KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After the Kansas City Chiefs finished a seven-point win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5 with a couple of fourth-quarter stops rather than any late-game heroics from Patrick Mahomes, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo gave a few words of thanks to the team’s quarterback.
“It was kind of nice of Pat to let us finish the game this time,” Spagnuolo said after the Chiefs’ 27-20 victory. Usually, they take care of business.
Spagnuolo could have said the same thing a few times this season, including after the most recent game against the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago when the defense not only scored the Chiefs’ final touchdown but held the Dolphins scoreless in the fourth quarter to preserve a 21-14 win.
The defense saving the day in Kansas City has become a trend and the Chiefs, an AFC-best 7-2 heading into a “Monday Night Football” matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles (8-1) at Arrowhead Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), aren’t complaining. But after years of winning with a powerful offense and a defense that was often just along for the ride, getting things done a different way has meant the world they’ve known is upside down.
Mahomes has been quick after several wins this season to credit the defense for doing the heavy lifting. However, coach Andy Reid complained recently about the offense doing things “that I haven’t seen before,” a reference to dropped passes, incorrect pass routes, turnovers, penalties and a general lack of production.
For tight end Travis Kelce, it’s been outright frustration.
“Our defense is playing their tail off,” Kelce said recently on his New Heights podcast. “For us to keep turning it over, we’re putting them in bad situations and they’re saving our tail, it’s getting real one-sided. … It’s not like what we’ve been in the past. We’ve got in my mind the best offensive mind in the game. We’ve got the best quarterback so this is not acceptable and we all feel that way.
“It’s a challenge at this point in the season to get this thing right right now before it gets out of control and it gets really bad.”
This is from a team on pace to become the AFC’s top playoff seed.
The Chiefs led the NFL in scoring last year but entered Week 11 at 13th in points at 23.1 per game, averaging about six fewer than last season. They have been surprised by limited contributions from wide receivers like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore. Their top wide receiver is a rookie, second-round pick Rashee Rice.
Mahomes is on pace for his worst statistical season. At his current rate, he will finish with a career-high 15 interceptions and have a career-low passer rating of 96.7. He will have 32 touchdown passes, his second-lowest total. He had 26 in 2019, when he played in 14 games.
He has talked with resolve after some recent games that the Chiefs will again resemble the powerful offensive team they have been in recent years.
“All you can do is keep working,” Mahomes said. “That’s everything. It’s me with timing. It’s [receivers] just continuing to get catches as much as possible. Lucky for us, our defense is playing so good, so we are sitting here 7-2 … We can get better as an offense. I think if the offense can get where it needs to be, I think we’ll be a hard team to beat.
“We understand that it’s going to take the offense at some point to have to have the big game to win it [but] our defense is holding it down for us right now.”
Mahomes hasn’t been as pointed publicly about the offense’s lower production, but acknowledged he’s struggling with how the season has developed.
“I’m just used to going out there and being able to — I have that mentality I want to go out there and score every drive,” he said. “At the same time, you’ve got to win the football game, so I can’t let maybe a drive or two that we didn’t get in the end zone affect the full scope of the entire game.
“Instead of trying to press or do something crazy or scramble around or do something, I’m just going to take it one play at a time to move the ball down the field and I know that if our defense is playing that well, if I can just continue to just put points on the board, we’re going to win the football game. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
The Chiefs entered the weekend tied for the league lead in scoring defense at 15.9 points per game. They have multiple defenders playing well on all three levels.
In the secondary, the Chiefs have four regulars who were drafted last year and all have delivered, particularly cornerback Trent McDuffie, who is having a Pro Bowl-worthy season. The Chiefs are so versatile in the secondary that they can move players around to get favorable matchups.
Veteran cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has frequently shadowed the opponent’s top wide receiver with great results. Among the top 15 NFL receivers in terms of catches, the Chiefs have faced six. None has more than 71 yards and only one scored a touchdown.
“The thing about [Sneed] is that he loves a challenge,” Spagnuolo said. “He wants to go against their very best. That’s why we do it. When you have a guy like that that you have confidence in that you can put on their best guy, I think the other 10 guys rally around that.”