The 2021 season has been up and down for the Kansas City Chiefs. Back-to-back Super Bowl appearances created lofty expectations coming into this season, and a 6-4 start has many on edge.
However, it’s easy to forget the Chiefs have been here before, and more recently than you might remember.
In 2019, Patrick Mahomes and his teammates ended the season lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time in half a century. Parades ensued for weeks, babies and dogs were named after key players, and the Kansas City Kingdom was left wondering just how long they would be atop the NFL world.
But two years later, it’s easy to forget how that version of the Chiefs sputtered to a less than stellar 6-4 start. Certainly, the circumstances on how each team reached 6-4 are different. In 2019, Mahomes was hampered by an ankle injury through the early parts of the season, leading to a few ineffective offensive performances. Then came his dislocated knee injury against the Denver Broncos in Week 7, which had fans lining up around the block ready to donate their kneecaps to the superstar quarterback. Mahomes would return a few weeks later, only to fall to the Tennessee Titans in Week 10, leaving the Chiefs at 6-4 and searching for answers.
The rest is history. Kansas City responded by running the table the rest of the way en route to their second-ever Super Bowl victory. This year find themselves at an identical 6-4 record ten weeks into the season. How does this year’s team compare to their 2019 version? Well, just like with every Chiefs team since Mahomes’ arrival, it starts with offense.
In 2019, Kansas City’s offense was a tale of two stories through the first ten weeks: A healthy Mahomes and an injured Mahomes. They were unstoppable when healthy. In the seven games Mahomes played, he averaged 364 passing yards, while the offense generated 29 points per game. Their four losses were tied to Mahomes either playing injured or out of the lineup altogether. The offense suffered as a result.
But when healthy, the offense proved to be a juggernaut.
This year Chiefs do not find themselves at 6-4 due to an injured quarterback, yet have sputtered at times nonetheless. Typical of any Andy Reid-coached team, they started hot out of the gate, posting 30 or more points in each of the first four games. However, the offense began to stall out. It produced the worst three-week span in the Mahomes era, never reaching 21 points in consecutive games against the Tennessee Titans, New York Giants, or the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers.
Both offenses struggled in the beginning portions of the season, either because of injury or poor play.
However, there is an encouraging similarity between the two, giving Kansas City optimism for the rest of the regular season. In 2019, the Chiefs welcomed back Mahomes from injury, then lost to the Titans to bring their record to 6-4. But the offense was efficient and dangerous once again, posting 32 points in the losing effort. They gained their confidence back and went on to run the table the rest of the way.
This year, Week 10 again provided a comeback of sorts from Mahomes when he finally shook out of his mid-season slump to torch the Raiders. It seems as though the Chiefs offense has found their confidence once again at the 10-week mark of the season.
If the offense can maintain their momentum, they should be in a good position to hold their spot atop the AFC West. However, the goal for 2021 was not to simply win the division. For their lofty expectations to be met, the other side of the ball needs to mirror their 2019 version.
In 2019, the Chiefs defense was still adjusting to a complete overhaul in both personnel and staff. Newly-hired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was slowly integrating his scheme with his new players, and they had mixed results at best. The defense was allowing 23.9 points per game through the first ten games, ranking just outside the top-20 in the NFL. However, many NFL pundits forget Kansas City’s turnaround that year started with their defense. They finished the season ranked top-10 in points allowed, going on an absolute tear over their final six games, averaging only 11.5 points per game.
This sudden switch from suspect to very good allowed Mahomes and the offense more breathing room, and the 2019 Chiefs became a complete team finally, trouncing through the playoffs and to the Super Bowl.
But surely, it would be way too much to ask this year’s Chiefs? The one challenging for the worst defense in league history earlier this year, right? They can’t possibly compare favorably to the turnaround seen in 2019!
To that point, you would be right. This year’s version isn’t the same as the 2019 defense because this year, the defense began its impressive turnaround far earlier than when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl.
The 2021 defense has quietly already begun their turnaround beginning in Week 6 when the offense’s nearly 500 total yards dominated the headlines following their 31-13 win in Washington. Lost in all the noise was the Chiefs had finally held an opponent under 29 points for the first time all year. In fact, over the last five weeks, the Chiefs defense has allowed an average of 15.6 points per game, a far cry from the 32.6 points per game allowed in the first five games.
The fact is, the defense this year was incredibly inept in the first five weeks. The NFL world had all but written them off as maybe the worst defensive unit of the past decade, completely ignoring their turnaround over the past month. Part of the ignorance could be due to the benefit of facing the New York Giants and lucking out on not playing Green Bay with Rodgers at quarterback. But the sample size is certainly large enough to suggest the 2021 defense is five weeks ahead of the turnaround seen in 2019.
The NFL season is a long one, a fact lost on many fans and, frankly, the players themselves each season. Frustrations boil over, and overreactions run rampant. The truth is, even Super Bowl seasons have their ups and downs. The 2019 Kansas City Chiefs proved you can still turn things around in time to reach gridiron glory, even with a 6-4 start. It looks like the 2021 Chiefs may be giving their fans a little deja vu.