Patrick Mahomes had a moment of justified, symbolic rage on the Chiefs’ final play of their 20-17 loss to the Bills.
Travis Kelce made a randomly spectacular play when he lateraled the football across the field to wide receiver Kadarius Toney, who ran in for the go-ahead touchdown with over a minute left in the fourth quarter — only for the play not to stand. The referees called Toney for an offsides, the Chiefs were knocked back 5 yards and they promptly left the field for good three plays later.
In a way, that play summed up the type of season the Chiefs have had: moments of brilliance surrounded by too many self-induced missteps that have the Chiefs looking mortal for the first time in the Mahomes era. Mahomes’ outburst at the end of the game was the sour cherry on top for a Chiefs offense that has struggled in crucial moments at times this season.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) December 11, 2023
"We gotta do whatever we can to flip the script on our season in this middle part," Mahomes said afterward.
The current state of the Chiefs' offense doesn’t even allow KC to survive the absence of running Isiah Pacheco, who missed the game Sunday against Buffalo with a shoulder injury. Even though the Bills have struggled defending the run this year, head coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs weren’t able to take advantage of it without Pacheco on the field.
Running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon combined for 58 yards on 15 carries in place of Pacheco, which created a hurdle for a Chiefs offense that has become reliant on the run. Pacheco has developed into a diet bellcow back for the Chiefs and a player they could rely on when the passing game was sputtering. Without him on the field, the Chiefs were forced to become more reliant on a group of wide receivers that has floundered far too many times this year.
That within itself is a huge problem. Pacheco is a nice player to have and certainly one of the more useful running backs in the league, but an offense with Mahomes under center should be able to survive without him on the field. A piece of the frustration has to come from the fact that the Chiefs still move the ball fairly well, even with all of their miscues.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Mahomes still ranks sixth in success rate on passing plays this season (49.2%) among the 36 quarterbacks with at least 150 dropbacks. He ranks fifth in expected points added per dropback (0.06) in the same sample group. However, that hasn’t been translating to points recently for the Chiefs. They’ve scored more than 20 points just twice in their past six games, which is uncharacteristic for what the Chiefs have typically produced with Mahomes as their quarterback.
In a way, the Chiefs are victims of their own expectations. Moving the ball well and being a productive offense relative to their competition isn’t good enough. The Chiefs are supposed to resemble a machine of offense production week in and week out and this is the first time in a long time they look congested.
Perhaps the most perplexing piece of the Chiefs’ woes is the regression of their wide receivers. This is the same group as last year (outside of swapping Rashee Rice in for JuJu Smith-Schuster) that was productive enough to support an MVP season from Mahomes. Through drops, miscommunications and ill-timed penalties, they’ve become a real impediment on the Chiefs’ chances to win in the clutch. Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped a go-ahead touchdown against the Eagles, Skyy Moore dropped a crucial touchdown pass in their loss to the Broncos and now Toney had his gaffe versus the Bills.
The high-leverage drops and miscues are a small number of plays compared to the entire season, but when the goal is to win the Super Bowl every single year, they become of increased importance. There’s also the simple fact that this team is turning the ball over too much for the margins in which they have to work. According to FTN’s DVOA drive stats, the Chiefs ranked 26th in turnovers per drive (0.15) going into their game against the Bills. That’s been a far drop from last year when they ranked eighth (0.10) in turnovers per drive.
The good news for the Chiefs is they still have Mahomes and a top defense, and lead the AFC West with an 8-5 record. On the whole, this is still very much one of the best teams in the NFL. This game accentuated the fact that they need to add more consistent talent to this offense. Rice is a nice building block for the team, but everyone else could stand to be upgraded.
Scoring points should never be this difficult with the best quarterback in football. No one should put it past Mahomes and Reid to figure out this offense before the playoffs start, but the clock is ticking and right now it looks like this is just who the Chiefs are.