Notes From A Crumbling NFL Empire: Part XI

Kansas City Chiefs 34, Los Angeles Chargers 28

Photo courtesy of USA Today

To be completely honest, I am still in awe. It was around 100 hours ago that Patrick Mahomes threw a relatively mundane pass over the middle to Travis Kelce in overtime. Kelce proceeded to stop his momentum and cut right, away from the leverage of multiple defenders, before angling back to the left on his way to glory. Just like that: Chiefs 34, Chargers 28. Ballgame.

This was not a playoff game, but it felt like a playoff game. After all, the Chiefs and Chargers were 9-4 and 8-5, respectively, heading in to it. But since Los Angeles won the first matchup — 30-24 in Week 3 — a win on Thursday Night Football would have given them not only the same record as Kansas City, but the deciding tiebreaker. As discussed in my last blog in this series, given the far easier schedule down the stretch it would have all but guaranteed an AFC West crown for the Chargers.

In the end that didn’t happen, obviously. Somehow despite trailing 14-13 with around 10 minutes left in the game, and despite trailing 21-13 with around 7 minutes left in the game, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs managed three consecutive 75-yard scoring drives to close it out. The first two were to gain a tie — first 21-21, then 28-28 — and thanks to an overtime coin flip Kansas City was the first team to possess the ball. Kelce’s touchdown ensured they were also the only team to possess the ball.

It all comes back to what I’ve been saying on these blogs. Literally like seven days ago I wrote:

I’ve been beating the drum over the last handful of weeks saying that there isn’t a team in the AFC who I think can beat the Chiefs in a must-win situation. Thursday will go a long way in proving that hypothesis.

Point proven? Maybe. Or maybe not. It was certainly a stepping stone, a pivotal marker along the timeline of the 2021 NFL season. It was the first real moment this season where the Chiefs had to have it. What made it more impressive was that they were missing their hands-down best defensive player — interior lineman Chris Jones — their best cornerback — L’Jarius Sneed — and their most physically gifted linebacker — Willie Gay Jr.

Kansas City treated it like a playoff game. In a July article, where I (don’t laugh at me) speculated on the potential for the Chiefs to turn into a rushing team, I talked about how aggressively Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were deployed during their 2020 playoff run (emphasis added):

Dominant as they were last postseason (until the Super Bowl, that is), everyone saw the fragility of the Kansas City offense by virtue of how much usage Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce got. In the Divisional Round against the Browns and AFC Championship against the Bills, Hill and Kelce combined for 38 catches and 508 yards — accounting for 76 percent of all Mahomes completions in those two games and an unbelievable 87.5% of his passing yards.

There are many flashy and impressive words that could be used to describe that two-game playoff sample size, but the first that comes to my mind is “unsustainable.” Mahomes, Hill and Kelce carried the Chiefs to Super Bowl 55, but in no way was their success in the AFC Playoffs tenable for an entire regular season (duh) and in all likelihood it can’t be duplicated again in any other postseason.

I’m gonna go ahead and agree with myself on those points, but one thing I think I forgot — somewhere along this long and winding 2021 road — is that over the course of any one game Kelce and Hill are absolutely capable of winning it by themselves. The Chiefs were dominant in the AFC playoffs last year because, simply put, those two players had dominant performances. And the Chiefs won Thursday night’s game, a quasi-playoff game, for the same reason.

Kelce finished with 10 catches (on 13 targets) for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns; Hill finished with 12 catches (on 13 targets) for 148 yards and 1 touchdown. Given that Patrick Mahomes ended up 31-47 for 410 yards and 3 touchdowns, his two all-world weapons combined for 22 of 31 completions (71%), 26 of 45 targets (57.7%), 339 of 410 yards (82.7%), and all three of his touchdown passes.

Sometimes I rewatch the NFL Mic’d Up from last year’s Championship Round, and I am always kind of struck whenever I hear Bills’ safety Micah Hyde implore to his defensive unit “87 and 10, 87 and 10.” 87 is, of course, Travis Kelce’s number, and 10 is Tyreek Hill. The Bills knew exactly who the Chiefs wanted to run their offense through, and it didn’t matter. Kelce ended up with 13 catches for 118 yards (along with two touchdowns), and Hill finished with 9 catches and 172 yards.

I think that’s how I knew, or how I know, how badly the Chiefs wanted to win against the Chargers. There have been plenty of games this season where Kelce has gone off, or Hill has blitzed the opposing defense. But when it’s both of them, at incredibly high volume, the Chiefs are showing everyone how much the game means to them. I wrote a very long-winded blog about why it behooves Kansas City to be a running team, and if truth be told I still believe that’s the case. But Andy Reid doesn’t seem interested in that, and why would he? He has Patrick Mahomes. He has Travis Kelce. He has Tyreek Hill. The rest of the NFL still needs to prove they can stop it before they decide to do anything different.

The last thing I have to say about Thursday night’s game — even though I feel like I can go all night — revolves around Chargers QB Justin Herbert. He’s good. He’s really good. He’s so fucking good. But the lights were on that night. Chiefs-Chargers was the only game in town. Justin Herbert played really well. He did not, however, win the football game.

I am convinced that every year the media are going to attempt to make a contender out of the new shiny toy in the league. Two years ago it was Lamar Jackson, when he led the Ravens to a 14-2 season and won the MVP. Last year it was Josh Allen, who realized his sky-high potential and led the Bills to a 13-3 season. This year has been about Justin Herbert, Mahomes’s intra-division rival who is going to challenge him for the next decade of the AFC West.

Meanwhile, the scoreboard tells us that Lamar never had a chance to beat Mahomes in the AFC Championship two years ago, because the Ravens couldn’t get past the Titans in the Divisional Round. Allen did get the chance last year to beat Mahomes in the AFC Championship, but it ended up being a 38-24 landslide in favor of Kansas City. This year was Herbert’s turn, and, while he played well, and didn’t have the fortune of winning a coin toss in overtime, he did have multiple opportunities to win the game.

I’m not saying the Chiefs are unbeatable and I am certainly not saying Patrick Mahomes is infallible. What I am saying is in seemingly every big game — whether it’s the 2018 AFC Championship against Tom Brady, the 2019 Super Bowl against the 49ers defense, the 2020 AFC Championship against Josh Allen, or Thursday night’s tilt for the AFC West title against Herbert — Mahomes answered the bell.

As a Chiefs fan, there are many reasons to be satisfied right now. Apart from everything I’ve already mentioned, it just feels good to have a team who every week takes the best shot from its opponent. Some of the best teams in the AFC have constructed their rosters, and built their teams, operating under the idea that none of it matters unless they can beat the Chiefs — the standard-bearers of the conference — in the biggest spots.

Now think about what it must be like for teams like the Chargers, or Raiders, or Broncos. They have to play the Chiefs twice every year. You look at how aggressive Chargers head coach, Brandon Staley, was going for it on 4th down; you look at how the Broncos have a stable of good cornerbacks and safeties; you look at the Raiders doing whatever the hell it is they are doing. It’s almost like those three squads are willing to sacrifice some bad matchups against the rest of the league if it means they’ll have a better chance of beating Patrick Mahomes.

It must be really frustrating for them. It must be frustrating for the AFC as a whole. Because at the end of the day, despite deficiencies in certain areas — whether it’s on defense, or depth at playmaking positions — the Chiefs always seem to have the trump card. He plays quarterback. He wears number 15. And his name has been said so many times already that it doesn’t require any other explanation.

After a 3-4 start, the Chiefs are now 10-4. The two 9-4 teams heading into Saturday and Sunday — the Patriots and Titans — both lost. That gives Kansas City a full one-game cushion over the rest of the AFC with regards to the number one seed and a first round bye in the playoffs. With only three games left in the 2021 regular season, the Chiefs now control their own destiny.

Somebody pinch me, please.

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