The Kansas City Chiefs entered the 2021 NFL season with their usual status as a Super Bowl favorite, but early on, their play was far from championship caliber.
Turnovers and penalties plagued the offense. A defense that was poor against the run and pass allowed 29 points per game. After the Chiefs’ disappointing 3-4 start, media and fans expressed doubt about Kansas City’s chances to make a third-straight trip to the Super Bowl.
The players and coaches put their trust in each other and went to work. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs bounced back, winning eight consecutive games and nine of its final 10 to finish 12-5 and win a sixth-consecutive AFC West crown. Andy Reid’s team is back in the Super Bowl conversation as the AFC’s No. 2 seed and begins the playoffs with a home wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
The Chiefs defense has always followed the lead of Patrick Mahomes and K.C.’s dynamic offense. But roles were reversed this season. Things didn’t turn around until changes were made on defense.
The biggest adjustment came along the defensive line. Chris Jones played the first four games at a new position, defensive end, in a move that was supposed to take advantage of his pass-rushing skills. However, the three-time Pro Bowler didn’t even grade out among the NFL’s top 40 edge rushers despite recording two sacks and eight pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
So when Jones returned from a two-game absence due to a wrist injury, he returned to his old spot at defensive tackle. The impact was immediate. Since Week 8, Jones has racked up 29 pressures and seven sacks, including 3 1/2 sacks in a 19-9 win over the Cowboys in Week 11.
Defensive end Frank Clark, slowed by hamstring injuries early in the season, also stepped up his play during Kansas City’s eight-game win streak. He had one sack, three QB hits and one forced fumble in the Chiefs’ 19-9 victory over Dallas.
The defensive secondary raised its game as well, with Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton and L’Jarius Sneed shutting down receivers in coverage. Ward has become one of the NFL’s most versatile defensive backs, ranking among the league leaders in completion percentage allowed (51.3%) and tackling well near the line of scrimmage against the run.
The Chiefs ranked only 27th in total defense (368.9 yards per game), but they became much tougher to score against. Opponents put up 20 or more points in six of the first seven games, but in the last 10 contests, Kansas City allowed 20 points or more just three times.
Another factor in the team’s turnaround was the offense taking better care of the ball. Mahomes threw nine interceptions in the first seven games. Since then, he’s been intercepted just four times. Mahomes finished the season with 4,839 passing yards and 37 touchdown passes, both good for fourth in the NFL.
Mahomes, who threw a career-high 13 interceptions, called the Chiefs’ early season troubles “a trying time.”
“The previous few years have built us for this moment,” Mahomes told NBC Sports. “To be able to battle through that, to win the games that we needed to win, to put ourselves in the position now to be in the playoffs and the two seed and having the chance to make everything happen that we wanted at the beginning of the season.”
“I think we learned form our mistakes — offense, defense and special teams,” he added, “and we found a way to win those football games that we were losing early.”
Credit the Chiefs defense for leading the way.