Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press
Prior to Sunday night’s stunning loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Kansas City Chiefs had scored 26 or more points in an NFL-record 25 consecutive games. But the Chiefs and their reigning MVP quarterback generated just half of that point total in a 19-13 upset at home that raises serious questions about the team’s 2019 Super Bowl prospects.
It was a phenomenal defensive performance from the physical, tough and mentally strong Colts, but Patrick Mahomes also wasn’t himself after suffering what appeared to be an aggravation of a September ankle injury.
From that moment forward, the league’s highest-rated passer completed just six of 15 passes for 113 yards. He also clearly lacked his trademark mobility and took four sacks.
At the conclusion of a day that ended with a failed onside kick, Mahomes wasn’t good enough—or healthy enough—to compensate for the fact the Chiefs were beaten in pretty much every facet of the game except deep passing.
Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett attempted only one pass that traveled 15-plus yards, and it was incomplete. But the depleted Chiefs couldn’t take advantage of Indy’s conservative, somewhat one-dimensional approach because they’re simply lacking talent in too many key areas.
Of course, that could change.
All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill is expected to return soon from a broken collarbone, and left tackle Eric Fisher’s sports hernia wasn’t deemed worthy of the injured reserve. Receiver Sammy Watkins (hamstring), linebacker Anthony Hitchens (groin), offensive lineman Andrew Wylie (ankle) and defensive lineman Chris Jones (groin) all went down Sunday night.
That certainly helps explain why Kansas City lost, though there’s a chance those injuries don’t have a long-term impact.
Still, it’s not as though the Colts are a picture of health. Kansas City’s opponent was down key defenders Darius Leonard, Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers in Week 5, while offensive stars T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack were less than 100 percent after missing practice time during the week.
Maybe the Chiefs would have won this game if they didn’t lose so many important players on the fly, and maybe they’d have won with Hill or Fisher in the lineup. Had the offense possessed the former’s speed or benefited from the latter’s pass protection, maybe it wouldn’t have cut it so close the last two weeks in one-score victories over the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions.
But injuries are sort of a thing in this sport, and a team’s reaction to a rash of them says a lot about its mental fortitude, its resiliency and its ability to make a run.
The injury gods were on Kansas City’s side last season. In terms of adjusted games lost—a formula Football Outsiders utilizes in an attempt to quantify the impact injuries have on each team—they were the ninth-healthiest team in the league.
Now they’re dealing with injury-related adversity for the first time in the Mahomes era, and it’s not a good omen.
“We got beat in about every phase that you can get beat in this evening,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said after the game, per the NBC broadcast. He alluded to their 11 penalties and their turnovers (in this case, a negligent fumble from LeSean McCoy in the red zone), and he couldn’t have been happy that the offense possessed the ball for just 22 minutes and 45 seconds.
Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press
Mahomes scrambles excluded, the Chiefs ran for just 19 yards on 11 rushing attempts. Cam Erving resembled a turnstile in place of Fisher on the blind side. Receiver Byron Pringle, who was essentially on the field due to Hill’s injury, took a weird, slow line that cost the offense a critical first down in a huge moment.
Meanwhile, a defense that surrendered 58 points to the Ravens and Lions was bullied for four quarters by an offense that completely lacked an aerial element. That D was a problem last year when the Chiefs gave up the ninth-highest point total in the NFL, and little has changed in 2019. Mack rushed for 132 yards on 29 carries, and the Colts offense controlled the game with 180 total yards on the ground.
And while they hardly touched Brissett, they were forced to watch former Chief Justin Houston play a major role on the edge for Indianapolis. They’re missing both Houston and departed 2018 Pro Bowler Dee Ford right now, and the fact that even that 2018 defense was a liability doesn’t bode well for the amount of support Mahomes and Co. will get from the 2019 unit.
There’s just no margin for error available to Mahomes, which might be untenable on a long-term basis even if he’s healthy. When he’s so banged up that he’s limping significantly, there’s almost no hope.
The Chiefs are vulnerable right now, and it doesn’t help that the element of surprise is gone. They undoubtedly benefited as Mahomes broke onto the scene in 2018, but now everybody knows what to expect and teams may have established a bit of a blueprint for how to defend that electric offense.
“They played man coverage, they rushed with four people, and they found ways to get pressure and to cover long enough,” Mahomes said after Sunday’s game. “For us, Detroit did it last week, New England did it in the playoffs. We’re going to have to beat man coverage at the end of the day.”
If you can do that defensively and ground-and-pound on the other side of the ball against a defense that stunk against the run last year, allowed a league-worst 5.9 yards per rush in September and was embarrassed by Mack on Sunday, you’re likely to beat the Chiefs.
It’s not doomsday because Kansas City has the offensive talent to overcome any of this when it’s healthy. The problem is there’s no guarantee that’ll happen this year. And even without injuries factoring in, the team has consistently fallen short in January throughout Reid’s tenure.
They’re 4-1 and remain in first place in the AFC West, but they don’t have a bye until Week 12 and the schedule is an inferno with opponents like the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Chargers (twice) on the horizon.
Between the injuries, the continued defensive woes and the brutal schedule, it’s all enough to make you wonder if this Chiefs team is once again destined to come up short of the Super Bowl-level hype.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.