Now it feels like there is a list of contenders for Chiefs' AFC crown

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There wasn't much to learn about the Kansas City Chiefs in their latest win.

They beat a hobbled New England Patriots team playing without star quarterback Cam Newton.

The questions that had been lingering about the AFC at the start of this season are another matter. This game told us plenty about how quickly this conference is growing up, and how much of a challenge it might ultimately provide to the Chiefs' hopes of repeating.

This season began with only one team really having a serious chance of upending the Chiefs in Kansas City's quest for a second straight championship: the Baltimore Ravens.

Now it feels as if the list of quality contenders has ballooned as the first quarter of the season comes to a close. The Pittsburgh Steelers are legit. The Cleveland Browns are much improved. The Buffalo Bills have a blossoming star quarterback in Josh Allen and the Ravens -- even after suffering a Monday night beatdown by Kansas City a week ago -- still have enough talent to be considered a threat.

This is what happens when a season unfolds and speculation ends. We start to see what teams are really made of, how much they've grown and where they could eventually end up when the postseason begins.

As Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said after acknowledging the ugly nature of this win: "It's a long season. ... We have to stay humble, we have to work hard ... paint the picture for the young guys, that any given Sunday we can get exposed."

Let's not confuse anybody here. The Chiefs, who just improved to 4-0, remain the cream of the crop in the NFL. They've got the best quarterback on the planet in Patrick Mahomes, one of the best coaches in league history in Andy Reid and a defense that is gritty and more underrated than most people realize. They won a championship for a reason last year. They're plenty good enough to do it again.

The larger point here is about competition. Mahomes and his teammates can be so dazzling at times that it's easy to think nobody can really hang with them when they're at their best. That's patently not true. The teams that actually have a chance at beating the Chiefs are the ones that don't end up beating themselves.

Take this latest game for example. The Chiefs wound up with a 26-10 victory, but this game was much closer than the final score indicated. The Patriots dropped two interceptions, had another potential turnover negated by a horrible call (officials ruled that Mahomes had stopped his forward progress after he fumbled during a Patriots sack) and watched Mathieu return the game-clinching interception for a touchdown after a Jarrett Stidham pass squirted through the hands of Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. New England also committed four total turnovers, which leads us to the matter of why Stidham was in the game in the fourth quarter.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick eventually gave up on starting quarterback Brian Hoyer after Hoyer continually killed his own team. Hoyer drove the Patriots deep inside Chiefs territory late in the first half, only to hold the ball too long on a pass attempt that ended with a Frank Clark sack and the clock running out. Hoyer made the same mistake late in the third quarter, when Chiefs defensive end Taco Charlton sacked him, forced a fumble and recovered the ball deep in Kansas City territory. The Patriots trailed 6-3 in both situations. They could've easily kicked field goals that gave them a better chance at victory.

It says here that New England wins this game with Newton playing quarterback. Belichick had an exceptional defensive strategy for containing Kansas City's offense, as the Patriots frequently used packages with six defensive backs and only two defensive linemen to limit Mahomes to just 236 passing yards. Give New England even more credit for flying to Kansas City on Monday morning – after Newton contracted COVID-19 and the game was moved from Sunday to Monday night to accommodate for all the testing protocols that had to be met as a result – and challenging the Chiefs on their own turf. This was a game that had blowout written all over it from the moment a new date was set for kickoff.

The Patriots, of course, didn't show up with the notion that they couldn't compete. They came with the intention that they could pull off an upset against a team that just manhandled the Ravens in Baltimore. When asked about the night, Mahomes said, "I think we figured that out last season. When you're in fights with teams like this, you have to find ways. Tonight, our defense stepped up and made some big time plays."

Belichick was more succinct: "This was obviously a disappointing night. We had some opportunities tonight. (We) weren't able to take advantage of them."

If you look around the AFC, there are a handful of teams that have enough talent to do what the Patriots nearly did. The only squads capable of beating the Chiefs are the ones who can limit possessions, avoid turnovers, pressure Mahomes and match up with their fleet-footed receivers. The Steelers can do that because they have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and a slew of athletic playmakers on defense. The Patriots can do it because they just made the Chiefs sweat without Newton.

The Chiefs also will meet a Buffalo team in Week 6 that has quickly made everyone realize that last year's success was far from a fluke. The Bills made the postseason as a wild card team in 2019, with most of their accomplishments resulting from a fast, physical defense. Now, Allen has turned into a quarterback who's making Mahomes-like throws and fully enjoying the presence of shifty new receivers like Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. That Buffalo defense has plenty of talent as well, with a fierce pass rush and a secondary led by Pro Bowl cornerback Tre'Davious White.

If there's a game that will tell us a lot more about this year's version of the Chiefs, it will be that Thursday night meeting in Buffalo. That will be Kansas City's third game in 11 days -- thanks to the Patriots game being moved to Monday -- and the Chiefs will be coming off a contest with another physical opponent, the Las Vegas Raiders. If Kansas City can dominate during that stretch, then God help the entire league. It's more likely that they'll deal with the kind of challenge that New England just gave them, which is what's supposed to happen when you're the defending champions.

The Chiefs came into this season knowing full well what came with that honor. Every game was going to be a different kind of test, with every team gearing up to give Kansas City its best shot. The Los Angeles Chargers did exactly that in Week 2, when rookie Justin Herbert stepped in for injured quarterback Tyrod Taylor and nearly pulled off an upset. Two weeks later, the Chiefs were dealing with an eerily similar scenario, as Newton's absence gave New England a great chance to deliver its own stunner with a backup signal-caller under center.

There was an unmistakable vibe to both those games. The Chiefs seemed likely to overwhelm their opponents on paper, then found themselves grappling in a serious dog fight. It is totally impressive that Kansas City found a way to pull out those wins. It's equally noteworthy that they had to work so hard for those victories, that they could easily be 2-2 if not for a handful of self-inflicted wounds suffered by the opposition.

This was supposed to be a season when the AFC Championship Game was predetermined: Ravens vs. Chiefs. It was a sensible conclusion to draw a few weeks back, because those were the teams that offered the fewest questions. Things look a lot different now that a full month has gone by. The Chiefs still might end up representing the AFC in this year's Super Bowl, but that clearly isn't going to happen without one hell of a fight." target="_blank" >Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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