The Kansas City Chiefs led the AFC championship game 21-10 and were at the 1-yard line with nine seconds left in the first half.
We can’t be sure what would have happened if the Chiefs would have punched it in for a touchdown, or even if they settled for a field goal, but they probably would have beaten the Cincinnati Bengals and moved on to a third straight Super Bowl. Odds don’t predict what will happen, but sportsbooks had the Chiefs as a small projected favorite had they met the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl.
There was zero reason, at that first-and-goal moment, to believe in anything but a Chiefs dynasty.
Then Patrick Mahomes threw a first-down pass away, and an ill-advised swing pass to Tyreek Hill was tackled short of the goal line. Time ran out in the first half. The Bengals grabbed some momentum and came all the way back to win in overtime. The Chiefs had a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes of regulation and couldn’t get in the end zone. It was a stunning result, mostly because the Mahomes-era Chiefs haven’t had many bad moments.
The Chiefs dynasty wasn’t necessarily derailed or even stalled due to those two plays from the 1-yard line. But it was a setback, and this offseason wasn’t great.
Kansas City decided it wouldn’t pay Hill and would move on instead. The Chiefs traded Hill to the Miami Dolphins, leaving them without a No. 1 receiver anywhere near Hill’s talent level. Hill is a top-five NFL receiver and was a perfect fit for Mahomes. A lot of the passing game will be on the shoulders of 32-year-old tight end Travis Kelce. Meanwhile, there was an arms race in the rest of the AFC West. Even if you’re picking the Chiefs to win the division again, the gap has undeniably closed.
There are plenty of teams that looked like they’d win for many, many years — some with great quarterbacks — and they never make it back to a Super Bowl after their first couple. It could be Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins, Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers, Kurt Warner’s St. Louis Rams, Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints, Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks … sometimes budding dynasties end way before we think they will. The NFL is competitive. Nothing is ever guaranteed.
This season seems like a bit of an intersection for the Chiefs. Mahomes is 26. He should be great for another decade or more. But each quarterback listed above was great too, often for many years. It doesn’t mean the Chiefs will ever get back to a Super Bowl with Mahomes, no matter how incredible Mahomes will continue to be.
Then again, if the Chiefs can lose one of the few game-changing receivers in the NFL and still hold off the rest of the AFC West, one of the toughest divisions we’ve seen, maybe nothing will stop them. Perhaps all they need is Mahomes and Andy Reid, and nothing else matters much.
“We’ve got to keep rolling, that’s how it is in this league,” Mahomes said, via NFL.com. “It’s a business as much as it is about your friendships and stuff like that. We know that to keep having success in this league, we have to keep evolving, keep getting better.”
Aside from Hill, the Chiefs won’t be that much different. Tyrann Mathieu left in free agency, but Justin Reid is a capable replacement. Cornerback Charvarius Ward got a huge contract from the San Francisco 49ers, but Kansas City drafted Trent McDuffie with the first of their two first-round picks. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie Skyy Moore were brought in to help offset the loss of Hill. The offensive line is still very good. The defense can be good enough, like it has been.
This season is a test for the Chiefs. There doesn’t seem to be much worry in Kansas City. If the rest of the AFC West can’t catch the Chiefs this season, it might be a while before anyone does.
We can argue if the Chiefs should have traded Tyreek Hill when they’re in a Super Bowl window, but they maximized the return: first-, second-, fourth-rounders in 2022, fourth- and sixth-rounders in 2023. That’s a lot. The Chiefs signed Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the differences in contracts are worth noting. MVS got $30 million over three years and Smith-Schuster got $3.25 million over one year. Keep that in mind when you project how they’ll be used. The Chiefs also drafted receiver Skyy Moore in the second round. They’ll try to replace Hill with multiple options. Tyrann Mathieu left in free agency and was replaced by Justin Reid. Reid is a good player but we’ll see if the Chiefs miss Mathieu’s tremendous leadership; Reid is a standout leader too, so perhaps it’ll be fine. Running back Ronald Jones was added on a low-risk deal and can be part of a committee. The Chiefs lost cornerback Charvarius Ward to the 49ers on a three-year, $40.5 million deal, which shows his value. Kansas City’s draft, with the extra picks from the Hill trade, was good. The Chiefs got five players in the first 103 picks: cornerback Trent McDuffie and edge defender George Karlaftis in the first, receiver Skyy Moore in the second, and safety Bryan Cook and linebacker Leo Chenal in the third. That’s a lot of punch to add to the defense, while also adding an interesting receiver for Patrick Mahomes. I don’t agree with trading Hill while chasing a Super Bowl, but it’s understandable and the Chiefs should do plenty with the picks they obtained.
Patrick Mahomes is an unbelievable player, but 2021 was his toughest season. Mahomes had 13 interceptions, a career high. He threw 11 picks in 2019 and 2020 combined. His 284.6 passing yards and 7.4 yards per attempt were career lows as a starter. After not posting a passer rating lower than 105.3 in his first three seasons as a starter, Mahomes’ rating was 98.5 last season. Then in the second half of the AFC championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he was clearly pressing and not his normal self. He was still great last season, just not as great as we’re used to. Teams forced the Chiefs to take underneath throws and it sometimes led to impatience from Mahomes, particularly in the first half of the season. And then Mahomes lost one of the best wide receivers in the NFL this offseason. It’s not like anyone should be questioning Mahomes, but 2021 was the first time we’ve seen him look somewhat mortal as an NFL starter.
The betting market isn’t down on the Chiefs. They have BetMGM’s third-best Super Bowl odds at +900. They’re still favored to win the AFC West, at +155 odds. Patrick Mahomes’ +800 MVP odds are tied for second-best. The Chiefs’ win total is 10.5. If you want to bet on the Chiefs, fading the offseason hype surrounding the other AFC West teams, I wouldn’t blame you. There’s just a little more skepticism than the past couple seasons, and you’re not getting that much value in the betting market on the Chiefs.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “It can be tricky to evaluate receivers joining new teams, but at least JuJu Smith-Schuster offers plausible upside. He doesn’t turn 26 until late November, and his frustrating last three years can be partially explained by injury and the decline of Ben Roethlisberger.
“A healthy JuJu can likely reclaim some of his juju in Kansas City, tied to Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes and motivated by a one-year, prove-it contract. Fantasy managers don’t have to pay a prohibitive price, as Smith-Schuster is outside the Top 70 in both Yahoo and NFFC ADP. See if you can land him as your third or fourth receiver.”
Zach Ertz set the record for most targets in a season by a tight end, with 156 in 2018, according to StatMuse. Travis Kelce should smash that record if his health cooperates. Kelce has had seasons with 145 and 150 targets, and that was with Tyreek Hill around. Kelce should get targeted like an elite wide receiver this season. Kelce was very good in 2021, with 1,125 yards and a great postseason. However, it was a decline from his 1,416-yard 2020 season. There should be some concern, considering Kelce will turn 33 years old in October. Only two tight ends have surpassed 867 yards in their age-33 or older season. Pete Retzlaff had 1,190 yards for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1965 and Tony Gonzalez had 930 yards for the 2012 Atlanta Falcons. You wouldn’t look at Kelce’s postseason film and say he’s close to a big decline, but history isn’t on his side.
Can a young defense take strides?
The Chiefs don’t have a lot of recognizable names on defense. Not yet, anyway. Chris Jones is a fantastic defensive lineman, but the rest of the defense will have a lot of young players. That might not be a bad thing. Kansas City’s defense finished 24th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last season. They ranked 26th in net yards per pass allowed and 31st in yards per run allowed. Joe Burrow torched the Chiefs for 448 yards and four touchdowns late in the regular season. The Chiefs have great memories of the historic divisional round playoff win over the Buffalo Bills, but that game was so exciting partially because the Chiefs defense could not get a stop. There were a few games in which the Chiefs didn’t have any answers. It was not a good defense. That’s why some new blood might help. Kansas City drafted seven defensive players. First-round picks Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis should start right away at cornerback and defensive end. Safety Bryan Cook, linebacker Leo Chenal and one or more of the three cornerbacks the Chiefs drafted should push for playing time. If the Chiefs offense isn’t quite the same, they’re going to need the defense to be better than it was last season.
Plenty of quarterbacks through the years have lifted no-name receivers into stardom, and Patrick Mahomes is at the highest level of quarterback play. We’ve seen so many big plays between Mahomes and Tyreek Hill that it’s hard to believe losing Hill won’t impact the Chiefs’ offense, but it’s also possible Mahomes turns Hill’s replacements into stars. The Chiefs’ worst finish in four seasons with Mahomes as starting QB is an overtime loss in the AFC championship game (they’ve done that twice). It’s fun to talk about the Denver Broncos or Los Angeles Chargers, but the Chiefs have won six AFC West titles in a row for good reason. If the rookies on defense contribute right away, maybe that side of the ball improves too. Everyone who will pick against the Chiefs in the AFC West (yeah, that includes me) might look stupid by January, when the Chiefs are the No. 1 seed in the AFC on their way to another Super Bowl.
Even great quarterbacks need some help. Travis Kelce is at an age in which he might not have another great season left. If he slips, who else do you trust? JuJu Smith-Schuster’s career has stalled, Marquez Valdes-Scantling was an inconsistent deep threat for Aaron Rodgers, Skyy Moore is taking a big step in competition from Western Michigan and Mecole Hardman hasn’t shown he can be an above-average starter. The Chiefs defense usually does a good job preventing points and it has been competent enough to do its part around an explosive offense, but what happens if that offense isn’t great this season? The competition in the AFC West is legit, and the Chiefs aren’t guaranteed to win the division again. There will be a lot of competition for wild-card spots too, in a deep AFC. Will the Chiefs miss the playoffs? I doubt it. But it’s not impossible.
Already, the Chiefs are an anomaly. You’re not supposed to make four conference championship games in a row (including two Super Bowl trips) in the NFL. The league is set up to prevent that from happening. On one hand, the Chiefs’ run can’t continue for decades. Only the Tom Brady-era New England Patriots could pull that off. However, the Chiefs have a special quarterback and a future Hall-of-Fame coach. That can take you a long way. If the Chiefs don’t win a loaded AFC West, it wouldn’t mean the end of this budding dynasty. But I do think either the Broncos or Chargers (I prefer the Chargers) take the division this season while Kansas City retools a bit on offense. Kansas City will make the playoffs and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they’re back in the AFC title game, even from a wild-card spot. It might just be a little bit of a down season, by modern Chiefs standards.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles
12. San Francisco 49ers
11. Denver Broncos
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. New England Patriots
8. Los Angeles Chargers
7. Baltimore Ravens
6. Green Bay Packers
5. Dallas Cowboys