FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was surely unintentional, but in the moments after the Kansas City Chiefs toppled the New England Patriots, 23-16, and laid bare their frailties, K.C. coach Andy Reid spoke about the Pats of the past. The most formidable team of the last 20 years is limping toward the end of this decade, and the Chiefs -- with the younger quarterback and the far more dynamic offense -- were in the same position as the Ravens and Texans were earlier this season.
They are, cumulatively, chipping away at the Goliath among them, exposing it and pushing it inch by inch toward toppling, prying open the AFC to the possibility of a new champion. Reid and Bill Belichick are good friends, and Reid, given his own history, is probably the last coach who would try to prematurely write off the Patriots. But from the vantage point of Kansas City, the Patriots look a few steps further away from their peak than they did the last time they faced each other, when the Patriots had already rounded into form for another championship run. That process should have begun for New England by now, and it has not. But what was startling about this game is that the Chiefs' offense wasn't nearly as explosive as it was last year. And they still won in Foxborough.
"The Patriots -- their history says everything," Reid said. "That's what made it so special. Bill has done such a great job here, as Tom has."
That sounded a little like a valedictory, didn't it? The end feels closer than ever for the Patriots, who are so limited on offense that they had to open a vault full of trick plays just to stay close to the Chiefs. The question all season had been if the Patriots could stay in a shootout. They couldn't against the Ravensand Texans. But what the Chiefs did to them was more troubling. The defense held Patrick Mahomes and his injured throwing hand in some degree of check. He couldn't launch the deep passes he favors because he had trouble gripping the ball after he fell awkwardly on it early in the game. The Chiefs' two second-quarter touchdowns came via short fields on drives that started with a blocked punt and an interception. The Chiefs' offense stalled completely in the second half, squeezing out just one field goal. And New England still couldn't generate enough offense of its own to win. Officiating botched two calls in one drive that cost the Patriots four points early in the fourth quarter, and we'll hear plenty about the poor officiating in this game. But with the ball in their hands twice in the fourth quarter in a one-score game, the Patriots could not get into the end zone, including from first-and-10 on the Chiefs' 12-yard line with little more than two minutes to go. On the Patriots' final offensive play of the game, from the Chiefs' 5-yard line, Brady's pass to Julian Edelman had just a little too much air underneath it and it was tipped away in the end zone by Bashaud Breeland. Everyone knew it would come down to a play like that, Reid said. The difference is that now it is the Chiefs making those plays.
"Every week, we've gotten better," Reid said. "Consistent progress forward."
The Patriots have been written off before -- including last year, when the Chiefs were the hottest team in the league -- and have made those doing the writing look foolish. But they have lost to all three of the AFC's other division leaders this season and they have now lost three of their last five games.
The Chiefs were careful not to embrace the idea that they were on the receiving end of a torch passing, which, given how flat the Texans fell Sunday, is probably the smartest approach. The Patriots, after all, may still finish 13-3 and will almost certainly have a first-round playoff bye. But the team that was heartbroken in the AFC Championship Game last season changed its fortunes with an improved defense that took advantage of the Pats' shortcomings to hold them to 278 yards and yield just two conversions on 12 third-down attempts. No matter the Patriots' foibles, that is an important development for the Chiefs, who clinched the AFC West title, but will likely still have to play in the first weekend of the playoffs and could face New England again.
"I kept hearing about four quarters of football," Reid said. "You want to play against the best? You better be mentally prepared for four quarters."
This time, Kansas City was, although this might have felt more like a breakthrough for the Chiefs if their own offense had not looked so pedestrian, if they hadn't had 136 yards in penalties and if the specter of a Mahomes injury did not hover over the distribution of the division champion hats and T-shirts. Those somehow made it to the locker room even though some of the team's equipment -- including Mahomes' -- barely did in time for the game. Mahomes said his right hand didn't feel great and Reid said Mahomes will have an X-ray and an MRI on it. Mahomes did his postgame session with reporters wearing a shirt that still contains extra padding around his bruised ribs. With three weeks left until the playoffs begin and the Chiefs still fighting for seeding, Mahomes won't have a chance to rest unless the doctors mandate it. But he was asked how it felt to finally beat Brady for the first time in his career in what, a reporter suggested, could be Brady's final season. Mahomes's eyes opened a bit wider and he smiled.
"First off, I don't think this will be his last season," Mahomes said. "He's still playing at a high level. But yeah, you want to beat the best."
At least for now, and for a few more weeks, that is New England, even if it is in name only. But this did not feel like a measuring-stick game for Kansas City as much as it might have last season. For so many years, the Patriots were the standard. But that, as Reid noted, is their history.
"I think it's just another step in the season honestly," Mahomes said. "For us, we've dealt with adversity through the middle of the season, as far as injuries or losses that we didn't expect to have before the season started. But this team is building every single week. The defense is getting better. The offense is still rolling and doing good things. We're still getting better."