The Patriots’ blueprint to befuddle Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes Sunday night was a simple one: Keep him off the field by controlling the clock and out of the end zone by stiffening in the red zone.
It’s a plan they’ve witnessed countless times as opponents routinely try to employ it against Tom Brady, and it worked well for the first half.
Mahomes was not the flashy phenom during the opening 30 minutes; he missed a pair of potential touchdown passes on the opening march alone and threw a pair of interceptions. The Chiefs did churn out 210 yards but were 0 for 2 in the red zone as the Patriots held their guests to three field goals.
Mahomes converted just 2 of 5 third-down chances and seemed a little flustered by some of the looks and pressures New England showed.
On the initial drive, Mahomes hurried a throw to a wide-open Kareem Hunt, who had gotten a step on Dont’a Hightower.
Two plays later, he sailed a back-foot throw over Tyreek Hill, who had beaten Jonathan Jones.
Mahomes fell for Hightower’s bait-and-switch tactic on his next possession. The linebacker showed blitzed on first down and Mahomes reacted by pulling his handoff away from Hunt and going pass on his RPO read. Hightower, however, backpedaled into Mahomes’s passing lane and easily picked off the quarterback’s fastball to set up a Patriots touchdown.
“I just lost him,’’ acknowledged Mahomes. “I just didn’t see him.’’
After a promising start to his third drive, Mahomes again looked off-guard on a third-and-4 when Bill Belichick decided to bring pressure from everywhere. Or did he?
Though it appeared that seven men were coming — and as an added wrinkle they were all standing — three dropped back into coverage.
Adrian Clayborn and Deatrich Wise Jr. applied heat off the edge and forced Mahomes to throw quickly and inaccurately to Travis Kelce.
To cap off the half, Mahomes threw his second interception after moving the Chiefs to the New England 15. This play was all Hightower again.
The versatile linebacker jammed Kelce at the line before transitioning into heat-seeking mode toward Mahomes. He had the quarterback literally in his grasp when the youngster made an ill-advised decision to force a toss to Kelce in triple coverage in the end zone, where Duron Harmon picked it off.
Kansas City ended up staring at a 24-9 deficit at intermission when 14 or even 21 points were a definite possibility. Mahomes had led the Chiefs to 16 touchdowns in 21 red zone trips entering Sunday night’s showdown.
If not for those stumbles, the Chiefs might not have had to scramble back in the second half, which they did quite nicely before running out of time.
“We made some mistakes early as an offense and it ended up hurting us in the long run,’’ said Kelce.
Upon further film review, here are some other things that stood out as the Patriots won their third straight to move to 4-2.
■ Mahomes was ridiculous in the second half.
Cris Collinsworth called him “Gumby” during the NBC broadcast, and there’s no more apt description. Mahomes’s ability to twist his body and make accurate high-velocity throws from the pocket and on the run is jaw dropping.
His scoring strikes to Hunt (67 yards) and Hill (75 yards) were magnificent.
“Bad coaching, bad playing, just bad defense,’’ was how Belichick summed them up from his side.
In any case, sign us up for the rematch, please.
■ Kelce had that sinking feeling.
He was everywhere in the first half, catching five balls for 61 yards. In the second half, he was a real nowhere man.
The tight end had but one target and no catches over the final 30 minutes when the Chiefs offense went into hyperdrive.
The Patriots defense jammed Kelce (who is more of an overgrown wide receiver than a classic tight end) at the line, and he had trouble adjusting and getting back on track or into his routes.
■ Trey Flowers’s block on Hightower’s pick was textbook.
The defensive end turned into a tight end after the interception, turning the tables on Eric Fisher and sending the left tackle to Palookaville during the runback.
He was originally flagged for the hit but officials correctly picked it up.
■ Some double duty for James Develin.
One play after Flowers’s block, the rugged fullback put on a clinic of his own on Sony Michel’s 4-yard touchdown run.
Develin attacked the line of scrimmage and first ran over Anthony Hitchens before steamrolling fellow linebacker Reggie Ragland to create a running lane.
■ Patience is paying off for Michel.
The rookie back has eclipsed 90 rushing yards in three straight games and is running with more patience, persistence, and pop.
It’s fair to say Michel had been running about a month behind most players after missing most of camp and all of the exhibition season with a knee injury. Now, however, he’s catching up consistently and has provided this offense a chance to be balanced.
■ The Clydesdale showed some giddyup.
Forty-one-year-old Tom Brady showed he still has some life in those legs on his fourth-quarter touchdown run. He always prefers air mail, but showed on this play that he can still lug it when he needs to.
With minimal green to work with, the Chiefs did perhaps their best job of the night, effectively covering all of Brady’s receivers. When the pocket started collapsing (and even after several replays, it’s still hard to believe Breeland Speaks didn’t put Brady on his fanny), he stepped up and dived into the end zone.
■ Maul walkers up front.
That Michel and Brady found room to run highlights the effort of New England’s offensive line (and by extension Develin), which really controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the night, allowing the Patriots, who never punted, to move the ball at will.
■ Lapses in coverage.
The kickoff coverage wasn’t great, but after watching Tremon Smith’s 97-yarder in the fourth quarter, it appeared the Chiefs got away with a pair of holds early on.
Linebacker Frank Zombo clamped down on Matthew Slater for a few seconds before ragdolling the perennial All-Pro, and Spencer Ware clutched Patrick Chung for a few extra seconds as well.
Granted there’s holding on every coverage unit, but these were glaring because Smith ran right through the vacancy created by the holds.
Slater wasn’t looking for excuses, however.
“It was bad,’’ he said. “I think we’re a lot better than what we’ve played out there, so we better figure it out quick. We put our team in a tough spot giving up that return and they bailed us out.’’
■ Rob Gronkowski stars in the late show.
Gronkowski caught just three balls, but like the tight end himself, they were huge. His final catch — a 39-yarder down the left sideline to set up the winning field goal — was the most important.
His 42-yarder on the penultimate possession, however, was his most entertaining.
Lined up to Brady’s left, Gronkowski slipped through the opening created by Trent Brown’s block and nobody ever picked him up (Speaks decided to rush). Brady hit him immediately, and Gronkowski went into runaway locomotive mode, thumping safety Ron Parker, who had decided to jump on the tracks.