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Kansas City Is Saving the Style Points for Later

The Chiefs are a relatively quiet 8-1, if there is such a thing. Patrick Mahomes and Co. might not be as flashy and explosive in 2020, but they’re still just as dangerous.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, one of the great creators of our time­—that would be Taylor Alison Swift—described feeling forgotten even before she’d reached a creative peak.

“My career started when I was 16 putting out albums, so by 22, I was already feeling like old news,” she told Rolling Stone in an interview for the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums series. “I was already watching newer, cooler artists come out every week. I was already feeling like, ‘You know, shit. I’m on my fourth record, what can I offer people?’”

What she came up with was Red, a masterpiece that held at no. 1 for seven weeks and is her highest-ranking album on Rolling Stone’s list. She has released four more albums since then, all of which have reached no. 1 as well. It turned out she had a lot more to offer.

Which brings us to the Chiefs. Kansas City is a relatively quiet 8-1, if there is such a thing. They are at or near the top in most power rankings, but the 9-0 Steelers have the inside track to the top seed in the AFC. The Chiefs haven’t played a marquee game, like the Monday Night Football Rams game in 2018, and they’ve played close games against lesser opponents like the Chargers and Panthers. Plus, we—take that to mean NFL viewers or humans in general—are a fickle bunch, and it’s more fun to parse Kyler Murray’s or Russell Wilson’s chances for a first MVP award or analyze the surging Dolphins than it is to focus on a team continuing to do what it’s done for the last three seasons.

But Kansas City still has a dominant passing offense and a good passing defense, and that remains the best Super Bowl–winning formula in the modern NFL. The differences between the Chiefs’ play (and that of Patrick Mahomes) this season versus last are cosmetic at best. What I’m saying is: The Chiefs are about to release Red.

One of the key similarities between this year’s Chiefs and the 2018 group is the most important one—Mahomes is producing at a nearly identical rate to his MVP output.

In 2018, Mahomes completed 66 percent of his passes, had a passer rating of 113.8, threw for 319 yards with 3.1 touchdowns and .8 interceptions, and ran for 17 yards on 3.8 rushing attempts with .1 rushing touchdowns per game.

So far in 2020, Mahomes has completed 67 percent of his passes, has a passer rating of 115.9, has thrown for 299 yards with 2.8 touchdowns and .1 interceptions, and run for 19 yards on 3.9 rushing attempts with .2 rushing touchdowns per game.

Mahomes’s yards per attempt are down, from 8.8 in 2018 to 8.2 so far this year. His adjusted yards per attempt, though, are basically identical: 9.58 in 2018 and 9.55 so far this year. What’s the difference? Adjusted yards per attempt factors in passing touchdowns and, critically, interceptions. Mahomes is on track to throw 44 touchdown passes this season, which is fewer than the 50 he threw in 2018, so that’s not what’s bringing his numbers up. The difference is that he’s thrown one—one—interception this season.

It’s just one variable, but it’s a good illustration of how limiting interceptions can balance out some decline in explosive plays and touchdowns. It means the Chiefs’ offense can combine fewer big plays with fewer mistakes and be slightly less exciting, but just as good.

That one interception came in Kansas City’s 40-32 loss to the Raiders in Week 5, their sole loss. It’s the most points the Chiefs have given up since their 54-51 loss to the Rams in November 2018. It was the Raiders’ first win against the Chiefs since 2017 and their first in Kansas City since 2012.

In that game, Las Vegas did several things that spell danger for the Chiefs and Mahomes. First, they controlled time of possession, from 35:18 to 24:42. Second, they had their own high-powered offense generating big plays as the Chiefs so often do. Third, they pressured Mahomes without needing extra rushers—they blitzed him only three times the entire game and still got 22 pressures. On the play that forced Mahomes’s only interception of the season, the Raiders only rushed four defenders and Clelin Ferrell got a hand in Mahomes’s face as he threw.

The Chiefs have a chance to even the season series with the Raiders Sunday, though the game may not be a perfect litmus test given that Las Vegas had placed 11 players on the COVID-19 reserve list as of Wednesday. (Many of those players are there as close contacts of players who have tested positive, not because they have tested positive themselves, which means it’s still possible they could play Sunday if they continue to test negative.)

The Raiders’ Week 5 win exposed some of the Chiefs’ vulnerabilities. The thing is, what Las Vegas did in that game is a near-perfect formula for beating any great quarterback. Teams just aren’t able to do that all the time.

Kansas City also responded to that loss in a way that illustrates how they’ve grown up as a team, possibly to the detriment of some of their highlight packages.

“We’ve got to go back and look at ourselves in the mirror—me at quarterback—and really not rely on these crazy plays where I’m scrambling around and throwing these shots,” Mahomes said that night in his postgame interview. “And just execute the offense the way that it’s called and the way it’s supposed to be ran.”

Scrambling around and improvising has been a big part of the Mahomes–Kansas City experience for the last two years. But remember how not throwing interceptions makes Mahomes’s efficiency numbers nearly the same as his numbers from his 2018 MVP season? It’s fair that they want to be less reliant on those plays—which they have been—while remaining part of the NFL’s top tier.

Kansas City is the no. 4 team in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA with the top-ranked offense, 14th-ranked defense, and 22nd-ranked special teams. The teams ahead of the Chiefs are no. 1 New Orleans, no. 2 Tampa Bay, and no. 3 Pittsburgh. But the Saints are going to be without Drew Brees for at least a couple of weeks after the quarterback suffered broken ribs and a collapsed lung against San Francisco, and either New Orleans’s or Tampa Bay’s playoff path is going to have to start in the wild-card game. Pittsburgh has a legitimate shot at staying ahead of Kansas City for the top seed in the AFC with the 12th-easiest schedule remaining by opponent winning percentage—the Steelers have the Jaguars, Ravens, Washington Football Team, Bills, Bengals, Colts, and Browns left on their slate. The Chiefs have the sixth-hardest schedule, with the Raiders, Buccaneers, Broncos, Dolphins, Saints, Falcons, and Chargers left to go.

Given their schedule and the Steelers’ strength, the Chiefs may have to wait until the playoffs to make their biggest mark, though that’s not so different from what they did last season.

Last year, when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, they finished second overall by DVOA, third on offense, 14th on defense, and second on special teams. In 2018, when Mahomes won MVP and Kansas City made it to overtime in the AFC Championship game, they were first overall, with the top offense and second-ranked special teams units compensating for the no. 26 defense.

To predict that the Chiefs will turn it on when they need to is just that—a prediction. If you would like to assume that Mahomes can no longer do this, this, or this, be my guest. With their passing offense still the best in the NFL and their passing defense still solid, Kansas City’s Super Bowl formula hasn’t changed. If that remains true, well, they’re just going to keep cruising.