For the Kansas City Chiefs, 2023’s Groundhog Day came early.
In Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, we saw the same storylines pop up again. The Chiefs turned the ball over too much, had drive-extending penalties on defense and multiple miscues on special teams. These issues have become a pattern — one that might not change.
But there was something else that didn’t change: Kansas City won its 15th straight matchup with Denver.
Here are a few who stood out in another unsatisfying, too-close 27-24 victory.
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.
Wide receiver Kadarius Toney: The former New York Giants wideout was part of the Chiefs’ special teams woes this week, losing a fumble after a really fun punt return. But on offense, Toney was more involved than he has been since early November against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Toney caught all four of his targets for a team-high 71 yards. His 38-yard reception — where he fought off a defender and came back for the ball — was the longest play of the game for either team. The Chiefs could use his elusiveness as they head into the playoffs, so it’s nice to see them getting Toney going now.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes: He completed a pass to himself — in addition to 10 other Kansas City receivers. It wasn’t his best day at the office, but he did pass 300 yards for the 10th time this season, eclipsing 5,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns for the second time in his career. Mahomes missed some deep passes — and had an interception in the end zone — but when he had an opportunity to bring the Kansas City back in the second half, he did not disappoint. Sometimes during the postseason, the presumptive MVP will have to carry the team against much stronger opponents. On Sunday, he did enough to get the victory — and break a couple of records along the way.
Cornerback Trent McDuffie: The first of the team’s 2022 first-round picks has proven himself to be a valuable cover corner from the first time he stepped on the field. He might already be Kansas City’s most reliable defensive back — but on Sunday, he also showed that he can be a playmaker. Coming free on a perfectly-timed blitz, McDuffie sacked Denver quarterback Russell Wilson, forcing a fumble that fellow rookie George Karlaftis recovered. That play ended a Broncos scoring threat — and set up a field-goal attempt at the end of the first half.
Defensive lineman Chris Jones: He’s officially the team’s new closer, having sealed multiple victories with unstoppable pass rushes down the stretch in those games. It was Jones who sacked Wilson on fourth down, giving the offense the opportunity to line up in victory formation. Jones would not be denied. He engulfed Wilson and threw him to the ground. Wilson tried to get rid of the ball, but it was over. It’s a great sign that the defense has an elite pass rusher — and assuming this trend continues, he is also as clutch as they come.
EDGE George Karlaftis: Furious George is officially on a roll. With a sack against the Broncos, Karlaftis now has 5.5 on the season. He was also able to recover a fumble, proving that if you’re around the football and never stop working, good things will happen. It might be time to say that Karlaftis has exceeded his rookie expectations.
Defensive back L’Jarius Sneed: It was the defense’s play of the game. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap crashed the pocket, forcing Wilson into an errant pass. On the receiving end was the Chiefs’ do-it-all-defender, who weaved in and out of the Broncos squad — nearly taking it the distance. The only thing that put a damper on the play was the apparent injury that Sneed sustained after a vicious tackle. Hopefully, Kansas City’s second-most valuable defensive player doesn’t miss any time. Whether he’s following a team’s best receiver — or he’s out there making plays as a blitzer or a robber — the team is going to need him in the playoffs.
Running back Jerick McKinnon: McKinnon continues to show that he’s a consistent threat in the passing game — and nearly unstoppable in the red zone. Two more touchdowns on Sunday gave him seven in his last five games — going along with the game-winner on the ground against the Houston Texans. He couldn’t be on a hotter streak at a better time. For for the second season in a row, it looks like he’ll be an offensive key in the postseason.
Special teams coordinator Dave Toub: We’ve talked about it all season. Now it’s officially time to panic about Kansas City’s third phase. We’re seeing chronic mistakes like fumbled punt returns, botched snaps (or holds) and missed (or partially blocked) kicks. Whether it’s the kicker, the holder, the returner or the coaching, the issues haven’t gone away — and they clearly haven’t been addressed properly. Mistakes can be overcome against inferior opponents. But against opponents like the Cincinnati Bengals or Buffalo Bills, that won’t be nearly as easy. Does anyone have faith that the kicking and return games will be part of the reason the Chiefs win in the postseason? For all of the accolades Toub has rightfully received — and for all of the roster spots dedicated to special teams — it’s clearly a flaw in 2022. Unfortunately, it’s one that could prove fatal in the playoffs.
Cornerback Joshua Williams: In a surprisingly good rookie season, a couple of negative patterns have emerged around Williams. Sometimes, teams have been able to pick on him a bit in coverage — especially when he isn’t able to get his head around to see the football. But more frustrating is William’s tendency to rack up penalties in bunches — often in key situations. On Sunday, the Chiefs had a 10-point fourth-quarter lead. The defense seemed poised to shut Denver down. On third-and-6, Williams battled Jerry Jeudy to an incompletion — but was flagged for a pass interference call that extended the drive. Then on a fourth-and-7, Jones had a near-sack that led to a Nick Bolton interception — only to have it erased by an illegal-hands-to-the-face flag on Williams. Whether it’s from bad luck or lack of discipline, Williams needs to figure out how to avoid single-handedly extending drives for opponents.
The Chiefs’ running game: It seems they finally have an extremely effective one-two punch with Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon — and an offensive line built to run the football. But when the passing game was a bit out of sorts against an inferior opponent, Kansas City managed only 46 yards rushing on 16 carries. Being that ineffective could be why the team didn’t have more attempts — or not having enough attempts in the right spots contributed to its inability to get the running game in rhythm. Either way, we’d like to see more success on the ground against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 18 — not to mention in the postseason.