On a day when thousands of pounds of actual explosives were used in an attempt to destroy the Pontiac Silverdome, the Chiefs somehow mustered a more impressive implosion. Kansas City’s undisciplined, sieve-like defense squandered the team’s early 14-point lead and a sterling four-touchdown performance from embattled quarterback Alex Smith in a 38-31 loss to the Jets. Yes, they scored 31 points and still lost … to the Jets.
With the defeat, the Chiefs have now lost four games in a row and six of their past seven to drop to 6-6 on the year. They look nothing like the early-season squad that raced out to a 5-0 record with impressive wins over the Patriots and Eagles—both on track to win no. 1 seeds in each conference—and the Chargers, Redskins, and Deshaun Watson–led Texans. That Chiefs team looked like one of the NFL’s elite and a Super Bowl favorite. The current iteration has lost its lead in the AFC West and finds itself in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. So what the hell happened?
No one’s taken more of the blame for the team’s struggles over the past month or so than Smith, whose subpar play (three touchdowns, four interceptions) in the three games prior to Sunday had led to plenty of calls for rookie backup Pat Mahomes II to take over. That run of games was a dramatic fall from grace for Smith, an MVP candidate in the early part of the year who had thrown 11 touchdowns and no picks at 8.8 yards per attempt (well above his career mark of 6.9 yards per attempt) in his first five games. During that stretch, the Chiefs featured one of the most exciting and explosive offenses in the league, mixing college spread-offense concepts with head coach and play-caller Andy Reid’s traditional West Coast scheme. It utilized a bunch of pre-snap motion, run-pass options, and what looked like a burgeoning signature play: the power shovel option to tight end Travis Kelce. It showcased the unique athleticism of receiver Tyreek Hill and the tackle-breaking prowess of rookie running back Kareem Hunt, and it was fun as hell to watch.
But injuries on the offensive line helped erode the effectiveness of the team’s powerful run game, and at the same time, Reid seemed to lose track of the other things that made the team nearly impossible to defend in the early going. Kansas City’s hybrid and unpredictable offense became boring again, and Smith’s play took a nosedive in losses to the Giants and Bills. His yards per attempt dipped back under 6.0 in those games, he consistently threw short of the sticks on third down, and Kelce and Hill all but disappeared. Things got so stale on offense that Andy Reid gave play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy this week. It’s not the first time that Reid’s used those (seemingly) desperate measures to try to fix a struggling unit; he handed over play-calling responsibilities to current Eagles head coach and then-offensive coordinator Doug Pederson back in 2015 after the team started 1-5, and Kansas City went on to win its next 11 games.
This time around, that change—along with a juicy matchup with the Jets’ pass defense (21st-ranked per DVOA)—certainly seemed to help. A rejuvenated Smith threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns, finding Kelce downfield for two scores in the first quarter before connecting with Hill for another two touchdowns later in the game. The difference between what happened in 2015 and this year, though, is that the Chiefs’ jump start on offense failed to ignite a new win streak. For that, the team has its defense (which gave up 488 yards and a season-worst 38 points to Josh McCown and the Jets offense) to blame.
The loss, and the total collapse of the defense, magnifies a problem the Chiefs have had all year: the near-total inability to put together a complete game on both sides of the ball. Even during the team’s quick 5-0 start, the loss of All-Pro safety Eric Berry to an Achilles tear in the opening game against New England proved to be a major factor. In that early stretch, the Chiefs’ game-breaking offense and the MVP candidacy of both Smith and Hunt distracted from the worryingly inept play from the defense. Kansas City struggled to stop the run and was even worse against the pass; the Chiefs headed into Week 6 having surrendered 1,240 passing yards (27th) and nine touchdowns through the air (tied for 24th). When the offense began to stumble, that issue became much more glaring: The defense gave up nearly 1,000 combined yards in back-to-back losses to the Steelers and Raiders in weeks 6 and 7, then surrendered four touchdowns and 28 points in the team’s Week 9 loss to the Cowboys.
Most disappointingly, that lack of balance has worked the other way too. In the 12-9 loss to the Giants in Week 11 and the 16-10 loss to the Bills in Week 12, the defense showed up to play and did enough for the team to win, but Smith and the offense played their worst two games.
That dichotomy seems to show up every game—a never-ending battle between the offense and defense to find newer and more creative ways to sabotage the other—and it was never more apparent than at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, especially late in the game. After Smith hit Hill for the 40-yard go-ahead touchdown with 9:13 left in the fourth quarter to make the score 31-30, the defense promptly let McCown and the Jets offense get right back into scoring position via a broken-tackle-laden breakdown that set New York up at the 5-yard line.
The following chain of events was pure comedy (unless you’re a Chiefs fan):
- The Kansas City defense held tough on the next three plays, forcing the Jets to attempt a field goal, but that kick was nullified by an unnecessary roughness penalty on nose tackle Bennie Logan. That gifted New York another set of downs from the 1-yard line.
- Kansas City once again appeared to make a big stop on third down when McCown threw an incompletion into the end zone. However, a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Steven Nelson gave the Jets another fresh set of downs.
- Three plays later, New York finally got into the end zone when McCown dove in for the score on third down.
- The Jets then decided to go for two: At the snap, McCown spun twice to avoid pressure and threw wildly and incomplete out of the end zone. But another holding penalty on Nelson nullified the play.
- In response to that penalty, cornerback Marcus Peters picked up the flag and threw it into the stands, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. He appeared to believe that he had been ejected from the game, so he went to the locker room. He was not actually ejected, and he later returned without socks.
- On the subsequent attempt, Jets running back Elijah McGuire ran in untouched for two.
So, to sum up:
When you watch the Chiefs, you never know exactly how they'll Chiefs, but you know eventually they'll Chiefs.— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) December 3, 2017
Instead of a two-point deficit, where the Chiefs would have needed just a field goal to win, Smith and the Chiefs offense instead found themselves with two minutes left, needing a touchdown to just tie the game. The 13-year veteran quickly marched Kansas City’s offense downfield before the drive stalled at the 19-yard line. Smith’s final three passes fell incomplete, and McCown kneeled the ball twice to seal the win.
All told, the Chiefs defense was on the field for 85 plays. They gave up an unbelievable 13-of-20 conversion rate on third downs while surrendering 157 yards on the ground and another 331 yards through the air. With the loss, the team’s already fragile hold on the division is now gone: The Chargers beat the Browns and the Raiders dispatched the Giants, so we’ve got three teams all sitting at 6-6 with a month left in the season—and Kansas City finds itself with the two biggest games of the year on its slate. The next two weeks will likely decide whether the Chiefs will head to the postseason or not, as they host Oakland next Sunday and the red-hot Chargers, winners of three straight, the weekend after that. Smith’s return to something resembling his early-season form certainly provides hope, but the defensive meltdown should be a strong counter to any good feelings. The demoralizing loss to the rebuilding Jets showed that unless both sides of the ball can figure out how show up for the same game, the Chiefs’ implosion will only get worse.