In January’s AFC championship game, the Kansas City Chiefs erupted for 31 second-half points to tie the Patriots and send the game to overtime. The Chiefs lost the coin toss, and it didn’t take long for them to lose the game too. The Patriots elected to receive and converted multiple third-and-longs en route to scoring a touchdown for a 37-31 win. Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 league MVP who threw 50 touchdowns in the regular season and had 230 yards and three touchdowns in the second half of that game, watched the entirety of overtime from the sideline. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was asked after the game about the Chiefs not getting Mahomes the ball in overtime.
“You’ve got to be a good coin-flipper,” Reid said. “And then you’ve got to get off the field if you don’t have the ball.”
Nine months later, the Kansas City defense still can’t get off the field. The Chiefs fell to the Houston Texans 31-24 on Sunday in large part because they could not stop the run. Houston ran the ball for 192 yards on 41 carries (4.7 yards per carry) and 12 first downs. Texans running back Carlos Hyde had 26 carries for 116 yards, his most prolific game since he was on the 49ers (three teams ago) in Week 2 of 2017. Without stopping the run, the Chiefs could not stop the clock. Houston had the ball for nearly 40 minutes, including more time in the second half (24:06) than the Chiefs had it in the entire game (20:12). Kansas City had three second-half drives, and in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs had the ball for just 78 seconds. It was the worst time-of-possession disparity at home in franchise history.
That’s a similar story to Kansas City’s upset 19-13 loss to Indianapolis last week. The Colts held the ball for more than 37 minutes, including 20-plus minutes in the second half, as they ran for 180 yards on 45 carries in 60 minutes. Now, after losing to Houston, the Chiefs have lost two home games in a row for the first time since Andy Reid’s first year in Kansas City in 2013.
Just like last week against Indianapolis, Mahomes dominated until he aggravated his left ankle injury, this time coming midway through the second quarter on a hit by Houston linebacker Benardrick McKinney. Mahomes threw his first interception less than two minutes later—and nearly threw two more on the next drive—as he limped and had trouble stepping into his throws. He completed 10 of his first 16 pass attempts for 189 yards and two touchdowns, but completed just nine of his next 19 attempts for 84 yards, one touchdown, and the interception. His 41 passing yards in the second half were the fewest of his career.
Kansas City was without two key defenders in defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Anthony Hitchens on Sunday, and was missing left tackle Eric Fisher, guard Andrew Wylie, and receiver Sammy Watkins on offense. But the Chiefs got back Tyreek Hill, who looked fully recovered from the Week 1 shoulder injury that cost him a month as he posted five catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns. Injuries alone are not why Houston ran 83 plays to Kansas City’s 47. The injuries have merely exacerbated the Chiefs’ two main problems: Their defense still can’t get off the field, and their offense isn’t great enough to make up for when Patrick Mahomes is hobbled.
The defensive failings are particularly devastating considering that improving that unit was an organizational mandate this offseason. The Chiefs fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and replaced him with Steve Spagnuolo, who famously stifled the Patriots offense with the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The team also cut defensive end Justin Houston, traded away defensive end Dee Ford, and traded for Seattle’s Frank Clark, who signed to a new deal with $62 million guaranteed. In the same vein, the team released safety Eric Berry and signed Tyrann Mathieu to bolster their back end and run defense. Through five weeks, these moves had produced little, as the Chiefs defense sat in the bottom five of yards allowed per drive, time of possession per drive, and drive success rate. Entering Sunday, their defense ranked 32nd in plays per drive, 31st in rushing yards per attempt (5.3), 31st in rushing first downs (43), and 30th in rushing defense efficiency per Football Outsiders. That does not include Sunday’s loss to Houston, so the Chiefs might drop in all of those categories.
Before Mahomes aggravated his ankle, he looked as in command as ever. Kansas City’s first drive featured so many penalties that Mahomes needed 116 passing yards for a scoring drive, the most since Oakland’s Rich Gannon in 2004. In the first quarter he was throwing perfect touch passes while backpedaling.
Sure, why not. That's fair. pic.twitter.com/5SpVUZ29qJ— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) October 13, 2019
But his second-quarter interception was a bizarre long toss on what Mahomes may have thought was a free play for a penalty flag that was picked up.
Mahomes was one of the league’s best deep passer in the first three weeks of the season (remember that four-touchdown quarter?), with a 61 percent completion on throws over 20 yards, but since then, his completion rate is 26 percent, according to Next Gen Stats.
Patrick Mahomes has seen a significant decline in his success on deep passes (20+ air yards) over the past three weeks. Mahomes completion percentage on deep passes:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 13, 2019
Weeks 1-3: 61% (11/18)
Weeks 4-6: 26% (6/23)#ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/TliWacbGqR
Despite their shortcomings, the Chiefs were given numerous opportunities to win this game. Houston’s Hyde fumbled on his first carry and gave the Chiefs the ball 18 yards from the end zone, but the Chiefs lost 5 yards and settled for a field goal. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson ended a promising drive with an interception when the Chiefs were up 17-16 with less than 40 seconds left in the first half. But Mahomes fumbled the ball on the first play of the ensuing drive, and the Texans scored a touchdown one play later to take a 23-17 halftime lead. In addition to the turnovers, the Texans had 10 penalties for 70 yards, and two of the Chiefs’ touchdowns came indirectly from Houston penalties. Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn missed a 46-yard field goal and an extra point. The Texans dropped multiple Mahomes interceptions, and Week 5 fantasy hero Will Fuller dropped three long passes that would’ve gone for touchdowns. There was no shortage of Texans attempts to keep the Chiefs in this game.
Second deep pass on Fuller that he hasn't reeled in. pic.twitter.com/IyeSmeIka2— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) October 13, 2019
Yet the Chiefs could not capitalize. They had three drives in the second half: The first went for 64 yards and a touchdown; the final two combined for 2 yards and both ended in three-and-outs. The Chiefs can only hope that their opponents will be as kind to them the rest of the season, and dropping to 4-2 has weakened their grip on the AFC West. The Chiefs’ offseason moves were intended to get Mahomes the ball more; instead, he’s getting the ball less, and when he does get it, he’s doing less than before. His superhuman pace from last year has fallen off, as he isn’t on track to throw 40 touchdowns after tossing 50 last year. The Ringer’s Kevin Clark suggested this week that it might be best for the franchise’s short- and long-term interests to sit Mahomes until he is 100 percent healthy. If not, Reid and Co. have to figure out how to get their defense off the field—or get better at coin-flipping.