FOXBOROUGH – Many of us expected this outcome to be lopsided, just not in the Chiefs' favor.
Not many observers gave the Chiefs a chance to be competitive on New England's fifth Banner Night. Perhaps it was too easy to forget that Kansas City was 12-4 and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs last season. In the process of ceremonially putting 2016 to bed, the Patriots received a rude awakening.
"When they score 42 points and beat you on opening night, there really are no positives," safety/co-captain Duron Harmon lamented.
It started out business-as-usual, with Tom Brady guiding his offense to an opening-drive touchdown. But Kansas City seemed to gain confidence – and the game's momentum swing to them – when replay officials overturned the Patriots' second touchdown, which came after the Chiefs fumbled on their first snap.
"It felt like we were in a rhythm at first, but the second half… just weren't clicking," remarked tight end/co-captain Rob Gronkowski. "It starts with me. I've got to get open more, get open better, get better separation [from defenders], make some plays, keep the offense rolling. It just wasn't happening."
The New England Patriots take on the Kansas City Chiefs in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, September 7, 2017.
Credit the KC defense for stifling Gronkowski for most of the first half in a way that most teams cannot – by single-covering him. Safety Eric Berry did a commendable job in that role, frustrating Gronkowski all game (until Berry exited with an Achilles injury), particularly on the most critical play of the first half: Gronk's overturned touchdown catch.
The play was a close call, but there didn't appear to be indisputable replay evidence to reverse it. Yet, that's exactly what the league office in New York (where all replays are now determined) wound up ruling.
KC proceeded to march down the field and tie the score at 7.
The offense, with all its skill-position newcomers, showed glimpses of what it's capable of during the first half. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed in the mood to experiment with them all, calling a balanced first half. In fact, he uncharacteristically chose more running plays than passes for most of the game. When the Patriots did throw, Brady often looked mildly over-anxious, overthrowing numerous passes to open or intended targets.
Furthermore, the O couldn't convert two different 4th-and-1 plays that could have altered the complexion of the game.
"We've got to do a better job individually," wide receiver Brandin Cooks declared. "I think we know our identity. We've just got to come out here and execute. We have great practices, but the most important part is executing during game day. We just didn't do that today."
The Chiefs emphatically took the lead over New England with a third- and fourth-quarter touchdown bombs from QB Alex Smith, which stunned a Gillette Stadium crowd that had come to celebrate the Patriots' fifth Super Bowl championship banner being unveiled.
As expected, there wasn't much of a pass rush threat brought by New England – understandably so, given all the attrition the Patriots have suffered at defensive end this calendar year. As a result, Smith had ample time to throw for most of the first half, putting the bolstered Patriots secondary at a disadvantage on most plays.
New England's pass rush, when it was there, came fleetingly from rookie Deatrich Wise, who exhibited some of that ability early in training camp before suffering a concussion that kept him out of nearly the entire preseason. Wise brought pressure that led to a Trey Flowers sack in the first quarter, then did the job himself in the second quarter to register his first NFL sack. Flowers added another sack in the late third quarter.
Overall, though, the Patriots couldn't muster much up front on defense, and matters were made worse when linebacker/co-captain Dont'a Hightower had to leave with a right knee injury.
The post-game assessments by Patriots players sounded sobering.
"[The problem]'s really everything and everybody," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty declared. "We've got to get a lot better if we want to win any football game this year."
"It's just a wake-up call, especially for myself," remarked Gronkowski. "It just shows that you've got to be ready, week in and week out…They were a good team. They outplayed us tonight."
"We definitely needed some more energy on the sideline," safety/co-captain Duron Harmon observed. "It wasn't at the level we usually have it. We had energy coming out. We played well for the first three quarters. But it got away from us at the end.
"We had a good week of practice, so, we can't blame new people being out there. At the end of the day, they had new people out there, too. It's no excuse. We [usually] play tough, smart football, and we did none of that tonight. We didn't do what we needed to do to counter their punch, and they made us pay for it."
It might just be a matter of time before New England's offense finds its rhythm. There's just too much talent on that side of the ball for that not to happen.
Defensively, on the other hand, the worst fears that many of us harbored entering this season were realized, at least for one night. Despite the talent in the secondary, an anemic front is putting too much pressure on the back end… with disastrous results.
Certainly, if any team can rebound from such a performance on opening night, it's the Patriots. They've proven that in the past. In the meantime, it's clear that expectations for this latest iteration need to be re-examined.