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In some bizarro version of the NFL where the majority of the league hovers at or near .500, the Kansas City Chiefs’ winning ways are being buoyed by their defense, not Patrick Mahomes and Co. marching up and down the field at will.
Earlier in the season, Kansas City featured a woeful defensive effort. The unit was downright putrid. Though multiple changes during the season and certain key contributors getting healthy, the Chiefs’ defense is now leading the way during the team’s five-game winning streak, and the group is capable of doing so for the rest of the year.
Sunday’s 22-9 victory over the rival Denver Broncos is but the latest example of how Steve Spagnuolo’s group has created success in recent weeks.
“It was a beautiful thing to watch,” head coach Andy Reid told reporters.
How bad was Kansas City on that side of the ball initially? Through the first five weeks of play, the unit allowed 7.1 yards per play, which would have been the worst average ever for an individual defense had it held.
The then-2-3 Chiefs won six of their next seven contests by allowing 17 or fewer points in each of those victories. Aside from a 27-3 loss to Tennessee Titans, who still featured Derrick Henry at the time, Kansas City allowed 309.3 yards per game. Entering Sunday’s contest, Andy Reid’s squad averaged 364.4 yards surrendered for the entire season, which is clearly trending downward over the last eight weeks.
To be fair, Aaron Rodgers didn’t play when the Green Bay Packers came to town in Week 9. But the Chiefs also shut down the league’s No. 1 offense in the Dallas Cowboys by slowing Dak Prescott and his crew, who managed 140 fewer yards than they currently average. Kansas City isn’t just an opportunistic squad taking advantage of a favorable schedule. The Chiefs are playing good, tough defense, and it’s helping to take them straight to the top of the AFC.
Denver moved the ball better than most recently, particularly on the ground. Still, the Broncos averaged 5.5 yards per play, and the Chiefs forced multiple turnovers while being extremely stingy in the red zone.
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
All the while, Patrick Mahomes hasn’t been himself, at least to his previous standard of excellence that warrants MVP consideration. The 26-year-old signal-caller looked shaky against the Broncos. His scattershot accuracy (51.7 completion percentage) coupled with yet another interception—his 12th of the season, which ties a careerhigh with five regular-season games left to play—has the Chiefs winning in a completely different manner.
“There’s some where I’m pressing the issue a little bit more, some are just bad luck,” Mahomes said after the contest. “Just because it hits them, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in the spot for them to make the catch, so I got to make sure I’m putting it in the right spot every time.”
A 406-yard, five-touchdown performance against the Raiders three weeks ago didn’t serve as the breakthrough event Mahomes needed this season. Instead, he’s thrown for 275 or fewer yards in five of his last six appearances. The three-time Pro Bowl selection is struggling with how opponents are defending him by forcing him to be patient and more efficient while providing more two-safety looks, as NFL Next Gen Stats noted:
As a result, the quarterback is committing more mistakes and not always capable of creating something out of nothing. The Chiefs offense is still quite good, but the unit is no longer a juggernaut.
Instead, all of the positive energy is coming from the other side of the ball.
“Well, we are winning a lot of games, so yeah,” Mahomes responded when asked if the 8-4 Chiefs are back, per ESPN’s Dianna Russini. “With this defense and if we can just get this offense right, we’ll keep on winning.”
The health of the team’s personnel became an issue earlier in the season. Now, Kansas City’s defense is nearly at full strength.
Charvarius Ward returned in Week 7 from a quad injury, and he’s performed at a high level as one of the starting cornerback, though fellow corner Rashad Fenton didn’t play Sunday due to a balky knee. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. rejoined the lineup in Week 6 after dealing with a toe injury to open the season. His athleticism at the second level completely changes how the Chiefs play defense because his range is vast. Defensive end Frank Clark admitted injuries and concern over offseason arrests affected his play early in the season, but he’s played outstanding football in the last five games.
Clark’s reemergence coupled with Melvin Ingram III’s acquisition at the trade deadline completely reshaped Kansas City’s defensive front. Chris Jones is a game-wrecker, but he can’t win games by himself. Jones was playing out of position as the team’s base end when he’s far more effective working along the interior. With Ingram and Clark screaming off the edges, Jones has been highly effective again. Since the trio has worked together, they’ve combined for 16 quarterback hits in four games. They’re getting one-on-one opportunities and taking advantage.
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Meanwhile, Nick Bolton remains the rock in the middle of Kansas City’s defense. Bolton, who leads the Chiefs with 82 total tackles, earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for October. The second-round linebacker also led all defenders coming into this weekend’s play with 17 tackles for loss, per Pro Football Focus.
From a cumulative standpoint, the unit is particularly good in the red zone. Since allowing 11 touchdowns during opponents’ first 11 trips inside Kansas City’s 20-yard line, the Chiefs let in 12 during the subsequent 26 opportunities, per the NBC telecast.
The group is opportunistic, too. Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorenson both grabbed interceptions thrown by Teddy Bridgewater. Sorenson took his 75 yards the other way for a defensive score. Kansas City has forced two or more turnovers in three straight contests.
In an offensive-driven league—where the Chiefs have been the pacesetters since Mahomes became the starting quarterback—Kansas City may just be forced to find out if defense really wins championships.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.