Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Reflecting on the lessons learned from Kansas City’s first loss of 2021.
1. The Mahomes-Jackson Show looked exactly the same
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Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was drafted one season later than Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But both took the reins of their offenses in 2018. Since then, Mahomes has passed for roughly twice as many yards as Jackson, while Jackson has rushed for roughly three times as many yards as Mahomes.
With that information, it would be easy to say that Mahomes is a far superior quarterback for the modern NFL. But we’re talking about volume stats, which provide almost no context to the numbers involved. In fact, for the three seasons in which each quarterback has been leading his team’s offense, they are ranked first and second in passer rating — Mahomes with a score of 109.3 and Jackson with one of 102.6.
The difference really has to do with how two excellent head coaches — the Chiefs’ Andy Reid and the Ravens’ John Harbaugh — have adapted their offensive schemes to best fit their quarterbacks. By doing sp, both have brought their respective offenses a great deal of success.
For Harbaugh, the problem has always been when these two offenses play each other.
The fact is that a run-based offense like Baltimore’s — especially with a quarterback who can run so effectively — can gain plenty of yardage and score plenty of points. (As they demonstrated so clearly on Sunday night, that’s even more true against a run defense like Kansas City’s). But when the game is on the line — when you need to score now to put the game away — no one can do it like Mahomes. That’s why the Chiefs have won a pair of AFC Championships with Mahomes, while the Ravens… haven’t.
And lacking a very uncharacteristic fumble from Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the team’s last drive on Sunday night, it’s very likely Mahomes would have done it. Again.
This time — for the first time in four tries — Jackson won the game. But the advantage remains with Mahomes.
2. The Ravens aren’t pushovers
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Frankly, it surprised me that so many were predicting the Chiefs would win this game going away. I wasn’t among them. I predicted a four-point Kansas City victory.
Part of the confidence in a big Chiefs win came from the large number of injuries the Ravens have had — and to be sure, that’s an important factor. But still… coaching matters.
For most of last season, the Chiefs were without most of their starters on the offensive line. By the time they had lost all of them, it was no longer sustainable. But until then, the team had compiled their best record in franchise history and advanced to the Super Bowl.
That wasn’t a coincidence. It happened because the Chiefs had depth and excellent coaching — and the Ravens have it, too. It was unreasonable to expect they’d just collapse.
it was also un reasonable to expect that the Chiefs would be able to simply neutralize the Ravens’ running game. In their three previous meetings since Jackson became their starting quarterback, Baltimore has averaged 6.0 yards per carry against Kansas City. Was it surprising that in their home opener — following an overtime loss to a team that few see as a 2021 contender — they would gain 6.1 yards per carry? While the Chiefs won all three of the most recent matchups, their average margin of victory was just 7.3 points.
Any way you sliced it, this game was going to be rough. If I had to pick the game again — based on what I knew on Saturday — I’d still pick the Chiefs by four. But I’m not shocked that it turned out to be a one-point loss.
3. In today’s NFL, rushing isn’t the be-all and end-all
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Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry runs the ball against the Chiefs in November 2019. Before Sunday night’s loss to the Ravens, this was the only time during the last three seasons in which Kansas City lost a game while giving up five or more yards per rushing attempt.
From 2018 through 2020 — that is, since Patrick Mahomes became the team’s starting quarterback — the Chiefs have played 17 regular-season games in which their opponents rushed the ball for at least five yards per attempt. (In those years, the NFL average was between 4.3 and 4.4).
In those 17 games, opponents averaged between 5.06 and 8.65 yards per carry on the ground. Would you like to guess how many of those 17 games the Chiefs lost?
In that same period, the Chiefs faced four teams in the playoffs that gained more than five yards per attempt. They won all four of those games.
I’m not going to argue that rushing the ball — or being able to stop opponents from doing it — isn’t important. But on the list of things a team must be able to do in the modern NFL, it’s not far from the bottom; it’s very difficult to correlate sustained success (or more specifically, success in the postseason) with being good at the ground game — or keeping opponents from being good at it.
In the last two games, both of Kansas City’s opponents averaged more than five yards per attempt. The Chiefs went 1-1 in those games — so now, the Patrick Mahomes Chiefs are 21-2 against teams that gain five or more rushing yards per attempt.
I’d love to see the Chiefs do better against the run — and do a better job of rushing the ball themselves. Those are both things that can help the team win games. But I’m not losing any sleep about the team’s run defense.
4. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce aren’t the Chiefs’ only receiving threats
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On Wednesday, Patrick Mahomes did his best to assure Chiefs fans that the team hadn’t deliberately focused on Hill in Kelce in their Week 1 victory over the Cleveland Browns; it was simply the way the Browns had chosen to cover the two Chiefs stars that gave them 65% of the team’s total targets — a figure that was inordinately high.
Even Mecole Hardman — one of the Kansas City receivers who would love to get more targets — got in the act.
“By all means, throw it to them,” he told reporters on Friday. “Because if [defenses] can’t guard them? Shit. Give ‘em the ball.”
Right on cue, the Baltimore defense sought to take at least one of them out of the game on Sunday night — and suddenly, receivers not named Hill or Kelce were the focus of the Chiefs’ offense. Nine different players caught passes in the game. Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson both had touchdown receptions in the first half. In order to get one of his own, Kelce had to take a third-quarter dump-off throw and muscle his way 46 yards to the end zone. It might just have been the most amazing play of his career.
Against the Ravens, Hill and Kelce got 12 of the 30 Chiefs passing targets, which is 40% of the total attempts in the game — exactly the same as the league average for the top two receivers on every team in 2020. The other 60% of the targets — spread among seven other receivers — accounted for 64% of the total passing yards.
The Chiefs may not have big names behind Hill and Kelce — but if either of them are unavailable for any reason, there are players who can step up.
5. Tyrann Mathieu needs to get paid
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
A week ago, we all wrote about how much the Kansas City defense missed the on-field contributions of the All-Pro safety — along with the leadership he brings to the defense as a whole. So of course he intercepted a pass on the third play of the game, returning it 34 yards for a touchdown.
But he wasn’t finished. On the third Baltimore drive, he picked off another one — this time in the end zone, negating a drive where the Ravens rushing attack had completely overwhelmed the Kansas City defense.
Now on the final year of the three-year, $42 million contract with the Chiefs, Mathieu has clearly said that he wants to remain in Kansas City. Just as clearly, general manager Brett Veach has said that the Chiefs want the same.
So the reason the two sides have not come to an agreement is either money or contract terms. Most would agree that Mathieu should be among the league’s most highly-paid safeties. But for how long can the Chiefs commit to paying the 29-year old safety?
Mathieu deserves to get paid. The only question is whether the Chiefs can be the team to do it.