It’s never easy, is it?
On Sunday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs had to go to overtime to beat a one-win Houston Texans team that was severely depleted by injuries. The Chiefs’ offense was able to move the ball both in the air and on the ground. The defense made some stops and forced a turnover. But the offense also turned the ball over twice — and both units were ravaged with penalties.
Once again, Kansas City didn’t really look like a championship team — and once again, it may not really matter: the team still won the game.
Here are some who stood out on Sunday.
Note: Applying the labels “winners” and “losers” is not intended to be a judgment on the talent or character of any of these players. It’s just a simple way to grade their performance in a single game. No disrespect is intended.
Running back Jerick McKinnon: With shades of Damien Williams in the Super Bowl, McKinnon clinched this victory. After linebacker Willie Gay Jr. got the ball back on an overtime fumble recovery, McKinnon weaved through the defense and up the left side of the field for a decisive 26-yard score. It was an exclamation point to another big day for the little guy, who gained 122 total yards and scored two touchdowns.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes: In some ways, this was the polar opposite of his performance against the Denver Broncos. It lacked the unbelievable highlights — but also the unbelievable mistakes. Mahomes was surgical against the Houston defense, with 20 straight completions to close out this game. His stat line was typical: 336 yards passing, with two passing touchdowns and one on the ground. Six different receivers caught every one of their targets, because Mahomes just didn’t miss (he had an 88% completion rate on the day). When the game was on the line, the Chiefs leaned on their running game — plus the connection between Mahomes and his two most reliable targets: tight end Travis Kelce and wideout Juju Smith-Schuster. The only real blemish was Mahomes’ overtime sack that took Kansas City out of field goal range — but otherwise, the MVP orchestrated an efficient offensive performance.
Tight end Travis Kelce: With his second catch of the day, Kelce moved up in the record books. He’s now passed Shannon Sharpe to stand in fourth place for all-time receiving yards by a tight end. He then continued to be his usual zone-sitting, yards-after-catch-getting, clutch-receiving option. He ended the day by catching all ten of his targets for 105 yards — many of them on drives that the Chiefs had to have to win this game. There simply isn’t anyone better — well, maybe only three. He now needs 1,692 career yards to pass Antonio Gates on the all-time list.
EDGE Frank Clark: In the first half, he earned a relatively easy sack (just his fourth of the season) by chasing the quarterback out of bounds. But he was really doing work all afternoon. Of his five tackles, the first two were for no gain, the next was a sack and the next allowed only a yard. Then came his final tackle. In overtime, he stripped quarterback Davis Mills of the football after a two-yard gain, allowing the Chiefs to get the ball back (specifically, to give it to McKinnon on the next, game-winning play). He did have the dreaded number-55-lined-up-offsides flag that gives us flashbacks — but otherwise, Clark turned in a very good performance, making plays when the defense desperately needed them.
EDGE Carlos Dunlap: Like Clark, the 13th-year veteran was also getting stops at the line of scrimmage. Dunlap also had a pair of batted passes and a pair of quarterback hits that resulted in incompletions. The pass rush wasn’t elite on Sunday, but the veterans did make enough plays to get the job done.
Placekicker Harrison Butker: It shouldn’t have come down to a field goal at the end of regulation — but it did. And it didn’t go well. After Butker had missed a first-half extra point, the Chiefs went for two on their next score (which they converted) to make up for it. Then they played to set up a long field goal at the end of regulation to end the game — and Butker missed again. That sent the game into overtime. Luckily, McKinnon was able to finish it before they had to rely on another kick — but on the season, Butker now has a career-high in missed field goals. And it’s hurting the team.
Defensive lineman Chris Jones: There are reports that Jones was sick this week, so this isn’t an indictment of his effort on Sunday. But the big guy — typically a force on the inside — was fairly invisible against Houston. The team could have used his interior pass rush and big-play ability. Assuming he was just slowed down by his illness, we can expect him to soon return to his usual, dominant self.
Referee Carl Cheffers: As usual, we’ll remind you that you can’t blame officials for the outcome of a game. But you can point out the remarkable patterns created by one specific referee crew against Kansas City. Like a Bond villain who just won’t die, Cheffers and his crew could not help themselves from flagging what seemed like every third-down play the Chiefs’ defense had in this game. The Chiefs were flagged ten times for 102 yards — and many of them were questionable calls. The crew also picked up a few other flags, so it could have been even worse. This isn’t new, of course. Cheffers has plenty of history where he has ruined what should be fun games with excessive penalties. He was the culprit on the roughing-the-passer call that cost Chris Jones a sack/fumble against the Raiders. He was also in charge when Kansas City had an unreal 12 flags for 120 yards in their Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Five years ago, Kelce may have said it best: “Referee No. 51 shouldn’t even be able to wear a zebra jersey ever again. He shouldn’t even be able to work at f—king Foot Locker.”
The rest of the AFC West: Somewhat lost in the frustration of another too-close victory over a subpar opponent was that the Chiefs clinched the AFC West for the seventh straight season. Given that this was supposed to be somewhat of a reloading year, with so many rookies and second-year players playing significant snaps... with the loss of Tyreek Hill, Tyrann Mathieu and others who were such a big part the team in recent years — and finally, with the division’s other teams making big offseason moves to challenge Kansas City — it’s a remarkable accomplishment. For all its faults, the team is 11-3 and once again division champions. It will continue to compete for the AFC’s No. 1 seed and another Super Bowl. So don’t forget to appreciate the Chiefs — and to celebrate the run they are continuing. And also appreciate that Patrick Mahomes is not celebrating. That’s because the world’s greatest football player is not yet satisfied.