The Chiefs won’t be going 16-0 in their Super Bowl 54 defense after falling to the Raiders, 40-32, at home in Week 5. Going into Sunday, 4-0 Kansas City seemed unbeatable with solid wins over the AFC’s three other division winners from 2019 — Houston, Baltimore and New England.
Now 4-1, the Chiefs hold a slim one-game lead over 3-2 Las Vegas in the AFC West, also down a tiebreaker in the season series. Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City offense isn’t invincible, and the Chiefs’ solid defense hasn’t turned the corner to total dominance.
The Raiders had been struggling defensively coming into the game and that did continue, but they’ve featured a diverse, more dangerous passing game with Derek Carr, building on the bread and butter of their power running with second-year feature back Josh Jacobs. That combination was too much for the Chiefs and Mahomes to overcome in the end.
Looking early into their first season in Las Vegas, the Raiders have navigated through a tough schedule well. Their wins over the Panthers (3-2) and Saints (3-2) look better, and their losses, to the Patriots (2-2) and Bills (4-0), are really not that bad.
Speaking of the Bills, they are the Chiefs’ opponents in Week 6, in Buffalo, a game now scheduled for the following Monday night (5 p.m. ET, Fox) instead of Thursday. The Chiefs should welcome the three extra days to prepare and to figure out what happened against the Raiders.
Here’s a breakdown of why the Chiefs lost their first game of the season, and putting it into the context of the entire AFC:
1. The Chiefs are not reliably running the ball
Kansas City flew out of the gate with rookie first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire dominating Houston on the ground in Week 1. But the Chargers, Ravens and Patriots held the Chiefs in check in the other victories, putting more on Mahomes to come through against tricky defenses.
The Chiefs did have two early rushing scores with Mahomes and wide receiver Tyreek Hill against the Raiders, but there was no sustained commitment to Edwards-Helaire (10 carries) with limited success (40 yards). There has been a tendency in Andy Reid’s past to get a little pass-happy, and with Mahomes’ magic in connecting with all of his receivers, he can often get away with it.
Kansas City can sometimes depend too much on chunk pass plays and with Las Vegas’ major secondary coverage issues, it made sense to attack that way. But when Mahomes is human, as he was Sunday in going only 22-of-43 with an interception along with his 340 yards and 3 total TDs, that means more inefficiency, and that means bad third-down results (6-of-14).
The Raiders welcomed the Chiefs not trying to wear their defense down with long drives and played complementary offensive football to support their upset cause.
2. The Chiefs’ run defense still has issues
The Raiders, with Jacobs and Devontae Booker, racked up 144 yards rushing to exploit the Chiefs’ carryover defensive weakness from their Super Bowl run. That allowed the Raiders to go a combined 9-of-16 on third and fourth downs and dominate time of possession, 35:17 to 24:43.
Everyone knows a good defense vs. Mahomes is running well and keeping the ball away from him, but that’s easier said than executed. The Chiefs’ goal is to built a big lead with Mahomes and their offense, so their pass rush can tee off in opponents’ obvious passing situations and not to be exposed to the run as much in the second half of games.
But for a team to do that, it requires effective aggressiveness in the passing game through a balanced attack. Credit Jon Gruden for calling upon Carr to take his shots to the middle of the field. The Chiefs’ defense had major breakdowns in long TDs by wide receivers Nelson Agholor (59 yards) and Henry Ruggs III (72 yards) in the second quarter. They also, like most teams, couldn’t handle tight end Darren Waller in key situations.
To beat the Chiefs, an offense must strike the right balance of run-heavy and picking good spots for those passing shot plays to match Mahomes’ firepower. The Raiders didn’t deviate, even after they fell behind by 11 points in the middle of the second quarter, 21-10. With the Chiefs it’s always a marathon, but it has to be won with a series of sprints. The Raiders’ game plan was perfect in that sense.
3. The Chiefs are still the best team in the AFC
The Texans fired Bill O’Brien for an 0-4 start and just got their first win. The Ravens have whipped some teams when not playing the Chiefs, but their offense isn’t hitting on the same cylinders, especially in running the ball, as last season. Because of COVID-19, Patriots’ season is quickly being derailed from contending for the conference title again.
The Raiders are a solid team and based on their resume, didn’t give the Chiefs an “embarrassing” loss, despite 8 points being Mahomes’ worst-ever margin of defeat. The Chiefs still should be considered a massive heavy favorite to run away with the AFC West, with the Chargers and Broncos looking weaker than expected.
The AFC South-leading Titans (3-0) are still waiting to play a fourth game and are the basically the same but weaker team from the one who lost to the Chiefs in last year’s AFC championship game. The Bills (4-0) have the potential to hand the Chiefs their second straight loss in Week 6 with the way Josh Allen is playing and throwing the ball downfield. But they’ve also gotten mixed results with their running game and their defense is springing more holes with the pass rush, vs. the run and in pass coverage.
Allen can certainly outduel Mahomes. But the Chiefs got a massive schedule break while the Bills are still facing a short week. Kansas City is simply better built to beat Buffalo than the other way around.
So no Texans, no Ravens, no Patriots, and we’re not feeling the Bills and the Titans as returning playoff teams to threaten the Chiefs’ AFC supremacy. The Raiders are nice developing wild-card story, but over the long term, they won’t be winning the West over the Chiefs. That still leaves another a very concerning team for the champions.
4. The Chiefs biggest threat in the AFC then is …
Hello, 4-0 Steelers. Pittsburgh is enjoying its best start ever with Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin after its injury-riddled 8-8 mess of 2019.
The Steelers can run the ball at a very high level with James Conner. Roethlsiberger has no shortage of big-play weapons with rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool and tight end Eric Ebron joining the fun with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington, They found another playmaker, too, beyond Claypool and his four total TDs in their impressive 38-29 home win over the Eagles, in speedster Ray-Ray McCloud.
Balanced? Check. Explosive passing game with a capable top QB? Check. Daunting defense that can slow down the running game and then finish a strong pass rush at times against Mahomes? Check.
Essentially, the Steelers have the same makeup as the Raiders, with a better passer, more big-play potential and a much better all-around defense at every level.
The Chiefs do not play the Steelers in 2020. So for now, to believe more in the Steelers as the primary challenger, it’s more wait and see in how they fare vs. the Browns, Ravens and Titans in upcoming tests. For comparing resumes closer to the playoffs, the Steelers also play the Bills, in Week 14.
There’s a two-team race developing in the AFC. The Chiefs are still definitely one of them. The only thing that’s changed after five weeks is that the Steelers have the best chance to be other one.
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