KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There's something happening to the Kansas City Chiefs that can't be ignored as we roll into December. They're creating more frustration for opposing quarterbacks, causing more turnovers when the opportunities arise and cultivating a culture that hasn't been consistently seen in these parts in some time. It used to be that this team's only chance of winning a championship came down to a prolific offense. Now it feels more like the Chiefs' defense might have something to say about that formerly long-held belief.
That defense was the biggest reason behind Kansas City's 40-9 win over Oakland on Sunday. First place in the AFC West was on the line and the Raiders were looking to pull an upset inside Arrowhead Stadium. The only real surprise that came out of this game was the continued dominance of the Chiefs' defense. That unit forced three turnovers, sacked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr twice and even added a fourth-down stand in what was easily its best performance of the season.
"We're just jelling together," said linebacker Anthony Hitchens. "We all knew it wasn't going to show up early in the season but we just kept working and it's starting to show. There is still tons of improvement to make but we only let them in the end zone once. That's the whole thing -- we can give up a lot of yards but we lock down when we get in the red zone. That's the difference between now and a few weeks ago."
It's fair to point out that the Chiefs beat up on a Raiders team that looked just as awful in a 34-3 loss to the lowly New York Jets two weeks ago. It's also not a secret that Carr never has played well in Kansas City, as he's now thrown four touchdowns and seven interceptions during his career inside Arrowhead. That doesn't mean the Chiefs didn't do something impressive on Sunday. In fact, it's now been two straight weeks that Kansas City's defense has outplayed its offense.
The Chiefs forced four turnovers in a 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Nov. 18. That win also included a meltdown by an opposing quarterback -- Philip Rivers tossed four interceptions in that contest -- but the larger point here is that Kansas City isn't solely relying on star quarterback Patrick Mahomes anymore. The vaunted Chiefs offense amassed just 259 total yards against the Raiders, with Mahomes throwing for a career-low 175 yards. That same unit had been averaging 396.1 yards coming into this game, which ranked third in the NFL in that category.
Kansas City needed its offense to play at an exceptional level last year, when the Chiefs reached the AFC title game. They couldn't rely on a miserable defense that ultimately failed them in the postseason, and they made plenty of changes to improve that side of the football this past offseason. There's a new coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo), a new scheme (the 4-3) and six new starters. There also have been plenty of growing pains, especially because the Chiefs have struggled to stop the run all season. This actually is the first time this year where Kansas City can say it's put together two straight weeks of strong defensive play.
The difference is that more players are becoming more familiar with Spagnuolo's schemes as well as each other.
"Everything is starting to come together because we know we have guys who can make plays," said linebacker Reggie Ragland. "(Safety) Tyrann Mathieu has been making plays since he was at LSU. (Safety) Juan Thornhill has been making plays since he was at Virginia. We have a lot of guys who know how to make things happen and we're playing loose. At the end of the day, it's our job but we also still need to have fun with it."
The Chiefs set the tone on defense from the moment this game started. Mathieu intercepted Carr in the first quarter and set up Kansas City's first score, a 3-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to running back Darrel Williams. The Raiders later tried to convert a fourth-and-1 on the Chiefs 40-yard line in the second quarter. Thornhill sniffed out a jet sweep by Oakland wide receiver Trevor Davis, stuffed the play and the Chiefs eventually turned that into a 13-yard touchdown run by Mahomes.
The Raiders were already reeling by that point and then Thornhill added to their misery with a 46-yard interception return for a touchdown. Just like that, the Chiefs had a 21-0 lead and all hopes of a decent division battle vanished.
"You've got to give them credit," said Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. "That is a good defensive team. They do a lot and they came in with a very unorthodox package. They mixed their coverages and mixed their looks. We had some opportunities, (but) we just didn't cash in on them and they did. That is a big part of this game."
The Chiefs couldn't have picked a better time to find some consistency on defense. The race for AFC playoff spots is heating up, with New England and Baltimore sitting in favorable positions to land first-round byes. When this season began, most people thought the AFC title game would be a rematch of last year's epic contest between the Chiefs and Patriots. However, the Ravens firmly have entrenched themselves as the best team in football right now, especially after beating the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
This Kansas City win was a reminder that the Chiefs shouldn't be forgotten. They've battled through injuries to key players (including the loss of Mahomes for two full games) and they now sit at 8-4. Next up is a trip to New England to face the Patriots in a game that will say even more about where the Chiefs stand.
"They're a really good football team and they're going to be in an environment where they win a lot of games," Mahomes said. "We have to find a way to go out there and win. We came close last year (a 43-40 loss) and when (former Chiefs quarterback) Alex (Smith) was here, we did actually get the win (in 2017). So guys know how to (do it). It's about finding the best way to get the win."
The Chiefs know it won't be easy. The Patriots already possess the stingiest defense in the league so Kansas City might have a hard time shaking its recent slump on offense. That used to be a recipe for disaster against an elite opponent like New England. Now it could be one more opportunity for the Chiefs' defense to prove its mettle.
A year ago, it was laughable to think such a thought. It didn't even feel that plausible when this season began, especially with the Chiefs struggling to find their way. But there really is something growing within Kansas City's defense after this latest victory. It's the confidence that comes with knowing your team has more than one way to win when the games become a whole lot bigger.