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The Chiefs Are Still in Great Shape, But Early Losses Are at Least a Warning Sign

The two-time reigning AFC champs have looked vulnerable, which is a reminder that even the best teams must keep evolving to stay ahead.
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What you are about to read is not an obituary for the 2021 Chiefs, who have fallen to 1–2 and last place in the AFC West after losing 24–21 to the Chargers at Arrowhead on Sunday. We are just three games into an extended 17-game schedule, after all. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that the things we expect to remain constant in the NFL almost never do. Nothing, not even the most physically gifted quarterback to play the position in decades and a slate of skill-position stars, are unsolvable forever.

The Chiefs tried to tell us as much back in 2020, after their Super Bowl LIV victory over the 49ers. They did what teams with complete rosters do and used a first-round draft pick on a player who, despite flying in the face of their typical personnel strategy (ask those who had been in draft rooms with Andy Reid about running backs) would change the equation for defensive coordinators already struggling with how to contain Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was supposed to be the piece that knocked over the chess board and canceled all further tournaments. But in his middling rookie season—in which a critical offensive lineman opted out to aid in the fight against COVID-19 and the rest of the linemen around him declined somewhat rapidly and ahead of schedule—the Chiefs were forced to peacock their way to a 14–1 start in largely familiar fashion.

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The problem with doing so, of course, is that the league catches up. The Super Bowl LV loss to the Buccaneers was indicative of this. Teams had two years to select specific personnel to match the Chiefs’ best pieces. In the case of the 2–1 Chargers, who pulled off the defining win of young head coach Brandon Staley’s career, they also had time to import brighter defensive minds into the AFC West who would not just hide behind a call sheet twice a year when the Chiefs rolled into town.

It’s true that Edwards-Helaire had his best game of the season this week, rushing 17 times for 100 yards, though the time to establish him has already passed. In this game in particular, using Edwards-Helaire was something the Chiefs had to do because they could not get the looks they wanted for Patrick Mahomes, Hill and Kelce. It’s strange to call a tandem that combined for 150 yards as solved but the truth is that the Chiefs have looked somewhat uncomfortable for three weeks now. Had it not been for a flubbed punt snap against the Browns in the season opener, they could legitimately be 0–3 right now.

Like the Ravens, who beat the Chiefs last week, Kansas City is a team at the moment that is surviving largely on the fumes of raw athleticism and otherworldly talent (no we’re not just talking about Justin Tucker). A look back at NFL history shows that this has its limitations. A team needs to be amoebic: consistently transforming with the advancements of its opponents. You could line the Chiefs up against any team in the NFL right now and still clean house in any number of individual trick-shot games and footraces, but at some point that would fail to translate consistently in a schematic sense, especially with the way the Chiefs expected Kelce to continuously lay himself on the line as both a lead blocker and every-down wide receiver into his age-32 season.

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The crossing routes to Hill and Kelce will almost always be unstoppable, like they were on Sunday. The staples of their offense, which can still match up more physically imposing or notably faster players on incapable defenders, is still as consistent a bread-and-butter play as there is in the NFL. There are still 25 NFL teams who would fork over their entire roster and a sack of first-round picks for the privilege of running this offense with this personnel.

But on Sunday, as the Chargers’ defense seemed to come at Mahomes in waves, we again saw a slight twinge of discomfort. Maybe it was the jet sweep quick out passes that were covered a little better than they’ve been in the past. Maybe it was a little less open space after a catch (and yes, obviously, the Chiefs’ disastrous, turnover-laden start was a major factor as well).

The plays Kansas City used to win a Super Bowl and make a second one are so commonly used across the NFL right now that the Red Zone channel is essentially a live tribute each week to Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy and Mike Kafka. Their contribution to the football creativity zeitgeist is undeniable. But it’s their responsibility to make sure the parameters keep changing and the canvas expands.

Has the NFL caught up with the Chiefs? No. Has the NFL figured out Patrick Mahomes? No. Is Andy Reid cooked? Not even close. But … have the Chiefs, once staked to an insurmountable lead in this marathon, finally looked behind them to see a pack of challengers gaining ground? Yes. In that way, 1-2 isn’t an obituary, but it is most certainly a warning sign.

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