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MAQB: Have the Chiefs Shaken off a Super Bowl Hangover?

Sunday night may have been a turning point if Kansas City starts playing more like we're used to. Plus, Matt LaFleur's COY case, Cam Newton's usage, Russell Wilson's future and the Eagles' run game.

Got a good one on tap Monday night, so we’re gonna look back at stuff from Sunday and also tuck in a little look ahead at Rams-49ers. Let’s go …

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• If the Chiefs wind up being what they’ve been the last few years again, I think we may look back at Sunday night’s rout of the Raiders as a turning point. It’s not just the score either, though 41–14 had to feel good for a group that seemingly spent a month chasing its tail. More than that, it’s that a number of things are getting cleaned up.

1) Those in the building would tell you the energy turned last week. Over the few weeks prior to it, there was a little bit of a lethargy to the group—call that the hangover after a Super Bowl loss if you want to. And last night, to those there, it felt like the Chiefs were having fun again, capping a really good week for the players and coaches. That’s an intangible, of course. But it’s worthy of mention, given how teams in the past have struggled coming off Super Bowl losses.

2) Patrick Mahomes got into a rhythm early. And a key to that was getting Travis Kelce involved from the jump. In Weeks 7, 8 and 9 combined (against the Titans, Giants and Packers), Kelce had four first-quarter catches for 17 yards. From Weeks 2 to 9, a run of eight games, Kelce had seven first-quarter catches for 62 yards. On Sunday, he had three catches for 37 yards in the first quarter against the Raiders. And with his most trusted target rolling, Mahomes started getting rid of the ball faster than he has been, and attacking all levels of the defense. One of the best signs of it? Running back Darrel Williams led the team with nine catches.

3) One benefit the Chiefs had was that they saw less of the two-high looks that most teams have thrown at them to curb big plays—the Raiders play more cover-3 and single high. Still, that Mahomes was judicious on where he took shots against that, and was more willing to distribute the ball underneath (Kansas City’s run-after-catch numbers were excellent against the Raiders), and had success doing it, should translate right over when they see more teams committed to forcing them to drive the field in 10 or 12 plays.

4) The defense has been better for a few weeks now, and that’s really been about getting better play from their best players. Chris Jones was banged up, and he’s healthier now. Frank Clark, for whatever reason, didn’t seem locked in to those around him earlier in the year, and he is now. Add that to Jarran Reed’s coming out from underneath a tough start to the year, and a defense that’s built through its line is suddenly ascending again (having two really good and improving young linebackers, in Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton, hasn’t hurt either).

So are the Chiefs all the way back? I can’t say I’m sure yet. But there was enough there on Sunday night to think they might be on their way.

• And just as Kansas City’s playing its way back into form, some level of concern’s popping up with the team that beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers lost to the Saints before the bye and fell to Washington on Sunday, 29–19, crumbling under the weight of their own sloppy play. Is there more to it than that? I asked around a little on Monday, and I don’t think many people inside the league are drafting Tampa’s epitaph quite yet. That said, there is an interesting angle to how certain things have come undone. The Bucs didn’t play well down the stretch in New Orleans on offense, and were 4-for-10 on third down and 1-for-3 in the red zone in Washington, and one opposing coach mentioned to me that he thought the absence of Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown, guys that Brady’s really dialed in with, was weighing the Bucs down in those critical spots. Which means that two guys who were sort of brought in as luxury items, because of their relationships with Brady, have to become more than just that in 2021. It’s also probably why the Bucs are being pretty careful with both guys, as they work their way back from injury. They can’t afford not to have those guys ready to go come January.

• I asked Matt LaFleur on Sunday night if he thought, when this is all said and done, he’d look back at the last two weeks as a vital time of growth for his Packers—in having to navigate through it without their quarterback. “Yeah,” he said. “I think every week is important, though. Just this whole journey is so important. And it's such a credit to the guys in our locker room that we have strong leadership, really in every phase. This is a player-led team, no doubt about it, and I think those are the teams that ultimately can have the most success. Now again, we know that this is still week to week, so week to week, and you have to earn it every day, every week. But I think our guys are committed.” Combine that with the talent of those guys in the locker room, and I don’t think it’s hard to get to a place where you’re thinking this might be the best football situation Aaron Rodgers has had since coming into the league in 2005.

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• We mentioned in the morning column that the Rams plan on playing Odell Beckham Jr.’s role Monday night by ear. Here’s why: While Beckham’s made a good first impression, and come off as sharp to the coach, he hasn’t had so much as a full-speed practice with the team yet. Which means they haven’t even been able to really gauge how fast he’s going to play within the offense. So they’ll work him into the game against the 49ers and go on feel from there, both in how Beckham fits into the flow of the game and into the offense. It should be fun to see if the Rams can get something valuable out of him, especially with Robert Woods done for the year.

• While we’re there, even though he didn’t garner any votes in my awards poll last week, I think it’s time to start considering LaFleur for Coach of the Year. He’s got the best winning percentage (.783) of any active coach, with a 36–10 record (34–8 in the regular season) midway through his third year, and this year helped guide the Packers through a handful of weird spots—not the least of which was a rift between his quarterback and front office. Somehow, his relationships on both sides remained healthy, and that’s set the stage for the sort of run at a Super Bowl that was seemingly in jeopardy (no pun intended) in July. And heading into Week 11, despite a bunch of huge injuries, and some COVID-19 problems, the Packers are right there at 8–2, with a chance to make the NFC’s other contenders come to Wisconsin in January. Sometimes, we overlook coaches who have great quarterbacks for these awards. We shouldn’t in this case.

• Word has filtered out of Washington the last few days that Ryan Fitzpatrick probably isn’t coming back this year—which gives Taylor Heinicke, a guy who thought he might be done playing around this time last year, an extended look as a starting quarterback. And it also gives Washington a chance to build and rally around Heinicke, as the team tries to replicate last year’s miracle run to the playoffs. But when I asked the quarterback if now, finally, he feels like it’s his team, he was sensitive to the idea, just because of what it implied with his friend. “That’s a tricky question,” Heinicke said. “I hate saying stuff about it because Fitz, once he signed here, it was his team. People still love him, he's still around a lot, people still ask him questions, he gives great feedback to everybody. He helps me tremendously, not just in the film room but with off-the-field stuff. But it’s always next man up, so when you say, do I feel like it's my team now, yeah I feel like it's that way. It's exciting, but again it kinda sucks the way it had to happen.” Fair to say that with the loss of Chase Young further depleting the team’s greatest strength (its defensive line), Ron Rivera’s going to need even more from Heinicke and the offense down the stretch.

• Not sure how I missed this on Sunday, but Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons absolutely registered the quote of the week after Dallas’s 43–3 beatdown of the Falcons. "I don't think one game will ever define you," he said. "So, the fact we can bounce back and be dominant, that should put everyone on notice that we are not to be effed with right now." Parsons, for what it’s worth, won Defensive Rookie of the Year by a massive margin in my midseason poll of GMs and scouting directors last week—taking home 27 of 32 votes, most of anyone in any of the award categories. So evidently, he’s not to be effed with either.

• Matt Rhule’s doing the right thing in not tiptoeing around on putting Cam Newton in the lineup. Newton’s already got credibility in that locker room, and those who have played with Newton there still have a belief in who he is as a player. The bottom line is it wasn’t working with Sam Darnold, things didn’t change much with P.J. Walker in his place, and that’s Newton’s back in Charlotte in the first place. So there really isn’t any need to worry here about making someone earn their spot, or hurt feelings or anything like that. There isn’t much time for it, either, with the Panthers 5–5 and on the fringe of the NFC playoff picture.

• The Seahawks are two games out of the NFC’s final playoff spot, and four-and-a-half games out of first in the division; and it’s getting harder and harder to envision a scenario where Russell Wilson isn’t trying to shove his way out of town in January or February. Remember, last year’s decision to look around, and not-so-subtly push buttons on a potential trade, was part of a personal project of Wilson’s to examine everything he does football-wise, with an eye on setting up the second act of his playing career. He and Seattle pressed pause on the idea of a trade in May. But that hasn’t changed the way Wilson’s looking at all this. He cares a lot about his legacy. He cares a lot about being in a place where he’ll be able to maximize his own performance. And if he didn’t see Seattle as that place last year, when the Seahawks got to the postseason and won a game when they got there, well, then it seems unlikely his feelings are going to be different time around, unless we see a pretty serious second-half surge from the team.

• What I missed in the morning column: the Eagles’ impressive run game. At points earlier in the year, it was an afterthought, with first-year coach Nick Sirianni taking plenty of criticism for that. Credit to him and his staff, they’ve effectively gotten that area of the game turned around, having rushed for 236 (Lions), 176 (Chargers) and 214 (Broncos) yards in their last three games. On Sunday in Denver, that meant 14 carries for Jalen Hurts, 12 carries for Jordan Howard and 11 for Boston Scott, a 5.4 yards per average and a 30–13 win. So how has it made a difference? It’s played to the offense’s strength, which is its line, and it’s opened things up for the quarterback, Hurts, who had a perfectly efficient afternoon in Denver.

More NFL Coverage:

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