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The Sky Is Falling in New England—and So Are the Patriots

Fans booed the offense and the refs during Sunday’s game against the Chiefs, and New England suddenly looks like it could be playing on wild-card weekend

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

As the New England Patriots went into halftime down 13 points against the Kansas City Chiefs at home, Patriots fans booed. New England has not entered halftime trailing by double digits at home since 2017, so perhaps the fans just forgot losing was an option. That anger was redirected from the Patriots to the referees in the second half, but the outcome was the same regardless of whom fans blame. New England lost to the Chiefs 23-16 on Sunday, snapping a 21-game winning streak at Foxborough and dropping the Patriots to 10-3 on the season. They’re now on a two-game losing streak, which casts their supremacy in the AFC—and perhaps their own division—in doubt.

Tom Brady completed 19 of 36 passes for 169 yards (4.7 yards per attempt), and had one touchdown and one interception. It’s the third time this season the quarterback has had 4.7 or fewer yards per attempt. Before this year, Brady had dropped below that mark once since the 2009 season. A major factor in Sunday’s performance was the pass pressure engineered by Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. While the Chiefs didn’t sack Brady once on 46 dropbacks in the AFC championship game last January, they sacked him three times on 39 dropbacks Sunday for 20 yards and hit him six times.

The Patriots also pressured Patrick Mahomes on Sunday, sacking him once and hitting him five times. But Mahomes countered with big plays, including completions of 48, 23, 21, 20, and 19 yards against New England’s no-longer-vaunted pass defense. Mahomes appeared to injure his hand at one point in the first half and held it in pain, and while he did not leave the game he went for X-rays after the win. “It doesn’t feel great right now,” Mahomes told ESPN’s Adam Teicher. Mahomes finished with 26 completions on 40 attempts for 283 yards (7.1 yards per attempt) with one touchdown and one interception.

Ironically, the game started well for the Patriots. They drove 83 yards on their first drive, which was capped by a 37-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass from Brady to Julian Edelman. Patrick Mahomes threw an interception on his second throw and started the game with four incompletions. From there it went downhill. Mahomes’s fifth throw was a conversion on third-and-10. The Chiefs drove to the Patriots’ 30-yard line and kicked a field goal to cut the Patriots’ lead to 7-3 in the first quarter. On Kansas City’s next drive, Mahomes converted a third-and-19 at midfield and then threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman on second-and-25.

The Chiefs’ fourth drive also lasted just seven plays and ended with Travis Kelce lined up at quarterback in pistol flanked by Tyreek Hill to his left, running back Spencer Ware to his right, and Mahomes as the running back behind him. At the New England 4-yard line, Kelce took the snap, ran the read-option with Tyreek Hill, and then kept the ball and darted upfield for the 4-yard touchdown to give Kansas City the 17-7 lead. A field goal at the end of the half put it to 20-7.

While the Chiefs were racking up points, the Patriots offense was lifeless. New England had six first-half drives after their opening-possession touchdown. Here’s how they went.

  • Three-and-out
  • Blocked field goal
  • Interception (on the first play of the drive)
  • Turnover on downs (in lieu of a 44-yard field goal)
  • Three-and-out
  • Three-and-out (instead of punting, the second quarter ended)

With that kind of performance, no wonder the fans booed. When the Patriots came out for halftime, the defense was far better. They held the Chiefs to just three points in the second half, forced three punts (and blocked one), and forced a fumble. But the performance was overshadowed by the atrocious officiating. With the Chiefs leading 23-13 toward the end of the third quarter, Bill Belichick challenged a generous first-down ruling on a Sammy Watkins reception, but the play was upheld and the Patriots were charged a timeout. Five plays later, Patriots safety Devin McCourty knocked the ball out of Kelce’s hands while the two were in mid-air. New England recovered the fumble, but the play was blown dead and Kelce ruled down by contact. Belichick challenged the play and won, but the Patriots were deprived of the chance at return yardage (and possibly a touchdown) because of the whistle.

Another five plays later, with New England at the Chiefs’ 15-yard line, Brady tossed a short pass to receiver N’Keal Harry, who bounded toward the sideline and dove into the end zone but was ruled out of bounds at the 3-yard line. Replay clearly showed he kept his feet inbounds, but the Patriots were out of challenges, so they were unable to reverse the play.

On second-and-goal from the Chiefs’ 5-yard line, Brady found fellow rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers for a touchdown pass, but the referees conferred and changed the ruling from a catch to an incompletion. Replay showed it was obviously the correct call, but the Patriots offense had celebrated the score and began leaving the field, so the team had to burn a timeout when they were unable to get set on time for third-and-goal. Brady was ultimately sacked and New England settled for a field goal to make the game 23-16, but the refereeing mistakes cost them four points, one timeout, and the time spent gaining yards they might have picked up on the initial fumble recovery.

“I’m not trying to get fined,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the game when asked about the officiating (the league often fines players who publicly criticize referees).

There were plenty of officiating errors elsewhere in the game, and not all of it went against the Patriots. Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower landed what looked like a late hit on Patrick Mahomes but was not flagged. Later in the game, Mahomes was called for a face mask on Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Receiver Sammy Watkins and Pats cornerback Stephon Gilmore had a Wrestlemania match on the sideline but neither was flagged. Kelce was called for an offensive pass interference on the next play that announcer Tony Romo said was an obvious mistake. Later Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller committed what looked like obvious pass interference on Pats receiver Jakobi Meyers, but the call was missed and New England had no challenges to contest the play.

The refereeing was a disaster, but if any team understands that wins and losses can’t be left to the referees, it’s Bill Belichick’s. New England lost because it fell behind two scores in the first half. It’s just the latest offensive ineptitude: The Patriots racked up garbage time numbers in last week’s loss to Houston, scored 30 points combined in wins over Dallas and Philadelphia, and mustered just 20 points in a 17-point loss to Baltimore. The referees didn’t leave Tom Brady with two rookies to catch passes behind Julian Edelman and receiving back James White.

Kansas City blitzed Brady often on Sunday, hoping to take advantage of the 42-year-old’s increasing willingness to throw the ball away under pressure and avoid hits (Brady had 30 throwaways under pressure entering this week according to Pro Football Focus, the most in the league). Brady needed his young receivers to get open quickly. They could not. New England needed every trick in the book to get the ball moving in the second half, including White throwing a 35-yard pass to Meyers.

It didn’t matter. The Patriots needed 69 yards to drive down at the end of regulation but stalled at the Chiefs’ 5-yard line. That’s the kind of situation the Pats need Rob Gronkowski for, but he officially can’t unretire this season.

The sky is not falling. New England is still 10-3 and gets the Bengals, Bills, and Dolphins in their next three games. If New England beats the Bills in Week 16, they will clinch their 17th AFC East title in 20 years. Even if the Patriots lose to the Bills but beat the Bengals in Week 15 and the Dolphins in Week 17, they still have 3-in-4 odds to win their division and earn a first-round bye, according to New York Times projections. The Patriots are well positioned to skip the wild-card round, but there is still reason to worry. They have lost to the Chiefs, Texans, and Ravens, with the latter two in convincing fashion. All three of those teams could face the Patriots in the playoffs. Also, New England’s closest game of the season’s first half was against Buffalo, who could also play them in January. New England hasn’t beaten an AFC team likely to make the playoffs since Pittsburgh in Week 1. And while the Pats are likely to win the division, the Bills could still reasonably win the AFC East in mid-December—a sign of a dynasty potentially falling.

There is a certain hubris to predicting the Patriots’ demise, but time is undefeated and the Pats have looked worse down the stretch this year than they did in 2018, when they looked real bad before turning it around and winning the Super Bowl. Even this game could have gone differently if the Patriots had tied the game on their final fourth down and gone to overtime. New England is still capable of coming from behind and winning ugly. They are still likely going to need one playoff win to make their 14th AFC championship game in 20 years. But they’re teetering so close to mortality that their fans remembered that they forgot what losing feels like.