The Patriots did their best to prepare during the week.
They said the practices were memorably hard. They stuck Phillip Dorsett into Tyreek Hill’s role and ran him all over the field. Still, they said, after watching a five-game Patrick Mahomes compilation it’s difficult to truly comprehend the quarterback-to-receiver physics until you see it in person. Was his arm really that strong? Was Hill really that fast?
“He’s the fastest guy I’ve ever covered before,” Stephon Gilmore said after the game standing in front of his locker. “You see it on film, you’re like ‘OK, he’s fast.’ Then, you’re covering him you feel like, this guy is real fast. I’ve never seen that before. He’s fast.”
This was genuine. This was from a winning locker room that was still unsure of how to feel after a 43–40 win on Sunday Night Football, still wondering what the hell happened. It was the best regular-season game in years, a matchup that pours ether into an NFL offensive machine that is already running full throttle, downhill, with no signs of stopping. It’s both emblematic of the direction the game is heading and celebratory of the people who got it here. Andy Reid, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Bill Belichick all at their best.
Five lead changes. Seventy-one passing attempts. Three players with more than 100 yards of total offense each. Nine hundred and forty six combined net yards.
Players on each sideline were missing home run shots because of the frantic pace of the game, which left no time to tinker with the plan. Coaches were meeting players immediately as they were coming off the field to start the adjustment process on the next drive. Four of the touchdowns took place on drives that lasted for fewer than two minutes. Just one of the 23 total possessions ended in a punt.
“Once we hit the sideline [the coaches were] kind of ready for it and give it to us,” running back James White said. “They’re gonna get it to us fast. Sometimes it was, right when we get off the field we have adjustments.”
When the Patriots and Chiefs are able to fully digest this game—something that may not happen for days, weeks or an entire offseason depending on how much film they’ll want to correct before moving on—they’ll see something beautiful. They’ll see two coaches going haymaker for haymaker.
On their opening drive, the Chiefs picked up a 17-yard gain by using an Oklahoma-style run-pass option, forcing linebacker Dont’a Hightower to commit to the run, vacating the space that Travis Kelce could sit in to make a catch. On their next drive, Hightower faked a blitz, which made it appear he’d again been taken toward the line on run action. But at the last minute, he faded back into coverage, and snagged an interception that led to New England’s first touchdown.
When the Chiefs smashed Gronkowski at the line, the Patriots instead used him as a battering ram out ahead of Sony Michel against light, six-man boxes. When the Chiefs presented man coverage, Gronkowski utilized the space created by his offensive tackle to loop into the open field for a big catch.
“It was a spectacle, that’s for sure,” Josh Gordon said. “I think a lot of us have been expecting that all week knowing that’s a high-powered offense. We have one of our own. So, we were expecting to take it the full length of the game.”
In tight coverage, Hill was used mostly as a mechanism to free up other players. A go route in the second quarter cleared half a field of space for Kelce to catch a ball underneath. His constant motioning tinkered with the safety alignment at times, allowing for slight advantages in the running game. In the second half, he was utilized more in the slot, where he could rip across the coverage and force single-high safeties into panic moves—or to be frozen solid altogether.
“We didn’t come in at halftime and expect that hey, we got his number,” Jason McCourty said. “We knew with the weapons they had, and Andy Reid with the offensive mind he has, that they were going to make adjustments and we were going to have to match it.”
After the game, Kelce called it “unfortunate” that the win came down to who had the ball last. With both defenses gashed and winded from short stints on the sideline, there was a feeling that this could have gone on for another quarter. But just like the Patriots were able to fortify their confidence in a contemporary version of their offense with new personnel, the Chiefs were able to appreciate what they had in Mahomes. He had gone from sullen and consoled on the sideline after being forced into an extended-play pick to composed amid the most chaotic quarter of football the league has seen this season.
“We saw him in the second half be more like himself and have a little fun out there," Kelce said.
There was never going to be an appropriate ending after all the preparation, all the buildup and three quarters of cinematic delivery. Brady, pumping his fist on the way to the locker room while “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen played felt too predictable. It was a crutch the league has leaned on for two decades now; their ultimate hero and villain. But for the first time in a while, that ending was challenged.