Sunday night’s clash between the Chiefs and Patriots at Gillette Stadium was set up as a tale of future and past. Kansas City entered the game 5-0, with quarterback Patrick Mahomes II being billed as the NFL’s newest superstar. The ultratalented second-year passer looked like the face of the next generation, someone ready to lead the league’s new age of prolific passing and maybe—just maybe—take the torch as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers enter their twilight.
This trip was Mahomes’s first chance to knock off Brady, the league’s crown prince. It was also Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s latest attempt to best Bill Belichick and prove that he’s more than just a brilliant offensive mind—that he deserves mention alongside Belichick as the best coaches of their era. For more than a month, the Chiefs had been the story of the AFC, but the Patriots’ 43-40 win was a not-so-subtle reminder from Belichick, Brady, and all of New England that they have little interest in your narratives. They’re still here, next generation be damned.
Belichick is famous for playing the long game. The Patriots use the regular season as a testing ground for certain concepts and tactics they aim to unleash come January, deploying those strategies while also not revealing their full hand. But there was nothing coy about New England’s approach Sunday night.
The Patriots used defensive ends and 260-pound inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower to pulverize tight end Travis Kelce at the line of scrimmage all night. There were no free releases, and with Kelce’s initial timing disrupted, Kelce had a forgettable game with five catches for 61 yards on nine targets. Belichick knows the power of having a superstar tight end; after all, Rob Gronkowski has been the focal point of the Patriots’ passing game for years (and he hauled in a 39-yard reception Sunday that set up the game-winning field goal). Belichick’s defensive game plan against the Chiefs centered around limiting Kelce’s impact. That strategy didn’t stymie Kansas City’s passing game completely; Mahomes still finished with 352 yards and four touchdowns while Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt each racked up more than 100 yards receiving. But the first of those touchdowns didn’t come until the Chiefs’ opening drive of the second half. Kansas City kicked three field goals and threw two interceptions in the opening two quarters. And against this Chiefs defense, which ranks 28th in DVOA, that was the only opening New England needed.
Brady was efficient through the air, but the Patriots’ game plan was built around the running game and rookie back Sony Michel. New England ran the ball 38 times, compared with only 35 pass attempts, and Michel accounted for 24 of those carries. The 2018 first-round pick finished with 106 yards, which amounts to a solid but unremarkable 4.4 yards per carry. It’s not as if the Patriots gashed Kansas City every time Michel touched the ball, but their sustained success on the ground allowed them to maintain possession—Mahomes and the Chiefs totaled just 23:51 in time of possession, compared with the Patriots’ 36:09—and take some of the air out of the Kansas City offense. In years past, Belichick has leaned on the running game against certain opponents, and Sunday’s win was a clear indication that if (or maybe more accurately when) these two teams play again in the postseason, the Patriots will do their best to control the game with Michel and rein in Kelce at every opportunity. Belichick didn’t appear to be saving any of the arrows in his quiver for a potential rematch.
Based on the show both teams put on Sunday night, it’s hard not to dream of a second bout between them in mid-January. It was Rocky in football form: the rare instance when the legendary mainstays reminded everyone of their greatness, but no one came away less enthused about the scrappy upstart. All that’s left to answer now is whether a reprise—likely in the AFC championship game—will be Rocky II.
That rematch, one for the right to play in the Super Bowl, would provide an ideal bundle of story lines for anyone with even a passing interest in the NFL. First, there are the coaches. For all Reid’s greatness as a play designer and caller, his first championship still eludes him. The closest he ever came was with the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, when none other than Belichick was there to deny him. While Belichick has been hailed as a situational genius for decades, Reid has been the butt of countless jokes about time management and late-game awareness, billed more as a curiosity than a formidable adversary. A Super Bowl win for Reid without besting Belichick almost wouldn’t feel complete, and, luckily, it seems like he’ll get that chance.
Then come the quarterbacks. For Mahomes, a championship in his first full season under center would take him from the league’s most exciting young player to the upper echelon of NFL passers—and it would be only fitting that he topple Brady in the process. Mahomes was electrifying again on Sunday, launching 75-yard touchdowns and marching Kansas City’s offense up and down the field in the second half. He showed glimpses of his inexperience—his first-quarter interception to Hightower, followed by a 4-yard Michel touchdown run, was enough to swing an entire game—but his brilliance is undeniable, and it’s clear that New England’s unathletic defense can’t contain the Chiefs’ explosive group of playmakers for four straight quarters. The points will come; it’s just a matter of whether they’ll score enough to overcome Kansas City’s hapless defense.
Sunday night’s clash of revolutionary play-callers and superstar quarterbacks gave the best game of the season a distinctly modern feel. With Mahomes and Brady moving the ball at will and the parade of touchdowns over the final two quarters, this was the contemporary NFL on full display. For the 2018 season’s first month and change, it seemed as though Mahomes was the ideal torchbearer for the league’s spread-influenced offensive revolution—and he very well might be. But Sunday’s win was Brady and Belichick’s latest reminder that over the past 20 years, there have been plenty of prodigies and wunderkinds ready to knock the Patriots off their throne. Yet with each schematic sea change and new generation, New England has endured. Mahomes and the Chiefs just showed they can hang with the best. Now, if they want to win a championship, they’ll have to show they can go one step further.