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We Know It’s Week 1, but That Was a Statement Win for the Chiefs

It was a statement win for Alex Smith, too

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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The Patriots looked like they’d start the 2017 season right where they had left off last February in Houston: Tom Brady was in control in the early going, methodically moving the ball up and down the field as New England jumped out to an early lead on the Chiefs. When running back Mike Gillislee powered into the end zone to push New England’s lead to 17–7 with 7:27 left in the second quarter, it almost felt like the Patriots had the game in the bag. After all, this team had, going back to 2001, gone 102–1 at home after leading by 10-plus points at any point (that’s a cool 99 percent win rate, for those of you keeping score at home). And even after Kansas City marched back downfield to cut the lead to 17–14 just before halftime, the Patriots’ 87-game home win streak when leading at the half didn’t seem to be in much danger.

But the Chiefs refused to bow out against the defending champs. The lead changed three times before Kansas City put the game away with a 21-yard touchdown scamper by Charcandrick West that put Kansas City up 15 points with four minutes left. It was the cherry on top of a career day for quarterback Alex Smith, another explosive game for receiver Tyreek Hill, and a breakout performance for rookie running back Kareem Hunt. By the time the dust settled, the Chiefs had racked up 537 yards of offense on the Patriots — the most that any Bill Belichick–coached New England team has ever given up — and had dropped 42 points on the NFL’s best scoring defense from last year, also the most ever for the Belichick Pats.

No one would’ve blamed you if you’d tuned into this season opener thinking it’d just be New England’s first step toward proving it’s still the best team in the league. Instead — and yeah, we know it’s only Week 1 — this was a statement win for the Chiefs on every level.

For starters, Kansas City’s defense proved that they’re going to be as tough as ever to throw against. The seventh-ranked pass defense last year per Football Outsiders DVOA started a bit slow, but once they knocked off the rust, they shut down Brady and New England’s passing game. The reigning Super Bowl MVP finished just 16-of-36 passing for 267 yards and no touchdowns for a paltry 70.0 passer rating. The Chiefs didn’t get a ton of pressure on Brady throughout the game, often rushing only three, but coverage in the secondary was tight. On throws that went 20 or more yards downfield, Brady ended the game just 2-of-10 for 81 yards and with a 60.8 passer rating, and he all but ignored the side of the field that Marcus Peters was defending. Possibly losing Eric Berry to an Achilles injury hurts, but this looks like a pass defense that could be one of the league’s best.

Hunt made it clear that incumbent starter Spencer Ware’s season-ending knee injury isn’t going to derail the Chiefs’ offense. Despite a fumble on his first carry as a pro, Hunt bounced back and showed incredible burst and elusiveness, collecting 148 yards and a touchdown on the ground and another 98 yards and two scores through the air. His 246 scrimmage yards set an all-time mark for a rookie in Week 1, and he became the first player in league history with 75-plus yards rushing and 75-plus yards receiving in his first game.

Smith had a response for anyone out there clamoring for a chance to see rookie first-rounder Patrick Mahomes II overtake him for the starting job. The 13-year pro calmly outplayed Brady, completing 28-of-35 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns at 10.5 yards per attempt and a 148.6 passer rating. Smith apparently saw some sort of subtweet in the Chiefs’ decision to draft a gunslinger in Mahomes’s mold, too, because he pushed the ball downfield like we’ve never really seen before. He completed three out of four deep passes on the day (20-plus air yards), tying a career high with 178 yards on such passes, per Pro Football Focus, putting him well on his way to exceeding his total of 521 deep yards from all of last season. For some perspective on what Smith did: Counting playoffs, this was Belichick’s 307th game as a head coach of the Patriots, and the only other quarterback to pass for at least four touchdowns with no picks against him is Drew Brees.

Smith was good for plenty of the check-down-style throws that NFL fans have come to expect from him, mixing swing passes with quick slants, dump-offs, and a few inside shovel passes in head coach Andy Reid’s hybrid West Coast/spread offense — but he also showed off his arm a bit, unleashing a 75-yard touchdown bomb to Hill early in the third quarter before dropping this deep ball into a bucket to Hunt in the fourth for a 78-yard score. Smith’s two touchdown throws of 75-plus yards on the night matched his total for the previous 12 years combined.

What’s all this mean for this season? Clearly, it’s much too early to draw firm conclusions. It should be noted, of course, that the last time that Kansas City blew out the Patriots on national television, New England went on to win Super Bowl XLIX. And it’s worth noting, too, that the last three times the Patriots lost their season opener, they finished the year raising the Lombardi Trophy. So, yeah, it’s a long season, and anything can happen, especially for a team led by Brady and Belichick. But for the Chiefs, this game could have been our first view of a new, more dynamic identity on offense. If Smith can keep pushing the ball downfield and creating explosive plays through the air, the squad that won 12 games last year could have found exactly what it was missing to make a deep postseason push.