If you polled the entirety of national and local pundits, casual fans and diehards alike, it’s unlikely more than a tiny fraction of them would have pictured the defending AFC Champions starting the 2021 NFL season with two losses in three games. Add to that the Kansas City Chiefs are last in the AFC West, and concern is beginning to grow in Chiefs Kingdom.
Probably the most surprising statistic that’s come out in the days following the egregious loss to the Chargers is the expected points added (EPA) per play for both the offense and defense. Unsurprising to everyone, the Chiefs are producing an offensive EPA per play second to only the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams have played almost flawlessly in the first three weeks of the season, and the Chiefs offense is statistically right on their tail.
The defense is a different story. Despite the fact the defense appeared to play a better all around game against the Chargers, and were put in poor positions by the offense a number of times, they are still producing at a poor level. They have the worst defensive EPA per play in the league, worse than even teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants.
Why bring all this up? Is this simply the oft-revisited critique of the Chiefs roster, a great offense shouldering the load while a poor defense tries to survive? I’d like to take a different angle in this discussion.
There are several reasons to be optimistic about the Chiefs.
The point of this exercise is thus: the Chiefs have played well below their typical quality of play the last three weeks, against three playoff teams and arguably AFC contenders under the right circumstances, and they are still only two to three plays away from an undefeated record. Can you imagine what will happen once this defense figures things out, and Patrick Mahomes returns to his average-Herculean exploits?
I’ll tell you what that eventuality looks like. In the upcoming 15 weeks of the regular season the Chiefs will face off with nine opponents who have shown considerable weaknesses leading to losses in the first three weeks. The other five opponents are their divisional foes, with two of them shockingly boasting undefeated records.
I’m an eternal optimist, so call me biased if you will, but a team that nearly went perfect whilst playing mediocre against very good competition also sounds like a team that can run the table if they figure out a few pesky details.
For years with the Chiefs, Andy Reid had orchestrated winning streaks that were truly incredible. The only reason they haven’t stuck out in the recent three campaigns is because frankly, the Chiefs win most of the games they play.
This is the first time with Patrick Mahomes as the Chiefs commander the team has been in a spot this odd. The only other time that slightly compares is the middle of the 2019 season when the team lost four of six games. If you don’t immediately recall what transpired after, the Chiefs went on the greatest run in franchise history ending with blowing out opponents they trailed by double digits in the 2019 NFL Playoffs.
Ask yourself, what is preventing this from happening in the next 20 weeks? Is it personnel, because the Chiefs have shown proclivity on offense with even their fourth, fifth and sixth receiving options. Though overshadowed by two turnovers, the team has ran even ran the ball particularly well.
Even on defense, there are times the talent at all levels flashes. Nick Bolton is a stud, Tyrann Mathieu is a playmaker, L’Jarius Sneed and company have the length and athleticism to hold talented receivers for a time.
Honestly, the biggest problem on defense is the pass rush. It’s non-existent, but you can’t discount the fact that Chris Jones is learning a new position and is still one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the entire league.
Frank Clark is struggling. The interior defensive line is getting pushed around. I’m confident this unit will improve at least a little, and if so this defense will go from very poor to at least average by the end of the season.
If the offense improves in similar fashion, the Chiefs are still going to be the team to beat in the AFC. Despite being so close to 3-0, the Kansas City Chiefs haven’t even scratched the surface of their potential in 2021.