FOXBOROUGH – A star QB. A tight end who can dominate games. Several talented pass catchers and ball carriers and a solid o-line. A defense that is struggling, but capable of making plays.
If the Patriots and Chiefs looked into a mirror, they'd see the other looking back at them. That's how evenly matched these two teams were coming into this Sunday night showdown at Gillette.
In all likelihood, it would come down to which defense or special teams unit could make that one game-changing play or two. That's how most analysts sized up this contest all week, and it's exactly how the game unfolded.
For the first two quarters, New England's defense was the one that stepped up and helped the Patriots trade field goals for touchdowns to jump out to a 24-9 lead.
On their respective opening drives, both offenses made mistakes – off-target passes, in particular – that cost them extra yardage and additional points. Then, linebacker Dont'a Hightower's interception of a Patrick Mahomes pass on KC's second possession put New England in first-and-goal position with five minutes to play in the first quarter. The very next play saw rookie RB Sony Michel finish off the turnover by plowing his way into the end zone.
"I thought we did a good job of mixing things up, trying to disguise [the coverages]," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty observed later, "but we knew it was going to be a 60-minute game. No matter how well we played, early or late, we were going to have to show up at the end of the game."
Mahomes proved to be the exciting kind of quarterback he'd been billed as coming into the game: quick, strong-armed, accurate throwing on the run. However, from the pocket, he was too often missing his open receivers. Just when it looked like he had driven his team in position to score at the end of the half, Mahomes scrambled and was nearly dragged down by Hightower. His ill-advised, desperation throw into a crowded corner of the end zone was batted around and eventually picked off by safety Duron Harmon.
"I was covering [tight end Travis] Kelce. He was rolling [to the right], I rolled with him," Harmon recalled for reporters. "The quarterback just tried to fire it in there. He's a gunslinger. He likes to take chances. I should have caught it clean… Luckily, a few bounces more, and I was able to get my hands on it."
Come the second half, the Chiefs started executing better offensively and crawled back into the game. The predicted shootout came to pass.
New England's defense gave up several big plays through the air, including a couple of scoring plays. The Patriots were forced not only to keep pace, but to come from behind when the Chiefs took a 33-30 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
"As an offense, you've got to try and score points to help the defense out," running back/co-captain James White remarked. "Those guys [on Kansas City] can score at will sometimes. We've got to control the ball and put up as many points as possible."
"Yeah, I guess at the end, all we did was let them score quick and help our offense [get the ball back]. Not ideal," added McCourty. "We'll have fun for the next couple of hours, but we know, defensively, coming back in here tomorrow, there's a lot of things we need to work on. The main thing is [not giving up] big plays."
"It's bittersweet, because, obviously, as a defense, you don't want to give up 40 points," Harmon concluded. "You don't want to give up as many big plays as we did, but we won. That's what it's all about. We knew they were an explosive offense. We knew they were going to make a few plays. Obviously, we wanted to play better, but the goal was to get a win."
At 4-2, the Patriots are still a half-game behind the now 5-1 Chiefs after Sunday's result. However, New England managed to knock off the last remaining undefeated team in the AFC (the L.A. Rams are still unbeaten at 6-0), and now hold an all-important playoff tiebreaker with Kansas City, should it come down to that later this season.
"I still think we missed some opportunities out there," proclaimed QB Tom Brady, "but made some situational plays when we needed it… We have a lot of clutch players. I think we have no problem grinding it out. That's what the football season's all about. I don't think we've seen our best. I think we can all play a lot better, and I think that's what we plan to do."
"Every win's a big win," White declared. "We knew it was going to be a 60-minute game, knew it was going to be tough. Guys did a great job fighting. Obviously, things didn't go our way the entire game, but guys stayed together, kept fighting till the end. Just happy to come out with a win."