It’s hard enough to slow down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs under the best of circumstances.
Try doing it with your star quarterback shelved by COVID-19, a 40-year-old journeyman taking his place, your top running back headed to injured reserve and a flight that didn’t land in Kansas City until shortly before kickoff.
Yet the New England Patriots still managed to give the Chiefs fits for most of the way Monday night, hanging within a field goal of the Super Bowl champs until late in the third quarter. It wasn’t until Tyrann Mathieu took an interception back for a touchdown in the fourth that Kansas City clinched its 26-10 victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
“You’ve seen it this season. You’ve seen it last season. Even if you hold us down, we can go out there and make plays when they count,” said Mahomes, who threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns. “When your number is called you have to make plays, and I thought enough guys made plays that we were able to get out of there with a win.”
Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman had the TD grabs for the Chiefs, who have now won 13 straight games.
“We made plays when we had to make plays,” coach Andy Reid said, “and we can learn from this. We have to do better in a lot of areas, but it’s tough to win in this league and it’s tough to beat the Patriots in any situation.”
Perhaps a bit easier in this one.
The marquee matchup was supposed to be Sunday, but it was put on pause when New England confirmed that a player – later revealed to be Cam Newton – tested positive for COVID-19. Later on Saturday, it came out that Chiefs practice squad QB Jordan Ta’amu also had tested positive, forcing the NFL to postpone the game.
More tests, including one taken at 6 a.m. ET on Monday, returned no additional positives from either team.
With their quarterback sidelined, and running back Sony Michel hitting the IR with a quad injury, the Patriots (2-2) were forced to lean on journeyman Brian Hoyer and a cast of running backs that never got into much of a rhythm.
Hoyer, who has now lost 11 straight starts for three different teams, was 15 of 24 for 130 yards and an interception before getting benched in the second half. Jarrett Stidham led the Patriots to a touchdown to close to 13-10, but he also threw two interceptions, including the pick-6 to Mathieu that propelled the Chiefs to their fourth straight 4-0 start.
“We had some opportunities tonight (and) weren’t able to take advantage of them. You can’t give a team like that those kind of opportunities,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Turned the ball over four times. Had too many penalties.”
Yet much of the way, Belichick’s run-heavy, drain-the-clock game plan worked.
The Chiefs marched downfield for a field goal on their first drive, added another later in the half, but otherwise had a hard time getting into gear. Sammy Watkins wasted a scoring chance by fumbling in the red zone, Mahomes was under constant duress and the rest of his wide receivers were blanketed by the New England secondary.
In fact, the Patriots could have been leading had Hoyer not made two monumental mistakes.
The first came in the closing seconds of the first half, when the Patriots had used their timeouts to drive into field-goal range. Hoyer was sacked by Frank Clark on third down, and the 40-year-old journeyman didn’t realize he couldn’t stop the clock. It hit zero and the Chiefs took a 6-3 lead into the locker-room.
Hoyer’s second mistake came late in the third quarter, when he again felt the pocket collapse on a third-down play. This time, the Chiefs stripped the ball loose and recovered it, keeping New England from another field-goal attempt.
“Two bad decisions in the red area cost us points,” he said.
Give the Chiefs enough chances and they’ll usually close it out.
Finally taking advantage of a swing in momentum, Mahomes hit Hill and Travis Kelce with long passes to move swiftly downfield. And when Hill took a jet sweep to the pylon for a touchdown, the Chiefs had some breathing room.
The Patriots answered behind a long run from Damien Harris, who had just been activated off IR, and a nifty catch by N’Keal Harry in the end zone. But the Chiefs kept moving on offence, taking advantage of pass interference and personal foul penalties by the least-flagged team in the league to set up Hardman’s touchdown.
When Mathieu was perfectly positioned to catch a tipped pass and take it to the house, the Chiefs were headed toward a winning start to a gruelling stretch of three games in 11 days that includes a visit to the Buffalo Bills.
“Still feel like we can play so much better and that I think’s the goal,” Mathieu said. “Forget about this game. Our younger guys stepped up, played well, but we’re getting into the thick of it. We have two real tough opponents coming up and we need to find a way to win the next two games.”
Patriots running back James White was back after missing two games following the death of his father. He carried three times for 21 yards and caught seven passes for 38 yards, then teared up during a postgame news conference.
“He meant everything for me,” White said. “He pushed me. He wouldn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear. But he always wanted me to do the right thing and pushed me to be the best I could be all the time.”
Patriots: Right guard Shaq Mason missed the game after a calf injury popped up late last week. The Patriots offensive line was further depleted later in the first quarter, when right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor left with migraines.
Chiefs: Defensive tackle Chris Jones was out with a groin injury that sidelined him in practice last week. Defensive end Mike Danna joined him on the bench with a hamstring injury in the second quarter.
The Patriots continue their tour of the AFC West when the Broncos visit New England on Sunday. The Chiefs face the Raiders the same afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.