One thing was abundantly clear after the Chiefs’ 38–31 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday night: This Kansas City team has no chance to win a Super Bowl if its defense does not improve dramatically, miraculously and immediately.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense looked uncharacteristically pedestrian for large parts of the early goings of the game, before stringing together moment after moment of magnificence in the second half. It was the type of game where a great offensive team—a championship team—needed to get just a few big plays from a much-maligned defense to steal a road victory.
The Chiefs defense did not do that. Time and time again on Sunday night, they had chances to step up and get a stop, one stop, at a crucial time. And every time they came up short. This has been the story of the Kansas City season—the team’s offense has been so historically great that it has masked the defense’s shortcomings.
First, it was third-and-15 from the Chiefs 47-yard line, with 2:25 left in the third quarter and the score tied at 17. Mahomes had just marched 83 yards down the field and finished the drive with another magnificent scramble-one-way-throw-it-the-other-way-wait-how-did-he-do-that touchdown pass. It seemed that play was going to be the momentum shift that they needed. All the Chiefs’ defense needed was one third-down stop.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson faced no pressure in the pocket, holding the ball for nearly seven seconds before dropping it off to tight end Ed Dickson a few yards in front of the line of scrimmage. Dickson, who needed 10 yards to move the chains, faced a sea of Kansas City defenders. First up was corner Tremon Smith, who came flying in wildly, diving at Dickson’s ankles, and whiffed. Then it was linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who grabbed a firm hold of Dickson’s shoulder pads and slipped off like he was covered in Crisco. Lastly, right at the first down marker, defensive back Steven Nelson had Dickson squared up and simply fell down. First down, Seahawks—and, soon, touchdown Seahawks.
Mahomes then marched the Chiefs 60 yards down the field, ending with a field goal that narrowed Seattle’s lead to four points and kept the game alive. Kansas City needed a one stop. Instead, they gave up a six play, 70-yard drive and another touchdown. It seemed the game was over.
But wait, there’s more. Mahomes again—again!—marched 72 yards down the field for another touchdown and this time added a two-point conversion to boot. There was 4:30 left and the Chiefs defense, again, needed one stop. And again—again!—they couldn’t get it. The Seahawks easily drove 75 yards in eight plays and scored another touchdown to effectively end the game.
The Chiefs entered into this week with the 28th-ranked defense in terms of points allowed. Here is the list of all the Super Bowl-winning teams in NFL history that had a defense ranked 28th or worse in the league:
No teams have ever hoisted the Lombardi with a defense as bad as the Chiefs have had so far this year. Of the 52 Super Bowl winners, 45 of them have had a top-10 defense. For all the talk about the last half-decade or so being The Era of Offense, it is as difficult as ever for a poor defensive team to make a run in the playoffs. The last five Super Bowl winners have had average defensive rank of 3.6. (2017 Eagles ranked fourth, ’16 Patriots first, ’15 Broncos fourth, ’14 Patriots eighth, ’13 Seahawks first.)
Kansas City’s defense was bad Sunday night, and they have been bad all year, in just about every way. Entering the week, they ranked last in passing yards and average yards per rush allowed. They also ranked last in penalties. And last in yards allowed per possession. And last in first downs surrendered. They didn’t rank last in yards allowed, but they did rank second-to-last.
The worst defense to ever win the Super Bowl was the 2011 Giants, a unit that ranked 25th that season in points allowed. New York’s defense stepped up in the playoffs, allowing only 14.0 points in their four postseason games—11.0 points fewer than they gave up during the season. It is a team that the Chiefs will need to emulate if they’ll have any chance to end this season with a win in February.
In the postseason, the Giants were carried by a trio of dominant pass rushers—Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora—who were so good they masked any other deficiencies the defense had. Similarly, the Chiefs rank second in the league in total team sacks—46.0 entering the week—and are one of only two teams, along with Denver, to have two players in the top-15 in the league in sacks (Chris Jones ranks fifth, and Dee Ford is 13th).
It’s not very likely that happens, but it is possible. And it’s the only way the Chiefs don’t waste this season of Mahomes Magnificence—and damn would it be a shame if they do.
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