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Patrick Mahomes Looks Ready to Conquer Worlds Again, but the Chiefs D Doesn’t

The reigning MVP is back and playing the way we’ve grown accustomed to, but his defense couldn’t hold off Ryan Tannehill and the Titans

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that Patrick Mahomes is back. The bad news is the Chiefs are not.

In his much-anticipated return to the field after suffering a dislocated knee in Week 7, Mahomes looked fully healthy in Week 10 against the Titans and showed his usual level of physics-defying playmaking talent. But unlike usual, it wasn’t enough: The Chiefs lost to the Titans, 35-32, in a game that may help illuminate the team’s prospects for the rest of the season.

Despite a handful of turnover-worthy hiccups on the opening drive, the reigning MVP put up an overall sterling stat line: 36-of-50 for 446 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Mahomes did all of his usual Mahomes stuff. In the first quarter, he lofted a perfectly placed touchdown throw to Tyreek Hill while backpedaling away from pressure:

In the fourth, he completed a jump pass to Mecole Hardman, who sped by every Titans defender for a 63-yard touchdown:

Travis Kelce had a touchdown on a shovel pass and nearly scored another that was called back due to a penalty. Even Damien Williams, who started at running back with LeSean McCoy a healthy scratch, had a decent 77 rushing yards on 19 carries and another 32 receiving yards on five catches. It was a worthy reminder that the Chiefs have an offensive playmaking group as good as any in football, and Mahomes is the engine that makes the machine run.

The Chiefs’ 32 points were the most the team has scored since Week 4, when Kansas City put up 34 on the Lions. That was before Mahomes’s ankle injury and knee dislocation, and this game marks the first time since Mahomes’s injuries that this offense hit the fifth gear it is known for. But little else went right for the Chiefs. A fumble-return touchdown for the Titans flipped the lead in the second quarter, the Kansas City defense couldn’t consistently get Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry off the field, and the team’s potential game-tying field goal was blocked:

The Chiefs defense did recover a fumble and sack Tannehill four times, but overall the Titans offense was able to get everything it needed. That included this 68-yard Derrick Henry touchdown run:

Henry had 188 rushing yards on 23 carries. Even removing that 68-yard score, Henry averaged nearly 5.5 yards per carry, regularly barreling his way into the Chiefs defense and rumbling forward, eating yards and clock with ease. On the Titans’ go-ahead touchdown play, Tannehill had all day to find a wide-open Adam Humphries:

The Titans averaged 7.6 yards per play, and Tannehill threw just 19 times—but completed 13 of those passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. It was a worrisome regression for a Chiefs defense that looked like it had turned a corner this season.

Kansas City came into the game with the 11th-best defense by DVOA, a marked improvement from last year when the team ranked 26th in that metric. That jump on defense presented Chiefs fans with the enticing possibility that once Mahomes was back to full health, this team would be virtually unstoppable. Before this week, all of the Chiefs’ losses this year came when Mahomes was either clearly not at full health or was out.

The Chiefs are now 6-4, which puts them well on the outside looking in when it comes to the race for a first-round playoff bye. The Patriots (8-1), Ravens (7-2), Bills (6-3), and Texans (6-3) all have an edge on Kansas City, and the Colts (5-3) could move ahead of them as well by the time Sunday ends. Even the Chiefs’ lead in the division is now tenuous, with the Raiders (5-4) right behind them. The Raiders.

Let’s not overreact: The pieces of an elite team are still here. If the Chiefs can get their defense back to fringe top-10 status and Mahomes can continue playing like an MVP, Kansas City will be as dangerous as any team. But those elements have yet to come together at the same time for the Chiefs this season. This team won’t be truly elite until they do.