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As far as losses go, the Kansas City Chiefs’ 35-32 defeat at the hands of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday wasn’t a soul-crushing 10. That level of punishment is reserved for outright atrocities, ones that get seared into fans’ memories, like K.C.’s AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots in January.
It wasn’t a nine because they didn’t suffer any devastating injuries, especially as it relates to you-know-who. At 6-4, they’re still leading the AFC West.
But make no mistake, for anyone who has watched the Chiefs for a long time, it was definitely a solid eight for multiple reasons, starting with the fact it came against a familiar tormentor in the Titans, a team that has bested Andy Reid’s Chiefs like the Harlem Globetrotters have owned the Washington Generals.
Sunday’s loss will make it harder for them to claim a first-round bye, which will be sorely needed considering how banged up they are. It also puts the AFC West back up for grabs (on paper, at least). At 3-6, the Broncos are likely out of it, but the Raiders improved to 5-4 on Thursday night by beating the Chargers, who dropped to 4-6. Both those teams are trending upward.
Since 2013, Reid, who basically owns a winning career record against everyone except Bill Belichick since becoming a Chief, is 1-4 against Tennessee. This is his fourth straight defeat to Tennessee. And when I tell you the four losses have come in weird fashion, believe me. Consider the following:
In 2018, the Chiefs blew an 18-point second-half lead in a wild-card game at home. It went down as one of the most horrifically officiated games in recent memory, one that featured so many absurd calls that when word leaked the next day that lead referee Jeff Triplette was retiring, people assumed the NFL not-so-gently encouraged him to do it.
In 2016, the Chiefs lost to the Titans 19-17 on a 53-yard field goal into the wind by kicker Ryan Succop, who was released by the Chiefs two seasons earlier.
In 2014, the Chiefs were destroyed by the Titans in the season opener 26-10 in a game in which they lost two defensive stalwarts — inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito — to matching season-ending Achilles injuries.
And then you had Sunday’s loss, which featured plenty of weird. The Chiefs lost despite running 29 more plays, outgaining Tennessee 530-371 and getting a quintessential Patrick Mahomes game.
But here the Chiefs are, sitting with a loss despite leading 29-20 in the fourth quarter. Chalking this one up to fate is completely unacceptable; it must be recognized that in the end they lost because of the 2019 Chiefs’ fundamental flaws.
The Titans narrowed the deficit to two, courtesy of a 75-yard scoring drive, 58 of which came on rushing attempts. And when Derrick Henry — the same guy who rushed for 156 yards in the 2016 loss and finished with a ridiculous 188 more on Sunday, 140 in the second half — plowed into the end zone for a 1-yard score, you could practically feel the panic of deja vu setting in Kansas City.
It was a feeling that was initially lessened when the offense responded with a field goal and forced a turnover on downs. But a failed third-and-2 pass play on the ensuring drive — amidst calls by some Chiefs fans for a run play — quickly led to a comically bad premature snap on the ensuing field goal, which led to a turnover on downs that gave the Titans the ball back, down five, with a little over a minute left.
By then, Chiefs fans — who were in the midst of a Ray Velcoro-ish breakdown at this point — already knew what was about to happen. So no, they weren’t surprised by Ryan Tannehill’s sudden metamorphosis into early-90s Dan Marino on the ensuing drive, just like they weren’t surprised when their team’s game-tying desperation field goal as time expired was blocked by a player who timed the Chiefs’ predictable snap count up so perfectly that he looked offsides, even though he wasn’t.
Again, blaming this on bad luck is a cop-out. The Chiefs dominated the contest in multiple ways, but they lost because they couldn’t stop the run — stop me if you heard that before — their special teams imploded and their ball security (one fumble lost led to a Titans touchdown) was subpar.
The Chiefs, who are tied for the second-most lost fumbles in football with nine, haven’t been sterling in any of those areas this season. So if this ends up being The Annual November Loss That Portends Playoff Doom — Andy Reid has one of those every year since he got to Kansas City — I guaran-damn-tee you those three problem areas will be at the forefront of whatever bad juju comes in January (provided it does, of course).
And here’s the problem with that: the Chiefs may have a ridiculous offense, but those are three areas that can negate a killer offense, even led by the league’s most talented quarterback. No one is going to stop the Chiefs’ offense when they’re healthy, but their inconsistent run defense keeps games close. And as we saw Sunday, when their special teams aren’t executing and they fumble away the ball on offense, the Chiefs are very capable of stopping themselves.
There is some good news for the Chiefs. Reid’s teams have shown a tendency to close the season strong, and aside from an early December showdown against the Patriots, the schedule down the stretch is soft and loaded with divisional opponents (who he’s 23-3 against since 2015).
Making the playoffs with Mahomes healthy is all that matters, since the reigning MVP gives them a chance to win anywhere in January.
But given their recent history, the Chiefs and their fans hope they don’t face their Tennessee tormentors again in the playoffs.
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