Clutch Encounters: KC-NE
by Scott Kacsmar
It only took one game for the 2017 season to no longer be about the Patriots vs. the NFL, which is how I described it in my predictions this week. The 19-0 talk died a quick, but strange death. Something I also wrote was that Kansas City is the AFC team best equipped to dethrone New England, and we saw a lot of those reasons on display Thursday night.
However, I did not expect to see the Chiefs win a 42-27 game despite losing the turnover battle, falling behind by 10 points, and racking up 15 penalties for 139 yards. Kansas City committed a few cardinal sins that would usually bury a team in New England, but not last night. Not when Alex Smith threw four touchdown passes compared to zero for Tom Brady. Who could have possibly predicted that?
This was the first time the Patriots lost a game with Brady at quarterback by more than 14 points since the Chiefs pulled off that Monday night massacre in Arrowhead in 2014, winning 41-14. There will be ample comparisons over the next week to how the Patriots moved on ("to Cincinnati") from that loss to eventually win another Super Bowl that season while Kansas City finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
It always makes sense to avoid overreacting to the first game, and it is possible that I am correct in designating the Chiefs as the worst possible matchup for the Patriots this year. But as you will see, this game was quite unlike any we have seen before in New England during the Patriots' run of success.
Note: unless specified otherwise, the following records for New England are for home games since 2001 and include playoff games.
Thursday Night's Alright (for Losing)
As far as season openers go, we're not used to seeing this from any defending champion. It was 2004 when the NFL began this nice tradition of the defending champions opening the season at home on a Thursday night. You get to have your championship banner unveiled. The crowd really gets into it. This is a pretty advantageous atmosphere to start the new season. The Patriots were the first team to have it, and they did it again in 2005 as the last NFL team to repeat. The 2012 Giants (who lost at home to Dallas on a Wednesday night) and 2013 Ravens (who had to travel to Denver) did not enjoy this Thursday home opener.
The defending champions were 11-0 in these Thursday night home openers, but make that 11-1 now.
The Ugly Start: Don't Fall Behind… Right?
Barely more than five minutes into the game, the Patriots looked to be headed for a blowout win. Rob Gronkowski had just made a great grab for a touchdown to give New England a 13-0 lead with 9:49 left. But a review showed the ball hit the ground to overturn the call, and Mike Gillislee was then stuffed on a fourth-and-1 run. The Chiefs sure dodged a bullet there.
Since 2001, the Patriots were 104-1 at home when leading by at least eight points at any time in the game. The only loss was to the Eagles in 2015 after New England had a 14-0 lead halfway through the second quarter.
After four possessions, the Patriots still led the Chiefs 17-7, and three of their four drives had gained at least 67 yards. Over their final nine drives, the Patriots only scored 10 points and never gained more than 58 yards on any drive.
In completing the 10-point comeback, the Chiefs dropped New England's home record to 104-2 when leading by at least eight points.
The Distance: Don't Lose the Field Position Battle… Right?
One of the great feats by the Chiefs was the ability to produce in spite of bad field position. The Patriots finished the game with slightly better field position (28.5 vs. Chiefs' 25.5), but never started a drive inside their own 15 until the fourth quarter. The Chiefs had five such drives on a subpar special teams night, but still scored three touchdowns on those drives.
From 2001 to 2016, the Patriots allowed nine touchdown drives of 90-plus yards at home. They allowed three of them to the Chiefs on Thursday night (90, 92, and 90 yards). The only other offense with multiple 90-yard touchdown drives in New England since 2001 was the Dan Orlovsky-led Colts in 2011. The difference was that Orlovsky's 93- and 90-yard drives came in a fourth quarter where the Colts were down 31-3.
Bill Belichick has been a head coach in 389 games, including his time in Cleveland (1991-1995). These long drives helped Kansas City pile up 537 yards, the most yards against any defense coached by Belichick. The 42 points ties the most points any Belichick team has allowed, and that was the 1991 Browns facing off against the dominant Redskins in Belichick's sixth career game as a head coach. The previous high allowed by New England under Belichick was 41 points, done three times, but only once at home where all the points came against the defense. That was the 41-34 loss in 2012 to the 49ers with a fellow named Colin Kaepernick at quarterback for San Francisco.
Oddly enough, the Chiefs ran option plays last night, even putting tight end Travis Kelce at quarterback for a snap. Alex Smith may have taken 13 years to finally look like the quarterback from Urban Meyer's Utah offense that the NFL was expecting him to be. He ran the option/spread, used several shovel passes to Kelce, and even ripped a few deep balls in arguably the finest game of his career.
It was all part of what one could say was the biggest shredding of a Belichick-coached defense that we have ever seen.
The Comeback: Alex Smith Doesn't Throw Deep… Right?
Smith's 368 passing yards were the third-highest of his career, and it was only the third time he threw at least four touchdown passes in a game. However, his first half was still very reminiscent of the Smith we have come to expect from the last dozen years. At halftime, Smith was 16-of-19 passing, but for only 128 yards and one embarrassing self-sack.
The game really opened up in the third quarter when Smith took the field at his own 25. He let a deep one fly for Tyreek Hill, who was wide open after safety Devin McCourty and new cornerback Stephon Gilmore got confused on the coverage. The result was a 75-yard touchdown pass, and things started to look favorable for the Chiefs, who now led 21-17. (McCourty took responsibility for the mix-up after the game.)
— NFL (@NFL) September 8, 2017
Smith was not done there, even though the Patriots regained control of the game and took a 27-21 lead after a bad taunting penalty by Kelce ruined another Chiefs drive. After a false start, Smith was 95 yards away from the end zone as the Chiefs took the final snap of the third quarter.
The Patriots have only blown 16 fourth-quarter leads in the previous 16 seasons, an incredible feat given how often they are leading late. We know the Patriots have been especially tough to beat at home when they are leading in the fourth quarter. They were 51-2 when defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter since 2001. Eli Manning led the 2011 Giants on two great touchdown drives in a 24-20 win, but the Giants led 10-3 to start that quarter, and never trailed by more than a field goal. Last season, Russell Wilson led Seattle to a memorable 31-24 win in New England, but the Seahawks led 22-21 to start the quarter, and never trailed by more than two points late.
In other words, since 2001, the Patriots were 113-0 at home when leading by more than three points in the fourth quarter. Down 27-21, Smith needed more than another dinky shovel pass to Kelce. After faking the jet sweep to Hill, Smith stayed calm in the pocket and delivered another deep throw (31 air yards) to rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who burned linebacker Cassius Marsh for a 78-yard touchdown.
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) September 8, 2017
Smith went into Thursday night's game with 157 touchdown passes in 141 regular-season games. He only had two career touchdown passes of 75-plus yards. He had two last night, including this game-winning throw.
How about Hunt's night? With concerns over the Chiefs losing Spencer Ware for the season, Hunt, a third-round pick, reminded us that running backs are the most replaceable starters in football. Even after fumbling (which he did just one time in college) on his first touch of the night, Hunt rebounded with 246 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. The yardage is a record for a player in his rookie debut. We'll learn a lot more about Hunt (and New England's defense) soon, but after last night, you're not going to hear about the losses of Ware, Jamaal Charles, and Jeremy Maclin any time soon. The Chiefs looked explosive with Hunt and Hill leading the way.
The Failed Comeback: Brady's Got This… Right?
For a team that came back from a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit in Super Bowl LI, 28-27 with 14:07 left should be easy, right? Well, there wasn't any miracle catch (or catch of any kind) by Julian Edelman this time. While Danny Amendola did a fine job in his role, the fact is Amendola has not been a durable player in his career. There's no way he can be expected to withstand the workload Edelman had, which was 159 targets last year and 36 more in the playoffs. Amendola, who is also relied on to return punts, had 100 receiving yards on seven targets, but had to leave the game with a concussion. Gronkowski was also quiet with two catches for 33 yards on six targets. The Chiefs' strong tackling continued on short-yardage plays, and Gillislee, despite his three touchdowns, was stuffed again on a fourth-and-1 at the Kansas City 40.
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On his next drive, Brady threw three incompletions in a row and the Patriots punted. From the first pass of the game when Brady overthrew a wide-open Dwayne Allen, things didn't look sharp for a new-look passing game that has to adjust to the additions of Allen, Brandin Cooks, and several running backs. The Chiefs had a brilliant game plan in sticking with three or four-man rushes instead of blitzing Brady. He held onto the ball, but was unable to find many open receivers short, and unable to connect on the deep passes down the field. Brady's average throw traveled 14.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, easily his second-highest game since 2006 (15.4 vs. 2007 Dolphins). Uncharacteristic? Absolutely. As the game wore on, Brady started to feel more pressure even though the Chiefs continued to not blitz.
Offensively, the Chiefs stayed aggressive, and Smith's 25-yard pass to Chris Conley was one of his best all night. Hunt added another touchdown, but Andy Reid did not opt for a two-point conversion try, keeping the score 35-27 with 5:14 left.
Brady had not been sacked all night, but Justin Houston abused right tackle Marcus Cannon for a 7-yard takedown. Unfortunately, that was the play where Eric Berry injured his Achilles, but the Chiefs forced two more deep incompletions without him. Cornerback Terrance Mitchell had solid coverage metrics last year, but struggled a lot at times last night. However, his pass defense on third-and-17 against Cooks was big. The Chiefs went on to rip off a 58-yard run with Hunt, then a 21-yard touchdown run by the forgotten Charcandrick West. The Chiefs shockingly rolled up a 42-27 lead with 4:00 to play.
You still couldn't count out New England yet, but after back-to-back sacks, including a near-safety for Houston, the Patriots were toast. They even punted on fourth-and-23 from their own 1 with 2:44 left. The Chiefs ran out the clock to nip this 19-0 talk in the bud.
To recap, I posted a list of records for the Patriots at home since 2001 in my preview for last year's AFC Championship Game against the Steelers. I have updated that list for the two home games the Patriots have played since. The Chiefs have added a loss to all five records.
- 104-1 (.990) when leading by at least eight points at any time in the game (now 104-2).
- 51-2 (.962) when defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter (now 51-3).
- 88-3 (.967) when winning the turnover margin (now 88-4).
- 89-4 (.957) when scoring at least 25 points (now 89-5).
- 118-17 (.874) in games started and played into the second half by Tom Brady (now 118-18).
Conclusion: It Was One Game… Right?
Where do these teams go from here? For Kansas City, it was a huge night, getting a head-to-head win against a key playoff competitor that few expected to happen. While the sting of losing by six field goals in the playoffs to Pittsburgh has to still hurt, the Chiefs have incredibly gone 5-1 over the last two seasons when allowing 27-plus points. That includes wins at Denver (2016's No. 1 defense), Atlanta (2016's No. 1 offense), and now in New England. Prior to 2016, Smith's teams were 3-29 when allowing 27-plus points.
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If the Chiefs can win road games against those teams with Smith at quarterback and allowing that many points, then why not think of Kansas City as a Super Bowl team this year? After sweeping Oakland last season, the only contender we haven't seen the Chiefs recently beat is Pittsburgh, but they'll have that shot in Week 6 at Arrowhead. The only downer on the night was Berry's Achilles injury, which could really hurt the defense.
Berry's injury and those to Dont'a Hightower and Amendola are reminders of just how quickly things can change in this league. Even if the schedule looked favorable, 19-0 was always a pipe dream for the Patriots this year. After all, that would have been a 29-game winning streak going back to last year. No one has ever done better than 21 games, which was also done by the Patriots back in 2003-04, the last time any team has repeated as champions. This is the longest drought in NFL history (12 seasons) without a repeat champion, because it really is that hard to stay on top of this league. With the front seven the Patriots are currently fielding, going undefeated simply wasn't going to happen, but we'll wait to see if the defense is headed for its worst season under Belichick, and if the 40-year-old quarterback isor is not up to the task of running a more vertical offense without his security blanket (Edelman). Most likely, the Chiefs were just a tough matchup, and the Patriots are still going to unleash hell on a few poor souls (hello, Jets).
We'll conclude with a stat that the Patriots still can feel good about: Since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against a new opponent. There's no way Kansas City can make that 13-1. But the Patriots are also 12-9 in playoff rematches from the regular season. January is a long ways away, and there will be more injuries to come, but a rematch could be very interesting if these teams both go on to be as good as expected.
And if Thursday night was any indication, then this season is still going to be full of surprises, and the other 30 teams can all breathe a sigh of relief. You have a chance again.