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The Kansas City Chiefs Are Literally Dropping the Ball

A season-long concern over a lack of pass-catching talent for Patrick Mahomes finally came to a head in the team’s 21-17 loss to the Eagles. It raises questions about just how far into the postseason a team that can’t catch can go.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Leading up to Monday night’s epic Super Bowl rematch between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, ESPN asked Patrick Mahomes about the magnitude of the game. “It’s as close to a Super Bowl–type feel you can have,” he said.

Mahomes also acknowledged that the Chiefs offense is still a work in progress.

“I think you see in spurts that we can be the offense we’ve been in the past. That should come with more and more of our younger receivers getting game experience,” Mahomes said. “The biggest thing is you see how guys respond under the lights. That’s what gets you ready for the playoffs and Super Bowl games.”

Under the brightest lights of this season, the Chiefs’ pass catchers quite literally dropped the ball. The Chiefs lost a rain-soaked rematch 21-17 to the Eagles in a game that highlighted so much of what makes this Kansas City team better than last season’s Super Bowl team—but also what makes it worse.

The play of the game—and perhaps the defining play of the Chiefs’ season so far—came on second-and-10 with the Chiefs down by four points with just 1:50 remaining. Mahomes did what Mahomes does: lasered a perfect pass 46 yards downfield (57 yards in the air, considering where Mahomes was standing) into the outstretched arms of Marquez Valdes-Scantling for what should have given the Chiefs a three-point lead. The ball hit both of Valdes-Scantling’s hands, but MVS dropped it.

An incredulous Mahomes took an intentional grounding flag on the next play, leaving the Chiefs with a fourth-and-25 from their own 34-yard line with no timeouts. Again, Mahomes did what Mahomes does: lasered the ball on a rope to Chiefs receiver Justin Watson, hitting him dead in the hands. Once again the ball went through Mahomes’s receiver’s hands and hit the ground. Ball game.

These two plays were emblematic of the drive, the drive emblematic of the night, and the night emblematic of the season for a Chiefs team that keeps seeing Mahomes throw stupefyingly accurate passes and his receivers just not bringing them in. Like the Aaron Rodgers–led Packers did with Davante Adams, the Mahomes–led Chiefs have a ridiculous superstar as their no. 1 pass catcher (tight end Travis Kelce) and a collection of good no. 4 receivers—Valdes-Scantling, Watson, Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney—trying to step up as a competent no. 2 and all looking overmatched.

Earlier on the drive, Kelce dropped perhaps the easiest pass he was thrown all night on third-and-2 (though he made up for it with a fourth-down conversion on the next play). Kelce, who finished with seven catches for 44 yards and a touchdown, also lost a fumble when the Chiefs were in field goal range (insert your Taylor-Swift-wasn’t-in-attendance joke here). Kelce contributed as a blocker and an inspired double-team decoy at times, but overall it was a bad performance for him. That’s made even more worrisome considering that just last week, he had his worst statistical game in years: a three-catch, 14-yard effort against Miami, and publicly considered retirement in the pages of a Wall Street Journal story published just hours before Monday night’s game.

Watson was Kansas City’s leading receiver by yardage, with five catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. But Watson caught those five passes on 11 targets and had multiple dropped passes in this game. His touchdown came on an absurd scramble and throw from Mahomes.

This is the third straight week that Kansas City has not scored in the second half. Since Week 3, the Chiefs have had 16 points in the fourth quarter.

It’s also just the fourth time Andy Reid has lost a regular-season game after a bye (he entered Monday night 21-3 after the bye in the regular season, the best mark for a coach in NFL history). It’s also the first loss Mahomes has had when his team scored first in two seasons (he was 18-0 previously).

But most upsettingly, Kansas City’s comebacks used to be the entire fun of watching the Chiefs. Remember their win over Houston in the playoffs after the 2019 season, when they were down 24-0? Or how they won five games in a row in which they were down at halftime last season? Or the three comebacks from double-digit deficits in the first eight games last season? Those Chiefs seem to have slipped through our fingers like a Mahomes downfield pass.

The mental mistakes are magnified when the rest of the Chiefs are so magnificent. Mahomes was magical from start to finish. His scramble and throw created the touchdown on Kansas City’s second drive. He had another ridiculous scramble at the end of the first half to set up the field goal to make it 17-7 at halftime. He had a ludicrous falling-back touch pass to Watson on the sideline. And the two throws to Valdes-Scantling and Watson on the final drive were basically perfect. The performance was reminiscent of when Mahomes tossed a pass 30 yards downfield while flying through the air on fourth-and-9 in the Super Bowl against the Buccaneers and hit his teammate in the face … only for the pass to be dropped. That pass, like his perfect fourth-and-25 throw on Monday, went down in the box score as a turnover on downs.

But it wasn’t just Mahomes playing lights-out. The Kansas City offensive line and running back Isiah Pacheco produced more rushing yards than the Eagles had allowed in a game all season, and they did it less than 29 minutes into the game. Pacheco finished with 19 carries for 89 yards, and overall the Chiefs, even without Mahomes’s scrambling, ran 24 times for 130 yards (5.4 yards per carry, or exactly the career yards per carry average of Chiefs legend Jamaal Charles, who was seated next to Donna Kelce on Monday night).

The Chiefs defense was also marvelous. The Eagles did not convert a third down until almost five minutes remained in the third quarter. Rather than stopping the tush push, the Chiefs frequently stopped the Eagles from being able to try it by not letting them get enough yards. Kansas City sacked Jalen Hurts five times and dominated Philly on third-and-long. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo outsmarted the Eagles offense with blitzes, just like in the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs were more physical at the line of scrimmage and aggressive in breaking up Philly’s screens. Kansas City’s defense is one of the best in the NFL, full stop, and it looked like it on Monday. It is also the youngest defense by snap-adjusted age, making it that much harder to accept the mental mistakes by veteran players on offense.

“We didn’t play good offensively,” Hurts said after the game, acknowledging that the Eagles defense won it for them. But it was less the defense and more the Chiefs receivers failing to eat the meals Mahomes laid out for them on a silver platter.

In fairness to Kansas City’s receivers, it was an absolute downpour.

Fans watching on TV may know it is raining but forget how badly the wet conditions affect the passing game when the rain disappears on TV.

But the rain wasn’t everything. Earlier in the game, Valdes-Scantling got open for what would’ve been a deep touchdown, and Mahomes threw toward him. But bizarrely, MVS did a 360-degree turn tracking the ball, which would be sloppy even for a high schooler. The ball fell incomplete. Watson also made a mental error when he immediately got open on a go route but ran to the middle of the field and not to the sideline on a third-and-7. Mahomes put the ball where it was supposed to be, but Watson ran to the wrong place and the ball bounced incomplete. Reid buried his despondent face into his play sheet. The Chiefs punted, and the Eagles drove down and scored to cut Kansas City’s lead to 17-14. These mistakes have nothing to do with the rain.

These mistakes also aren’t limited to Monday’s game. Valdes-Scantling’s career has been defined by being an unreliable deep pass catcher. Strangely, one of Kansas City’s other losses this season, to Detroit in Week 1, ended with Mahomes failing to complete a pass to Watson on fourth-and-25, just like Monday’s ending. In that loss to Detroit, in which Kelce was sidelined with a knee injury, Toney finished with 1 receiving yard, minus-1 rushing yards, and three drops, with one of those drops leading to a pick-six in a game the Chiefs lost by one point. Toney was far better on Monday, delivering on special teams, as a receiver, and as a rusher out of the backfield, but the point remains: Kansas City’s non-Kelce pass catchers have been costing this team since Week 1.

But there is a larger problem here. Fourth-quarter comebacks and explosive plays used to be the Chiefs’ entire thing. Now, the Chiefs cannot get deep explosive plays—in part because defenses are adjusting to it, but also in part because their receivers are running the wrong routes and using the wrong techniques and spinning around for the ball instead of looking up and not catching balls that hit them in the hands. And without those deep shots, a Reid-Mahomes offense that was defined by come-from-behind wins is now unable to score in the second half at all.

As Valdes-Scantling walked down the tunnel after the loss, cameras caught him slamming his helmet into the wall in frustration. A metallic reverberating sound filled the tunnel, as Valdes-Scantling had actually smashed his helmet into the giant letters spelling out “CHIEFS KINGDOM.” It looked like he had literally left a dent in the kingdom. We’ll see whether the Chiefs end up fixing it.