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2021 NFL Preview: Chiefs are in a rare position, coming back from being embarrassed

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Before last season's Super Bowl, Patrick Mahomes had started 53 games counting preseason. The Kansas City Chiefs lost only nine of those games, none by more than eight points. In those losses, the Chiefs averaged 31.3 points. 

To the point the Chiefs kicked off Super Bowl LV, we had never seen them look vulnerable in the Mahomes era. It's not to say the Chiefs were perfect, but each loss seemed like a fluke. Expectations were as high for Mahomes and the Chiefs as they've ever been for a quarterback his age. Multiple Super Bowl wins and multiple MVPs, with Mahomes finishing as the greatest quarterback of all time, seemed to be the expectation. 

That's why last season's Super Bowl was so jarring. Mahomes wasn't Superman. It's hard to blame him, playing behind a patched-together offensive line trying to hold off a great Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass rush back, but the Chiefs scored just nine points. Mahomes had no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 52.3 passer rating, the lowest of his career by more than 10 points. Mahomes had less than a 72.7 rating in a game once before that Super Bowl. The Chiefs lost 31-9. They were never competitive in the game. 

It was a reminder. Even the best player in the game, with one of the greatest coaches ever and a roster built to win championships around a great QB, winning multiple championships is hard. A lot has to go right. For example, you can't lose multiple offensive linemen to injury right before facing Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and their friends in the Bucs' front seven. 

It did seem to be a wakeup call for the Chiefs. They weren't going to let Mahomes run for his life again. They traded for tackle Orlando Brown, signed guard Joe Thuney to a five-year, $80 million deal and spent a second-round draft pick on center Creed Humphrey. They also brought in center Austin Blythe, unretired guard Kyle Long and get guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back from him opting out in 2020. The Chiefs' new-look line is ranked seventh in Pro Football Focus' preseason ranking of all 32 offensive lines. 

The Chiefs have Tyreek Hill, one of the fastest receivers ever, and future Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a first-round pick last year and should be better this season. The defense is not great, but it hasn't been great for three seasons and the Chiefs are 44-10 in Mahomes' starts counting postseason. It usually makes enough plays. 

There's one other thing the Chiefs added: motivation. Not that the Chiefs were complacent, but a loss like last season's Super Bowl can wake a great team up. 

"That was pretty embarrassing man, taking that last loss down there in Tampa, man," Kelce told NFL Total Access. "If you're not motivated after taking a shellacking like that, I don't know what's wrong with you. I want to go win one more than I ever wanted to get one in the first place and that's everybody in that building, man."

Andy Reid's worst season as Chiefs coach was 2014, when Kansas City went 9-7 and made the playoffs. Every other season under Reid has finished with double-digit wins and a playoff spot. Adding Mahomes took Kansas City to an even higher level. 

The Chiefs are the most reliable team in the NFL. One loss, even a bad one in a Super Bowl, doesn't change that. They enter 2021 looking to make up for only making a Super Bowl, and not winning it. 

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) talks with tight end Travis Kelce (87) during practice. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) talks with tight end Travis Kelce (87) during practice. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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The Chiefs' efforts to rebuild the offensive line are commendable. Adding Orlando Brown in a trade, Creed Humphrey in the draft and Joe Thuney, Kyle Long and Austin Blythe in free agency turns the line into a strength. The Chiefs let go offensive linemen Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, and lost receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Bashaud Breeland in free agency. They did add defensive tackle Jarran Reed in free agency and their first pick, linebacker Nick Bolton in the second round, will help the defense. 

Grade: B

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Anyone who actually watched last season's Super Bowl wouldn't hold Mahomes' rough day against him. He had no chance against a swarming Buccaneers defense, especially with a foot injury. There were no other signs that Mahomes' play had slipped in the slightest. He had 38 touchdowns and six interceptions while averaging a league-best 316 yards per game. He posted a 108.2 passer rating. Mahomes is just 25 years old and will be an MVP contender every season for a long time. Speaking of ... 

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The most enticing bet with the Chiefs at BetMGM might be Patrick Mahomes to win MVP at +500. He's the favorite, but if you take Mahomes at 5-to-1 odds every year you'll probably turn a profit by the time he hits 30 years old. The Chiefs' win total is 12.5, which is high but attainable. The Chiefs are the Super Bowl favorite at +450, far ahead of the Buccaneers at +700. Kansas City clearly has a shot to win another title, even if you're not getting a lot of value at those odds. But Mahomes to win MVP, even as a favorite, seems like a ticket you won't regret buying. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It's important to remember Mecole Hardman is still just 23, and still learning the intricacies of the NFL game. Heck, when he went to college, it wasn't initially clear if he'd be an offensive player or a defensive player. His first two NFL seasons had plenty of splash plays — and sure, plenty of mistakes.

"Hardman gets a major opportunity in Year 3, now that Sammy Watkins is gone. The Chiefs view Hardman as a starter now, and they'd like to increase his route tree in addition to his snap share. Nothing is guaranteed of course, and not everything Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes touch ultimately turns to gold (consider that the CEH/2020 lesson). But with a Yahoo ADP of 130, Hardman is one of my favorite secondary dart throws, the type of player you look for after your primary starters are already rostered. Appreciate the upside."

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Travis Kelce's three seasons with Mahomes have produced the first, third and ninth all-time best seasons for receiving yards by a tight end. In 2020 Kelce put up 1,416 yards, which set the record for most in a season by a tight end. Kelce will turn 32 in August and there should be concern over him slowing down, but he's at such a high level that even a small drop puts him ahead of every other NFL tight end. The pairing of Mahomes and Kelce is practically unstoppable. 

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How good is the Chiefs' defense? 

It seems this will be the question every season in the Mahomes era. Kansas City's defense ranked 22nd in Football Outsiders' DVOA last season, which was good enough to get a No. 1 seed and an AFC championship. Defensive lineman Jarran Reed has played at a high level before with the Seattle Seahawks and the Chiefs are hoping he's a big addition. The Chiefs are excited about young players like linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Chris Jones are still elite centerpieces. The Chiefs will probably never have a great defense with all the resources devoted to the great offense, but they can be better than last season and that unit was good enough for the Chiefs to make the Super Bowl. 

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Patrick Mahomes is aiming high. 

“The only record I have my eyes set on breaking, which would be new this year, would be going 20-0,” Mahomes said, via Arrowhead Pride. “It’s not really a record to be broken I guess you would say — 19-0 is the record right now — so being able to go 20-0 and being the first one to do that, that would be awesome.”

The Chiefs are very unlikely to go undefeated. But the fact that Mahomes can say that without getting laughed out of the room is telling. The Chiefs were 14-1 in his regular-season starts last season. Don't let what happened in the Super Bowl throw you off course: The Chiefs are as good as ever, and cruising to a championship is on the table. 

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The Chiefs won a lot of games last season but weren't as dominant as their record. From Week 9 to Mahomes' last regular-season start in Week 16, the Chiefs won seven straight and none came by more than six points. The Chiefs' first playoff game was a five-point win over Cleveland. Great teams usually blow out opponents. Or at least some of them. The Chiefs were sixth in Football Outsiders' DVOA last season, a little lower than you'd expect. The record looked great and that's what matters most, but there were underlying factors that could lead you to believe the Chiefs were overrated last season. Just a little. When viewed through that lens, being challenged in the AFC West by a team like the Los Angeles Chargers maybe shouldn't be shocking if it happens.  

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Mahomes' three seasons ended in an AFC championship game overtime loss, a Super Bowl win and a Super Bowl loss. The Chiefs aren't any worse this season, and it's hard to imagine they're not a factor deep into the postseason. The nature of a one-and-done postseason means the best teams don't always win, and nothing is a lock, but the Chiefs are the safest bet in the NFL. That probably will be the case for many years. That's why they're the No. 1 team in these rankings as we kick off the preseason. If you had to put everything you own on one team this season, it would be the Chiefs. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns
10. Tennessee Titans
9. Seattle Seahawks
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Los Angeles Rams
6. San Francisco 49ers
5. Indianapolis Colts
4. Baltimore Ravens
3. Buffalo Bills
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers