In the most unpredictable of years, football finally arrived for real upon a September Thursday night. Led by stars Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, respectively, the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans took to Arrowhead Stadium. When last the teams met, Mahomes rallied his Chiefs to victory on their way to a Super Bowl title. It was another comeback for the Chiefs, but hardly a dramatic one. This time around, the reigning champions flexed their might with a resounding win to announce their intention of a repeat and that NFL football has returned with an impressive 34-20 win over the Texans. Mahomes was his usual dazzling self with three touchdown passes, while much-ballyhooed Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a dynamic debut with 130-plus yards on the ground and a score.
Here's what we learned from Thursday night's opening act:
1. Well, if you doubted Clyde Edwards-Helaire's potential, congratulations on leaving that behind 34 minutes and seven seconds into the 2020 NFL season. Edwards-Helaire's first big run of his pro career left Justin Reid sprawled on the Arrowhead Stadium turf and jaws agape across the nation's viewing audience and pushed the Chiefs to a comfortable 24-7 lead early in the second half. Edwards-Helaire finished with 138 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries, including 96 yards on 10 carries with six or less defenders in the box, per Next Gen Stats. Some of the rookie's success had to do with the lighter boxes he faced, but his performance was undeniable. "The guy's a star," Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the win. "He works hard, he works his tail off. His vision's incredible and I thought the offensive line did a great job of giving him those holes for him to run through." When Edwards-Helaire faced neutral (seven or more defenders) boxes, his yards per carry average dropped to 3.2. This might be a weakness to exploit for future opponents if Edwards-Helaire was part of an offense that didn't feature Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, among others. Opposing defenses simply can't afford to stack the box to try to stop the rookie.
2. It's Week 1, but this Chiefs offense is in mid-season form in terms of scheme. Kansas City was unsurprisingly creative with play-design, and while it might upset the fantasy folks, one has to admire how Andy Reid used the more notable targets to clear space for the lesser-known pass-catchers to work Thursday night. On multiple occasions, Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman ran off defenders down the field to create room for Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson to operate. Watkins flourished, finishing with seven receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown on nine targets, adding another element of intrigue and a potential future threat to an offense already stocked with weapons.
3. Much is made of how high-powered the Chiefs' offense is, but they cruised to a Week 1 win not by lighting up the stat sheet, but by controlling the ball while working out their early season kinks. At one point early in the third quarter, the Chiefs owned a roughly 12-minute advantage over the Texans in the neighborhood of 22:00-10:00. They finished with a 34:47-25:13 advantage, and that was after much of the second half became garbage time. As our own Gregg Rosenthal tweeted Thursday night, the Chiefs coasted to a win over a team they met in the AFC Divisional Round last postseason with what amounted to a B-minus performance. It's both an indicator of how good Kansas City can be, and also how much the Texans need to learn from their first game action in the 2020 season.
4. Two plays illustrated the different levels of preparation and acclimation on display between these squads. The first: Chiefs edge rusher Frank Clark blew past Texans right tackle Tytus Howard, who seemed to be asleep at the wheel when the ball was snapped and gave up once Clark went around him, only to then flinch back into action in a half-hearted attempt to get a piece of Clark while Watson ran for his life in the opposite direction. The other: Tyrann Mathieu manhandled the larger Darren Fells while making a pass-rushing cameo, pushing Fells off his platform (narrow base alert!) before hitting Deshaun Watson as he threw, leading to L'Jarius Sneed's first interception of his career. The lack of a preseason is going to be a glaring issue with some of these teams, but wow, did it show for the Texans on Thursday. Houston is rolling out the ball with a team with a few new faces, so it's not unexpected, but it was a stark contrast with the defending Super Bowl champions.
5. David Johnson scored! We won't go overboard and declare him to be "back," but he was effective in his Texans debut, rushing for 77 yards (including two 10-plus-yard runs) on just 11 carries. Too often, though, the Texans' lack of go-to weapons showed. With Houston trying to make up a deficit, Watson was frequently tasked with dropping to throw and ending up running for his life and trying to make something out of nothing. That will not win the AFC South, plain and simple.
6. Andy Reid needs a squeegee.
Games amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are going to be strange, starting with Reid's plastic Ironman-like face shield. There were times Thursday night felt a little bit like the preseason, mostly because the lack of attendance due to social distancing needs. It will be interesting to see how Sunday's games feel in some completely empty venues, complete with artificial crowd noise. Thanks to the NBA's restart, some of us have grown used to seeing distanced sideline interviews, with Tafoya doing her first double-boxed one-on-ones amid a light rain in Kansas City. Above all, it was great to again have the NFL on our screens. We'll do it wearing masks and strange shields, and watching these games largely from home. It's better than what we had to do in the spring.
7. The game itself was good fun, but the mere existence of a meaningful NFL game felt so much more important this time than perhaps ever. Sure, it wasn't Super Bowl LIV, but for the first time in what feels like ages, we gathered to enjoy a live event that felt as significant as a marker of time as it was the opening game of a new season. For the first time, it felt like September instead of March 212th; Chiefs-Texans was something new. The Chiefs received their rings, but it didn't feel like ring night; it felt like a return to some semblance of normalcy, something real in this very surreal year. For the first time since the Before Times, since we descended on Miami for the sport's biggest contest, we teed it up and kicked it off. It wasn't the most memorable game, but it was beautiful nonetheless.