FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After the final Chiefs player had run through the tunnel leading to the visitors’ locker room, one team employee in a bright red polo said out loud, to no one in particular, “Long time coming! Shake that monkey right off our back!”
There might not have been a better way to describe this stunning, 42–27 defeat of the Patriots on the night they raised their fifth championship banner at Gillette Stadium. Before last night, the Chiefs hadn’t won in Foxborough this century. Their previous trip here, in January 2016, resulted in a disappointing playoff loss that left questions swirling about how they’d surmount New England in the AFC, and what the future held for quarterback Alex Smith.
Smith, who has been perpetually branded as a game manager, was put in an awkward position this offseason when the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes with the No. 10 overall pick. And Smith’s job security was endlessly debated throughout the preseason—a laughable idea after watching him complete 28 of 35 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns. With a passer rating of 148.6, his performance on the Patriots’ home turf was downright Brady-esque.
It was as if no one in New England saw the Chiefs coming, which is hardly The Patriot Way.
All of New England seemingly had its attention focused on Public Enemy No. 1, Roger Goodell, who was making his first official return to Gillette Stadium since the rancor of Deflategate. And with the pomp-and-circumstance of celebrating the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl championship, fans were especially eager to rub it in the commissioner’s face. Roughly 70,000 towels depicting Goodell as a red-nosed clown had been given to fans by the snarky website Barstool Sports, and Goodell was loudly booed as he made his way onto the field before the game. Five silver, oversized models of the Lombardi Trophy were wheeled to midfield a short time later. During the pregame ceremony, that infamous score from Super Bowl 51—ATL 28, NE 3, 2:12 3RD QTR—was displayed on the wraparound video screens just to tease the crowd for nostalgia’s sake.
But on this night, there would be no such comeback.
Led by Smith’s precision and unexpected downfield passing, the Chiefs posted the most points (42) and yards (537) ever against a Bill Belichick-coached team in New England. Often criticized for dinking-and-dunking the ball down the field, Smith twice connected with two of his young weapons for long scores: A 75-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill that traveled at least 40 yards in the air, and a 78-yard touchdown pass to new starting running back Kareem Hunt, who set an NFL record for most yards from scrimmage in a debut.
Just a few days ago, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach had to publicly state that there was “no gray area” about Smith’s role as the starter—even if everyone views Mahomes as the big-armed, franchise QB of the future. Last night, in the visitors’ locker room, Mahomes very earnestly said, “When you see a game like today, that’s the reason. He’s a Pro Bowler, a quarterback who has been in the league for a long time, very successful, and a game like tonight shows you he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.”
The Chiefs devised a smart game plan that, according to center Mitch Morse, was influenced by what the Falcons did against the Patriots in Super Bowl 51. Atlanta, of course, famously lost that game but had a lot of success on offense for much of the contest. Said Morse, “Coach [Andy] Reid and our offensive staff are so good at finding plays and schemes that work well for us that have been executed well against the defense we’re playing. Many of those runs and passes we broke down were the Falcons’. We definitely used it as a tool.”
Tight end Travis Kelce put it a little differently: “It might have been the lack of respect they’ve got for Alex’s arm; it might have been the lack of respect for the running back.”
Both players had major breakthroughs on one of the NFL’s biggest stages. Hunt, a third-round pick, was thrust into his starting role after Spencer Ware’s season-ending knee injury. Hunt’s day, and his career, started in the worst way possible, as he fumbled his first carry on the Chiefs’ first snap of the game. After he came off the field, running backs coach Eric Bieniemy got in his face. But Reid came over with a quick solution: Hunt would get the ball on the Chiefs’ next offensive play. They couldn’t afford him to go in the tank. Smith also came over with some advice, too: Don’t make one play bigger than it really is.
Sure enough, Hunt got the ball to start the next drive and went for nine yards on that carry. From there he’d go on to account for 246 all-purpose yards and score three TDs, one rushing and two receiving.
The Patriots, despite being the defending champs, made improvements to their roster this offseason, adding receiver Brandin Cooks (the kind of deep threat they haven’t had since Randy Moss); running back Mike Gillislee (a beeline runner who has more burst than LeGarrette Blount); and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (a physical corner who can match up one-on-one with receivers outside). Much of the offseason narrative centered on the Patriots’ new weapons and the team’s quest to repeat; they were even getting questions about going undefeated.
But Thursday night revealed that the Patriots’ pieces haven’t found their groove yet; on defense, they have some personnel issues they are still working through. Take, for example, their heavy workload for Cassius Marsh, a defensive end they traded for just five days ago. And without receiver Julian Edelman, who is out for the season with an ACL tear, their offense just didn’t have the ability to make the plays outside to really challenge the Chiefs’ defense. Their hopes of winning dwindled even further late in the game when they lost trusted linebacker Dont’a Hightower—the player who made the pivotal strip sack in Super Bowl 51—to a knee injury, and Danny Amendola, Edelman’s closest approximation on the roster, to a concussion.
Bob Sutton, the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, went with a game plan that dropped many guys into coverage. They’d often rush three and drop eight. “We knew Tom Brady gets rid of that ball real fast, he’s probably got the fastest release in the game, so we knew there wasn’t going to be enough time to get back there no matter how many people we rushed,” said linebacker Justin Houston. “So that was part of the game plan. It helped us sometimes, but it also hurt us sometimes. It’s a give and take.”
Around 10:45 p.m., Gillette Stadium fell silent and the pregame hubris of Patriots fans was suddenly called into question. That’s when the Chiefs took their first lead, 21-17, early in the third quarter. The play that gave the Chiefs their first lead: That 75-yard pass from Smith to Hill, who Gilmore somehow lost in coverage, releasing him to open field ahead.
The Patriots responded with two scores, but then Smith combined with Hunt for that second deep pass. Hunt’s 78-yard TD put the Chiefs back on top, 28-27, early in the fourth quarter. On the very next drive, the Chiefs’ defense—namely, Houston—stuffed the Patriots on a fourth-and-1 in Chiefs’ territory. And from there, the underdogs never looked back.
Where do the Chiefs go from here? Well, for starters, Eric Berry’s Achilles injury is a major concern: He’s a huge key to this defense; notably, his fourth-down stop in the first quarter ensured that the Patriots scored no points off Hunt’s fumble. And as Smith said after just the first game of the season, “They are openers; that’s it, right? You can’t make more of it than that.”
But this was just the third time a team has beaten Brady in a season opener. And, for context on how rare this offensive explosion against the Patriots was, consider this: No opponent has scored as many points as the Chiefs did in Foxborough since Dan Marino and the Dolphins won, 44-24, on Oct. 21, 1984.
The quarterback who did it was Alex Smith. The Alex Smith who, people say, can’t throw deep; the one plenty of fans had been eager to replace on draft day. But don’t bother asking him if this game was personally validating.
“You know, if you’d asked me that seven or eight years ago, I’d probably give you what you are looking for there,” he said. “I just, I really don’t care. And then to be honest, I felt like this has been the most drama-free camp … in a long time for me, regardless of obviously us moving up to get Pat. I haven’t been dwelling on that, to be honest. For whatever reason. Just been playing, enjoying the opportunity and not looking beyond it.”
On a night when New England fans were all about rubbing things in, his words sure sounded a lot like The Patriot Way.
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