Here are five things we learned from the game.
1. Patrick Mahomes can complete a pass to anybody
I was going to lead off with Kansas City’s special teams' woes — but it’s nothing new, and we already know special teams coordinator Dave Toub doesn’t seem to have any answers to fix any of it.
So instead, let’s talk about Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs’ quarterback often makes the incredible look normal — but for all of the highlight-reel plays we’ve seen him make throughout his career, there was still one Kansas City receiver with whom he had not yet connected: himself.
While it was the first reception of his career, it was on his third target. The difference between Sunday’s reception and the other two that fell incomplete? This was the first time that he threw the pass — rather than a non-quarterback (OK, former quarterback) like tight end Travis Kelce.
It was a near-perfect imitation of former Tenessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota’s pass to himself in the 2017 playoffs — except that Mariota’s pass went for a touchdown.
Marcus Mariota completes a TD pass to himself pic.twitter.com/NlopMDviVm— Joseph Hoyt (@JoeJHoyt) January 6, 2018
Completing a pass to yourself is great, of course. But do you know what’s even better? Completing them to 10 receivers besides yourself.
On Sunday, Kelce led the team with seven receptions — but every skill player except Ronald Jones caught a pass. It may have been one of the quieter 300-yard performances we’ve seen from Mahomes in a while — but that’s what happens when you’ve reached this level of success: anything less than eye-popping seems mundane.
But make no mistake: Mahomes was still very good.
Mahomes is currently chasing Peyton Manning’s all-time season record for passing yards. To pass him, Mahomes needs 430 yards when the Chiefs face off against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 18. More than 400 yards is a tall order for any quarterback — even Mahomes — but he’s already topped that mark once this season: when he passed for 446 yards against the Tennessee Titans in Week 9.
Can Mahomes chase down The Sherriff on Saturday? All eyes will be watching.
2. The Chiefs’ culture of selflessness is the key to their success
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and head coach Andy Reid have found a magic recipe: constructing a roster of players who are supremely confident in their ability to beat anyone — but who can still remain humble. Kansas City’s players have bought into the principle: when the team wins, everyone wins.
There have been some Chiefs players who may not have felt this way. They are no longer on the team. Instead, they taken their talents to South Beach and other places.
Consider this list of players: Mahomes, Kelce, Chris Jones, Nick Bolton, L’Jarius Sneed, JuJu Smith-Schuster, George Karlaftis, Willie Gay Jr. and Frank Clark.
Out of these, which players are prima donnas?
You might argue that Smith-Schuster was sometimes a diva when he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He often drew the ire of opposing fans (and the media) for recording TikTok videos of himself dancing on opposing teams' logos during pregame warmups. But as our own Aaron Ladd reported in the spring, Smith-Schuster left all of that back in Pittsburgh. He came to Kansas City to win football games.
#Chiefs Juju Smith-Schuster asked about his tiktok dances: “Do I see myself doing that here? I’m here to work…I came here to win.”— Aaron Ladd (@aaronladd0) March 20, 2022
You might argue that Kelce is a prima donna. Early in his career — like when he had his own dating show on E! — he may have exhibited some of those tendencies.
But even then, he never let his personal pursuits get in the way of the success of the team. And as he has aged, he has grown into a locker-room leader — and one of the team’s most accountable players.
There might not be a athlete in history who has more earned the right to be a diva than Mahomes. He has redefined the most important position in sports, carrying this team through the most successful run in its history. But that’s just not who Mahomes is. That’s part of his greatness. As Pat McAfee recently noted on his show (warning: explicit content), Mahomes is the greatest quarterback in the game’s history — but he deflects all credit to his teammates and coaches.
When your best player is also the locker room’s most humble individual, the rest of the team will follow.
3. The Chiefs are a roller coaster of emotions
Wide receiver Kadarius Toney’s performance against Denver was a microcosm of what we have seen all season.
In one moment, he stopped on a dime — sending a Broncos defensive back sailing past him — then high-pointed the ball, made a nice catch and broke a tackle on the way to a 38-yard gain. It all looked effortless.
Then in the next moment, Toney fielded a punt, got hit and put the ball on the ground.
It went on and on. Kansas City drove the ball down the field with ease to score a touchdown — and then missed the extra point. Mahomes orchestrated a beautiful drive before throwing an interception in the end zone. With 11 seconds left in the half, the quarterback threw a perfect pass to Justin Watson to set up a 51-yard field goal attempt — which was blocked.
The 2022 Chiefs are the most up-and-down team I can remember. At their best, they are untouchable. At their worst, they cannot put teams away — and can give up the ball like it’s a New Year’s resolution at Old Country Buffett.
4. George Karlaftis is continuing to get better
Kansas City’s rookie edge rusher continued his late-season push on Sunday, tallying another sack. He has now had five sacks in the last six games. Karlaftis seems to be getting off the snap faster than he was earlier in the season. He also looks quicker and lighter on his feet than he did through the first 12 weeks. Early on, Karlaftis relied too much on his bull rush — showing very little creativity in his pass-rushing set up.
But as we see in his sack from Sunday’s game, Karlaftis initially gets washed to the outside of the pocket — beyond Russell Wilson — but using his improved athleticism, he’s able to cut back, using a swim move to get inside leverage on the left tackle. At this point, it’s just a race between him and Carlos Dunlap. Which pass rusher is going to get there first?
After the game, Karlaftis credited his improved play to extra work — and help from defensive line coach Joe Cullen and his assistant Terry Bradden.
“I felt like from an individual perspective I was getting there,” he said of his play earlier in the season, “[I was] just missing my layups a lot. So in practice with Coach Cullen and Coach Bradden, [I was] just working on my finishing a lot.”
5. Trent McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed are a stud cornerback combo
Line them up... wherever. It doesn’t matter.
You hear it all of the time about the league’s best outside cornerbacks: they line up on their side and lock down that half of the field; they do not move.
That’s all well and good. But do you know what’s even cooler?
Trent McDuffie or L’Jarius Sneed following the opposing team's No. 1 wide receiver all over the field regardless of where they line up. Left side, right side, left slot, right slot, X, Y, or Z? It doesn’t matter. It’s almost as if they are telling them, “You can run — but you can’t hide.”
On 2nd down, #Chiefs rookie CB Trent McDuffie blitzes & gets to #Broncos QB Russell Wilson for the strip-sack, & it's recovered by fellow rookie George Karlaftis. #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/TmvzYcA75z— Devon Clements (@DevclemNFL) January 1, 2023
And then — when the other team is least expecting it — Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will dial them up on a blitz. They rush the quarterback like they’re Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons.
Say what you want about other teams' secondaries. But I’ll take this Kansas City cornerback duo against any other in the NFL.