denver Broncos. Yet, as is too often the case in recent years for the Chiefs, things became very tense, nervous, and perhaps even anger-inducing as the Broncos quickly mounted a comeback, all the way to a 27-21 score.
So what caused this near meltdown? And how can the team avoid it occurring again throughout the rest of the season?
Let's dig into the film:
On the first defensive series with a 27-point lead after linebacker Willie Gay Jr.'s pick-six, another three-and-out was forced by the Chiefs' defense, with two big plays coming from rookie first-round draft picks: defensive end George Karlaftis and cornerback Trent McDuffie.
In the clip below, the Chiefs would love to see Karlaftis get the quarterback down, and it's admittedly a hard job when Russell Wilson is capable of quick, sudden movements. Chiefs fans know from watching Patrick Mahomes that quick pressure without finishing the job defensively can sometimes lead to even worse results than if the pressure had never been there at all.
However, Karlaftis deserves credit for clearly starting to ascend his game here in December.
Will he ever be a dominant All-Pro who leads the league in sacks? Probably not. But his improvements — no matter how big or small they may be — are critical for this team to close the season with the ultimate prize.
Up 27 here, whether sequenced plan or reactionary, it's good to see Karfaftis taking advantage of the quick overset by the LT to get Wilson moved off his spot. pic.twitter.com/Yy9l6ctSQp— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
As for McDuffie, in what would easily be described as his worst game so far, it still was far from bad. To close out that first drive up 27 points, McDuffie showed more of the familiar technique and poise. On this play, he sticks tight to his receiver in coverage — as well as anyone on the roster.
Couple plays later on 3rd & 7, it was McDuffie's turn. Times up his turn perfectly vs. WRs vertical route and because of that is able to comfortably plaster 89 start to finish. pic.twitter.com/XtAX48RLQk— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
The Chiefs' offense then retook the field, up 27-0 with the halftime break quickly approaching. This is where Mahomes' first big mistake came. The interception below is a risk that I'm not sure he would be willing to take had they not been up so much.
The increased margin for error has always led Mahomes to take more chances — it's why many of his interceptions throughout his career have come with multi-score leads.
The first INT - Josey Jewell threw out some bait and 15 saw an opportunity to throw a seed into a small window for a huge gain. pic.twitter.com/L2SQmWRx4L— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
When the defense was forced back out on the field, they too appeared to lack focus. Maybe, more importantly, the pass rush was non-existent, which allowed Wilson time to make plays that aren't always realistic.
The defense was also very soft in this initial Denver scoring drive and too soft, in hindsight. Denver is the kind of offense you can count on to often screw things up on their own, but they didn't late in the first half.
After the first INT, watching Jeudy in the slot at the top half of the screen.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
To me you need more pressure up front to have the best chance at beating such a cadenced route. Russ was too comfortable in his drop. pic.twitter.com/YkTq4ym5ED
The ball went back to Kansas City with just a couple of minutes remaining in the second quarter, and it really wasn't all bad. There were still glimpses of the traditional excellent Mahomes-led passing attack even while he appeared more nonchalant than normal.
27-7 score with a couple mins before half - it really didn't have to go as sour as it did.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
3rd & 7 here and you get good Mahomes vs. pressure; 20-yd gain toward midfield and appear headed toward another 3-7 points. pic.twitter.com/CSO5atMudm
It wasn't for long, though, as just after Smith-Schuster's impressive third down conversion, Mahomes once again attempted a throw that simply didn't need to occur.
Back in 2019, when the Chiefs played the Tennesse Titans during the regular season, Mahomes attempted a similar jump pass that resulted in a very long Mecole Hardman touchdown reception.
That play must have boosted confidence that such a throw can end with a positive result — and with Mahomes, it can. However, it still isn't likely to end well, and it did not on Sunday, when one of the league's very best cornerbacks, Patrick Surtain Jr., made a phenomenal interception.
INT 2 - Mahomes already said it but just not a ball you can throw given all the circumstances. And honestly I don't think he does if it's a tight game that had a more tense feel to it at the time. pic.twitter.com/NeiunNLHQE— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
The ball then went back to Denver, and the reliance on the blitz continued to burn Kansas City. The type of call made on second-and-14 in the clip below by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is more frequent when you don't trust your defensive line to create pressure on their own, unfortunately.
Live by the blitz, die by the blitz.
I imagine Spagnuolo feels his hands are tied somewhat each week because when teams can limit defensive tackle Chris Jones, quarterbacks do not feel threatened by the four-man pass rush.
Final min of the half, Spagnuolo takes a gamble on 2nd & 10 and loses.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
Blitz gets blocked up and the underneath zone defenders have to run vertically given nature of the routes. Wide open for Wilson to take an easy first. pic.twitter.com/mJj5KcLqF6
The problems weren't limited to the front of the defense either — miscommunications in the secondary, once or twice a game, have become a steady theme for this unit. With so many rookies, you expect this sort of thing early in the year.
It's December now, though. Playoff football is on the horizon. Opposing offenses are going to score, sure, but it can't be made this easy due to silly mental errors.
The TD to make it 27-14: poor communication up top between McDuffie and Sneed.— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
Sneed thinks they are switching if the WRs cross, McDuffie thinks he has the same guy no matter what. Stuff you can't have 14 weeks into the year. pic.twitter.com/RgwCynD0ij
Opening the second half, another blitz killed the Chiefs when Denver called up a screen right, where Kansas City's extra defenders were coming from. This is why blitzing more is no simple fix for this defense moving forward.
M. Mack makes it 27-21: Spags wants a re-do on this one. Perfect play for the offense to the ideal side of the field, too. pic.twitter.com/02v2ejXASG— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
When the game was still 27-21 and the Chiefs' offense struggled with back-to-back three-and-outs, the defense responded with multiple quick series of their own to give the ball back to Mahomes.
Next drive, still up 27-21, they're alert for the screen on 2nd-and-long. pic.twitter.com/GQUFopemUb— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
I can appreciate the effort from Harris and B. Williams -- especially nice to see Williams make this rep hard on 61 from the start. pic.twitter.com/52f8lvCzWr— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
New defensive tackle Brandon Williams did flash at times in his 15 snaps Sunday, something for fans to be hopeful about as the season progresses. I pondered if he could be their new Mike Pennel within this defense — and that appears possible, if not likely.
Despite a brutal stretch of turnovers and punts, the offense finally had success against late to put the game out of reach once and for all. Mahomes returned to his natural playmaking self while being warier of putting the ball in harm's way.
The drive to finally stop the bleeding:— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
Noah Gray really has become one of the best pass catchers on the team in these extended play windows. He stays working. pic.twitter.com/qQ1l8mfMsL
Enjoy the good moments too. Denver plays this perfectly for the most part but Patrick Mahomes is 1 of 1. (less hits like this plz though Pat) pic.twitter.com/gBKGgUpeum— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) December 14, 2022
The bottom line
It wasn't the most enjoyable viewing experience, but the Chiefs got yet another win over their longtime rival, on the road, in December. The team is 10-3, tied atop the AFC, with a decent chance to still come out of the regular season as the conference's No. 1 seed.
They have problems that need improvement, but guess what? So does every other team. The most passionate fans just notice the Chiefs' weaknesses much more.
For now, I encourage fans to be critical and understand that this team certainly does have hurdles to climb if they want to be playing in Arizona for Super Bowl LVII, but we also recognize the moment we are in watching perhaps the most talented quarterback the sport has ever seen.
Issues and all, Kansas City has as good of a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy as anybody else.