The Chiefs cemented their status as an AFC power Sunday, welcoming the swaggering Jaguars into their well-sodded home and smacking them around. MVP front-runner Patrick Mahomes stumbled for the first time, throwing a pair of interceptions. The Chiefs’ defense, previously a bystander to Mahomes’s brilliance, responded by dominating the Jaguars and returning one of their four interceptions for a touchdown. The Chiefs were spectacular when Mahomes carried them. With a defense, they’re terrifying.
For Mahomes, his first season as a starter has become a series of escalating tests. In his first three starts, Mahomes shredded opponents with little resistance. Last week, he faced a division rival on the road, at night, and had to complete a fourth-quarter comeback. Sunday, he stared down the best defense in the league. He has passed them all, and now comes the hardest yet.
The Chiefs have positioned themselves as the favorite to win the AFC, but they know that title annually runs through the New England Patriots. Now we’ll find out how Mahomes handles the toughest regular-season test in football. He’ll play the Patriots in prime time, after Bill Belichick had an extra three days to prepare.
“He’s going to have a great game plan going into the game,” Mahomes said Sunday at his news conference. “I’m sure they’ve watched some games already, and they’re going to watch this game and try to figure out what we struggled with.”
The rest of the league probing the Chiefs for weaknesses in early October is a queasy notion for Chiefs fans. As any of them would wearily tell you, the Chiefs were 5-0 last season, too.
In Kansas City’s first five games last season, quarterback Alex Smith posted a 125.8 rating and emerged as the MVP front-runner. Then they went 5-6 in their last 11 games, as Smith’s rating dropped to 95.2 and he averaged just 7.6 yards per attempt. The Chiefs then lost in the first round of the playoffs, blowing a huge halftime lead at home. For all the joy Mahomes Mania has produced, the Chiefs’ fade has hovered.
“It’s funny how this thing works,” Reid said. “It used to be, we didn’t start fast enough. I don’t worry about that. Every year is different. We got new players playing. I don’t put any time or thought into that, other than you asked me the question.”
There’s reason to believe these Chiefs will be different than those Chiefs. It starts, like everything else for Kansas City, with Mahomes.
Reid concocted an explosive offense around Smith last season, exploiting his ballhandling and accuracy, confusing defenses with motion and weaponizing a fleet of speedy wideouts. Smith played the best quarterback in the NFL for a month, but inevitably, defenses adjusted. When defenses adjusted and attacked Smith’s weaknesses, the Chiefs sputtered.
This season, how exactly will defenses adjust to Mahomes? He possesses such a varied and dazzling set of skills that Reid should have an answer. Against Smith, defenses could exploit his penchant for check downs and below-average arm strength. In his brief tenure as a starting quarterback, Mahomes has revealed no clear weakness. He makes throws other quarterbacks cannot even fathom.
That may be the biggest difference Mahomes’s physical ability presents Reid, and why this 5-0 start is not the same as last year’s 5-0 start. Last year, defenses adjusted, and Smith’s physical limitations prevented how much Reid could adjust back. Now, he can counter the counters.
The best test for that theory will come immediately. Next Sunday, Mahomes will square off against last year’s MVP, Tom Brady, in a rematch of last year’s stunning season-opening win by Kansas City. It would be difficult to find two quarterbacks with a greater contrast. Mahomes possesses some of the best raw ability the NFL has seen and is at his best on the run. Brady relies on intelligence and accuracy and rarely strays from the pocket, which he commands like no other quarterback. Brady won his first Super Bowl in February 2002. Mahomes was 6 then.
“The Patriots in general, they’re going to be good year in, year out, for this last decade or two,” Mahomes said. “For us, you’re playing a team that’s going to be really well coached in every phase of the game. You’re playing a team that’s going to have one of the best quarterbacks of all time, and a team’s that’s really hot coming into this game.”
The Patriots are indeed hot, having won two consecutive games by a combined 45 points. They have their bearings again after dismal losses to the Jaguars and Lions. The Chiefs have been the best team in the AFC so far. They know next Sunday night will be a chance to validate that status.
“That’s the best part of the NFL,” Mahomes said. “You get to compete against the best and try to beat them.”
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