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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – At the halfway mark of Sunday’s AFC championship game, the Arrowhead Stadium faithful who braved 19-degree weather to watch a Kansas City Chiefs coronation were disappointed, annoyed and concerned — and with good reason.
For 30 minutes, they had watched the New England Patriots build a 14-0 lead by doing everything better than the Chiefs. The Pats passed better, ran better, blocked better, tackled better, covered better and even coached better on the way to hogging the ball for 22 minutes and outgaining Kansas City’s vaunted offense 245 yards to 32.
So no, nobody who wanted the Chiefs to win on this cold evening was happy, least of all the players, who spilled into a locker room for a 10-minute therapy session that would soon turn fiery.
“We had some spirited moments at halftime,” one Chiefs player told Yahoo Sports, while shaking his head.
Especially 23-year-old quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who was marginalized in the first half by Patriots coach Bill Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores. Mahomes had completed only four of eight passes for 65 yards, all while being sacked three times and hit several more as he uncharacteristically overshot a handful of targets.
Mahomes’ halftime response: “We’re gonna put up 30 this half,” Mahomes promised, several players relayed to Yahoo Sports.
He led them out of the locker room shortly thereafter — seriously, he was one of the first players to emerge from the tunnel — and actually upheld his end of the bargain in the Chiefs’ 37-31 overtime loss to the Patriots, one that incidentally revealed three realities about the Chiefs’ future.
Reality No. 1: Mahomes reaffirmed that he is the truth
In a second half littered with outrageous throws, the presumed league MVP threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns as he directed the Chiefs to 31 points.
Despite a 17-7 deficit heading into the fourth quarter, he threw touchdown passes that put Kansas City in front — twice! — and directed a four-play, 48-yard scoring drive in only 31 seconds that led to the tying field goal that forced overtime.
“I think we just manned up — nothing different,” Mahomes said. “They played the same coverages, we did the same things. Our guys just made plays.”
But the Chiefs’ 31st-ranked defense, their Achilles’ heel all season long, failed to make those leads stand both times against Tom Brady, the bonafide GOAT, and an expertly coached offense that — aside from a few valleys — ran roughshod over the Chiefs by pairing a varied, power-run game with a quick passing attack to rack up 449 yards through four quarters.
So when the Patriots won the toss to start overtime and opted to receive, what came next wasn’t a shock. On what turned out to be an AFC championship-clinching scoring drive, the Patriots converted three third-and-10s (all on Brady strikes) before handing the ball to Rex Burkhead three straight times in the red zone, with the last one — a 2-yard plunge up the middle — icing a win that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the third straight season.
“They counted on us in the biggest moment to go win the game,” said Patriots center David Andrews, who helped pave the way for a 176-yard rushing performance. “You can’t ask for a better feeling.”
Down the hall, you couldn’t imagine a more bitter feeling for the Chiefs, who head into the offseason with a loss that also provided two clear mandates for where they must improve if they want to avoid a similar feeling of disappointment and wanting this time next January.
“There’s a lot to hang your hat on — the good, the bad and the ugly,” outside linebacker Dee Ford told Yahoo Sports.
Reality No. 2: Fixing the defense will be a priority
For starters, while some will point to Ford’s offsides penalty — in which he was not provided a customary warning, but nevertheless, ended up negating a game-ending interception late in the fourth quarter — as a reason for the loss, doing so only excuses the far bigger problem Sunday: their 31st-ranked run defense was a train wreck all season.
With a variety of straight-ahead run plays, New England controlled the tempo and clock, keeping Mahomes and Co. off the field as the Patriots won the time of possession battle by a staggering 43-20 advantage.
“Run defense is want to,” Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens told Yahoo Sports. “We started off slow this year, got better and started taking it again. So we’ve got to work on that. Nothing else you can do but work.”
What’s more, the Patriots’ strong run game prevented the Chiefs’ pass rush — which led the NFL in sacks and pressures and was the only tangible strength of their defense — from hunting Brady, as they did not sack him once and hit him a single time.
Improvement in this area — plus a defensive backfield that needs more playmakers — will likely come through a strong defensive draft (in which the Chiefs have four top-100 picks) and in free agency, where the Chiefs will have a little money to spend even if they can extend Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill.
And yes, the calls for a new defensive coordinator will be strong as well, though no one but Chiefs coach Andy Reid knows if that’s in the cards. But there’s one other area where the Chiefs will need to show more improvement in.
Reality No. 3: The protection under fire must improve
When it comes to blitz pickup, the Patriots took the Chiefs to school on Sunday, as Mahomes was sacked four times and hit nine times total because the Patriots kept sending the house while doubling Hill, their stud receiver.
“They challenged us — they came up and played man, and not a lot of teams have this year,” Mahomes said. “They put people in our face to see how we responded. The first half, we struggled. We couldn’t make anything happen.”
Seriously: stunts, twists, “A” gap blitzes, overload blitzes — you name it, New England did it.
“They blitzed about every down and played man coverage,” Reid said. “We made a few adjustments at halftime.”
After which, the Chiefs put up 31 points. But it was too late.
“That’s my responsibility,” Reid said. “I’ll take that.”
The offensive linemen didn’t let themselves off the hook. Offensive line coach Andy Heck implored his unit to play better at halftime, saying the Chiefs were allowing too much pressure up the middle, but there wasn’t enough improvement in the second half (despite the fact they contend they expected those blitzes were coming).
The Chiefs can expect defensive coordinators — who will have seven-plus months to dissect Mahomes’ rookie-year tape — to replicate that game plan.
To counter that, prioritizing blitz pickup in practice — and reinforcing the offensive line via the draft and free agency — both seem like no-brainers. After all, New England got home so often Sunday that Mahomes sported a busted lip on the Chiefs’ final drive of the game.
“That just shows the kind of day we had,” center Mitch Morse said, shaking his head. “He took it like a champ.”
While the defeat is bitter for sure, many players noted afterward how tight the locker room is, and how much hope Mahomes’ performance gave them for the future. Not only did he challenge them at halftime after a miserable start and manage to follow through on his promise to score 30, he nearly lifted his team to victory despite being under constant duress.
“We’ve got a guy we can follow, a guy who’s gonna play his butt off for us and we need to do the same for him,” left guard Cameron Erving said. “He’s something special … we came up short, but he gave us something good to look forward to.”
It was the type of performance that, provided the right additions are made, offered proof that this could be the start of an extended run, one not unlike the stretches the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger and, yes — Patriots and Brady — have put together under their elite, homegrown quarterbacks.
“We just have to find ways to start better,” Mahomes said. “It’s something I’ll look back on for my entire career and use it as something that I can find ways to win these games when I’m in them.”
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