We need to talk about the Chiefs. One of the most dominant teams of the last few years — back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, generational quarterback, legendary offensive innovator pulling the strings — is struggling. And as the weeks roll on, questions are being asked.
Sitting at 4-4, an unusually bland record for the typically effervescent high-flyers, many are starting to doubt them. Can this team really contend in the playoffs? Are they in danger of missing the post-season altogether? Did so many people who called Kansas City the next NFL dynasty get it horribly wrong?
We live in an era of gross overreaction, of short-term memory, and limited context. Franchises become Super Bowl contenders off the back of one spectacular win. MVPs are anointed, or at the very least shortlisted, after three weeks of the season. And teams are written off following a loss, particularly a heavy one.
After the opening week of the season, one of the main narratives was the decline and fall of the Green Bay Packers, who suffered a fractious off-season and unrest at the core of the organisation surrounding the seemingly want-away Aaron Rodgers. Their blowout loss to the Saints signalled the end, critics suggested. Rodgers had a different perspective. “One game. We’ve got 16 to go,” he said after the defeat.
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Now the Packers sit at 7-1, one of the top seeds in the NFL, an offense that’s flying and an improved defense year-on-year. Up until Wednesday of this week they would have been heading to Arrowhead to face the Chiefs confident in their ability to take a further shot at undermining Kansas City’s status as one of the league’s biggest hitters.
But Rodgers has tested positive for Covid, thrusting young back-up Jordan Love into the frame. Love is the player taken in the first round of the 2020 Draft, much to the consternation of Rodgers, who had to deal with the indignity of having his heir apparent selected before his very eyes instead of a player that could help him win right now. There’s very much a sense that this is Rodgers last hurrah in Wisconsin – something he hasn’t exactly shied away from, dropping a Michael Jordan Last Dance reference just before the season kicked off. The Scottie Pippen to his Jordan is Davante Adams, who should return this Sunday against the Chiefs. How ironic it would be if Adams and Love build an instant connection, although the range of talent on the Packers offense should serve the young quarterback well, as it did Rodgers last week when his main receiver was ruled out of their win against the Cardinals.
Rodgers being out may level the playing field a little, but no one can credibly argue that the Chiefs won’t still have problems with Green Bay. Kansas City’s poor run defense is pretty much where it was last year, and that can be exploited by the sensational Aaron Jones (who’s had 28 rushing TDs since the 2019 season, ranking him in the Top 3 in the NFL) and the younger AJ Dillon, a tough no-nonsense character, hence his Quadzilla nickname. The Pass D isn’t helping much either — 8.4 yards per attempt is one of the weakest in the league, and the 15 passing TDs the Chiefs have given up is three times as many as their conference rivals the Buffalo Bills, who lost to Kansas City in last year’s AFC Championship.
Indeed, the subsequent Super Bowl capitulation from the Chiefs is highlighted by many as the tipping point in their decline. Their defense has regressed this season — in their Super Bowl-winning season they were fallible, particularly against the run, but held teams to less than 20 points on average and had playmakers in the front seven that could disrupt. This year, they’ve managed just 11 Sacks at the (near) halfway point, but in the 2019 championship season, they had 45 in total.
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Injuries have played a part, notably Chris Jones, who’s missed some games and has outlined that he’s playing through torn wrist ligaments. But most worryingly is the apparent offensive regression, with many pointing to the defensive performance of the Bucs in SBLV that gave us all a stark demonstration of how to dismantle the freewheeling Chiefs.
The manhandling of the Kansas City offensive line in that game forced the front office into reboot mode and the off-season’s number one priority was to upgrade the unit. The Chiefs returned Mahomes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, the supporting cast of speedsters led by Mecole Hardman, and an improved ground game with the sophomore running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire fit and fresh after an injury-hit rookie season — all thrown together in glorious technicolour on Andy Reid’s canvas. It should have been business as usual, Mahomes and Reid turning on their high-impact, sucker punch plays at will, rolling into insurmountable leads, blowing away opposition, even if the fragile defense offered opponents a glimmer of hope. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
The Chiefs have a turnover differential of -11 with more giveaways (19) than any other team in the league. Dead last. Mahomes has twice as many picks already this year than he’d had in the whole of 2019. The offense of the LA Rams has twice as many (10) big plays of 40+ yards as the Chiefs. When the opposition defense can take out his deep threats, Mahomes hasn’t been able to slice and dice underneath to compensate. Edwards-Helaire has been injured, and the offensive line, whilst an improvement on last year, has flattered to deceive, with high-profile signings like Orlando Brown struggling. The 27-3 blowout to the Titans was ugly, the 38-20 reverse to the Bills galling.
But many teams that have gone on to win the Super Bowl have faced similar challenges. Last season, the Bucs were hammered by the Saints 38-3, causing many to write off Brady and Co. As they stumbled to 7-5 by the bye week, doubts that they would make the playoffs aired. On my podcast recently Shane Vereen, the former Patriot running back, was talking to me about the 41-14 loss to the Chiefs that New England suffered in the 2014 season — one where they went on to win it all. Blowout defeats happen, even to champions.
The 2007 and 2011 NY Giants were average at best during the regular season (10-6 and 9-7 respectively), both times going on to hoist the Lombardi trophy. Talk to players on that 2007 side and they’ll tell you that their defensive co-ordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, now at the Chiefs, typically improves his unit as the season goes on. That’s what the Kansas City faithful will be hoping for this time around, particularly if (Chris) Jones and Frank Clark can stay fit. If they can get to a mid-level unit, even just under, it may be enough if Reid and Mahomes can eradicate the mistakes and get back into a slipstream.
Offensively, it’s worth noting that for a supposedly struggling offense, Mahomes currently sits 3rd in passing yardage (2368) and 4th in TDs (19). The line should get increasingly cohesive as more reps are shared, and rookie centre Creed Humphrey has been in superb form. Questions remain of the supporting cast beyond Hill and Kelce — the latter has been under-performing by his high standards — and it was interesting that the Chiefs didn’t roll the dice before the trade deadline on a receiver (Odell Beckham or DeSean Jackson).
After the Packers, the Chiefs have divisional matchups coming into view against the Raiders (twice) and the Chargers. That schedule could see them flip the script on the AFC West battle, given the issues Vegas are facing with the release of Henry Ruggs and the Chargers’ initial flare is dimming slightly.
The talent, and experience, is undoubted and this offense will reboot, and keep the Chiefs in contention. Maybe I’m bathed in the Mahomes stardust, but to write them off so prematurely could come back to haunt a lot of people, who’d do well to remember that that the strongest team through the first 8 weeks of the season rarely goes on to win it all.
|Chiefs to win the Super Bowl|
|10/1 with Betfair (Mobile)|
|10/1 with Betfair (Desktop)|
|Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.