In a season where individual performances have varied, games and lineups have been reshuffled, and results have been unpredictable, the Kansas City Chiefs remain the NFL’s only sure thing. The Chiefs are, unequivocally, a step above the rest of the league—and their 32-29 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon affirmed as much.
New Orleans did several things right on Sunday, as Sean Payton and Co. developed a formula that would have been enough to earn a win against just about any other team. But against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, it wasn’t; without a fully healthy Drew Brees behind center and Michael Thomas out wide, New Orleans didn’t engineer enough offense to match its defense’s stellar play. And with Kansas City now a step closer to clinching the AFC’s no. 1 seed, it’s unclear whether Andy Reid’s squad will face an opponent good enough to bring them down over the rest of this season.
The Saints defense has been arguably the league’s best unit this year. The group entered Sunday ranked no. 2 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and it fields some of the NFL’s most productive disruptors—Trey Hendrickson, Cameron Jordan, and David Onyemata—and a stout secondary. Throughout the first half on Sunday, that seemed like that could be enough to potentially overcome the Chiefs’ offense, as New Orleans forced Kansas City to punt on five of its seven first-half possessions. New Orleans also forced Mahomes to hold onto the ball longer than he’s accustomed to. According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes went 7-of-21 for 77 yards and one touchdown in the first half while being pressured 13 times and suffering three sacks. He completed just 2 of 10 passes when pressured, however the Saints managed to consistently generate pressure without blitzing.
The Saints pass rush has been able to generate pressure without blitzing (1 blitz on 30 dropbacks).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 20, 2020
➤ Mahomes has been pressured on a career-high 41.4% of his dropbacks vs non-blitzes
➤ Trey Hendrickson: 6 pressures on 19 pass rushes (31.6% pressure rate)#KCvsNO | #Saints
Mahomes threw for two scores over the first two quarters, but Kansas City’s offense averaged just 3.9 yards per play. The problem for New Orleans, though, was that its offense wasn’t much better.
Brees, who made his first appearance Sunday since suffering 11 broken ribs in Week 10, was at the crux of the Saints’ offensive issues. He completed 5-of-16 passes for 87 yards and an interception in the first half. New Orleans also punted on five of its first seven offensive drives and averaged just 4.4 yards per play through the first two quarters.
But even with that lackluster offense, the Saints had a chance right before halftime to tie the game at 14-apiece. New Orleans punted with 14 seconds left, and Chiefs returner Demarcus Robinson fumbled the ball into the end zone. Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone basically landed on the loose ball but couldn’t control it, and it rolled out of the end zone for a safety.
Spoiling scoring opportunities like that against such an explosive Chiefs squad is tough to overcome. The Saints briefly took a 15-14 advantage in the third quarter. But on Kansas City’s ensuing drive, Mahomes completed a ridiculous touchdown pass to receiver Mecole Hardman on a play that would’ve resulted in a throwaway for most other quarterbacks.
Coming out of the break, Kansas City—which entered Sunday with the highest third-quarter point differential of any NFL team—scored a touchdown, punted once, then engineered a 10-play scoring drive capped with a 12-yard touchdown carry from Le’Veon Bell. That gave the Chiefs a 29-15 lead early in the fourth quarter. A three-and-out by the Saints gave Kansas City a chance to put the game out of reach, but Mahomes was sacked by Hendrickson, who ripped the ball out and set up linebacker Kwon Alexander’s recovery in K.C. territory. Three plays later, Alvin Kamara scored on a 14-yard throw from Brees, drawing the Saints within seven with just under 10 minutes left.
The New Orleans defense needed to make at least one more stop. But by then, the unit had been on the field for nearly 34 minutes, allowing Kansas City to impose its will on the ground. The Chiefs waged a 10-play, 71-yard drive that chewed up five and a half minutes of game clock before Harrison Butker booted a 22-yard field goal and extended their lead to 10. Brees led another touchdown drive to pull within three, but the Chiefs easily exhausted the remaining two minutes of the game to hold on for the win.
New Orleans had one more offensive series than Kansas City on Sunday (14 to 13) and averaged more yards per play (5.5 to 4.5), yet the Chiefs were much more successful offensively. Kansas City ran more plays (92 to 52), achieved more first downs (34 to 15), was better on third down (9-for-18 to 1-for-11) and significantly out-possessed the Saints (41:14 to 18:46) en route to picking up a victory that was more comfortable than the scoreline might have suggested. Brees finished 15-for-34 with 234 yards, three touchdowns and one pick; his 44.1 percent completion rate marked the third-lowest mark in his career. Mahomes, meanwhile, went 26-for-47 with 254 yards and three touchdowns in one of his bumpier outings of the year.
Following this game, it’s clear there’s a tangible gap between the Saints and the Chiefs. And if Sunday’s matchup was the preview of Super Bowl 55 that many thought it could be, then the Saints still have a ways to go before they’ll be ready to compete with the defending champs.