FOXBOROUGH — Does it still qualify as bend-but-don’t-break defense if you allow 40 points and the only thing that prevents you from surrendering more is that your offense managed to score the winning points without leaving any time on the clock?
That’s the question the Patriots must confront after their 43-40 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in a game that was hazardous to the health of those with high blood pressure or an affinity for defense.
The NFL got exactly what it wanted: a prime time shootout on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium between the Patriots and the undefeated Chiefs that left the impression that defense is defunct. The Patriots got what they needed: a third straight victory that closed the gap on the Chiefs to one game for the AFC’s best record. The mood among defenders in the Patriots locker room was muted celebration and ambivalence after they allowed 31 second-half points and 446 yards of offense in the game.
Sunday was a reminder that while Jordan Richards, Marquis Flowers, and Johnson Bademosi are gone, the Patriots’ defensive vulnerabilities on display in Super Bowl LII remain. The result was different, but this game looked far too similar to New England’s 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII and their 42-27 loss to the Chiefs in last year’s season opener. Those bookend defeats exposed the underlying design flaws in the defense. They revealed the limitations of Bill Belichick’s ability to mask deficiencies with his brilliance.
Vampires have wooden stakes. Werewolves have silver bullets. Belichick has Andy Reid-inspired offenses. Reid has the Patriots number, and it’s 40. Kansas City left Fort Foxborough beaten, but emboldened about a potential playoff rematch.
“Whoever gets the ball last is going to win,” said Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who had five receptions for 105 yards and a 67-yard score and ran for another 80 yards on 10 carries. “That’s how it was. I feel like if we had the ball last, like they did, we would have gone down and scored and won, too.
“We can take this loss. I mean, you never want to lose. We’re going to learn from this, go study, and make sure it don’t happen again.”
The last time the Chiefs played at Gillette, they racked up 537 total yards and 28 second-half points with Alex Smith at quarterback. The Eagles with head coach Doug Pederson, who was Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City from 2013-15, torched the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, rolling up 538 total yards, the most allowed in the Belichick Era. It was defensive deja vu on Sunday once Chiefs wunderkind QB Patrick Mahomes settled down and settled in.
Fortunately for the Patriots, their defense made enough big plays in the first half — interceptions by Dont’a Hightower and Duron Harmon — and Tom Brady made enough plays in the fourth quarter to secure the victory. But the Patriots held on for dear life like David Price.
The Chiefs entered averaging 35 points per game. The Patriots had their work cut out for them. But no defense feels good about allowing 40 points, even in victory.
“I would say it’s bittersweet,” said Harmon, who intercepted Mahomes in the end zone just before the half. “Bitter because obviously as a defense you don’t want to give up 40 points. You don’t want to give up as many big plays as we did. But we won, and that’s what it’s all about.
“We knew that was an explosive offense over there. We knew they were going to be able to make a few plays, and, obviously, we wanted to play better. But the main goal of today was to get a win, and we were able to do that.”
They needed all 60 minutes and 500 yards from their revitalized offense to do it, after leading, 24-9, at the half.
In fairness, the Patriots were the better defense on this night, even if that’s like being the safer condemned building.
The game featured one punt, which came with 3 minutes and 59 seconds left. The Patriots forced the Chiefs to dust off punter Dustin Colquitt after a three-and-out. It was perfect timing, as it came right after Brady scored a gutsy go-ahead touchdown on a 4-yard rush.
Stephen Gostkowski booted a 50-yard field goal with 3:15 left that put the Patriots up, 40-33. Still, the game didn’t feel secure. It wasn’t. The Chiefs struck back in one play, a 75-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill, Hill’s third TD catch of the evening.
“I guess at the end all we did was let them score quick, help our offense,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “Not ideal.”
The Patriots defense did get put in some tough situations by the offense and special teams. Scrambling around aimlessly, Brady committed a ghastly third-quarter fumble on a strip-sack. That set up Kansas City at the New England 29, and the Chiefs cashed in with Hill’s 14-yard touchdown reception that pulled them within 27-26 with 56 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Chiefs took their first lead (33-30) with 8:38 to go in the fourth quarter after Tremon Smith returned a kickoff 97 yards to the 3-yard line. On third and goal, Mahomes lofted a pass that looked to be an overthrow to Hunt, but it was caught by a sliding Hill for a 1-yard score.
Mahomes, who rallied from a shaky first half to finish 23 of 36 for 352 yards with four touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions, is the type of talent who makes his own luck.
The son of former Red Sox reliever Pat Mahomes is the real deal.
The Patriots know that despite Mahomes’s magic and Reid’s X’s-and-O’s acumen, this is not a brand of defense that is going to win a sixth Super Bowl.
And it could have been worse for a defense that allowed 8.4 yards per play.
The Patriots did a good job containing the Chiefs in the red zone, allowing two touchdowns in five trips. But they also benefitted from a bit of Foxborough Fortune. Mahomes overthrew a wide-open Hunt for a touchdown on KC’s opening drive. Under pressure, he also missed Hill in the end zone on the same drive.
You can bet the Chicago Bears, next up on the Patriots schedule, will crib this attack plan. Bears coach Matt Nagy happens to be a Reid disciple. Nagy was KC’s offensive coordinator last season. He knows the Patriots’ weak points.
We’re used to the defense surrendering yards — four of their six opponents have topped 400 yards — but surrendering 40 points is bend-but-don’t-break blasphemy. The Patriots defense has work to do.
“You’ve got to be pleased from the fact we beat a team that was undefeated. We did enough to get a win,” said Harmon. “Was it the effort and the play that we wanted to have? No, not really, but we did enough to get the win.
“We’ll just do everything we can to get better from this film, learn from it, and be a better defense when we get to Chicago next Sunday.”