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Kansas City Chiefs Surviving, but Far from NFL Juggernaut in 2023

At about the quarter pole of the 2023 NFL season, the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles are the top NFC teams. The Buffalo Bills have overcome their dreadful opening night loss to the New York Jets and are on a definite upswing as an elite AFC team after throttling the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. 

The Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals — if Joe Burrow gets back to full strength with his calf injury — are possible Super Bowl contenders. The rest of the league is most likely in the pretender category.

As for the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, they’ve won three straight. However, there are warning signs they are no longer a juggernaut.

Never count out two-time MVP and two-time Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes or his excellent coach Andy Reid. It wasn’t shocking to see the Chiefs struggle in the opening loss to a good Detroit Lions team when All-Pros Travis Kelce and Chris Jones were missing.

I discount the dominant Week 3 win against the dismal Chicago Bears and point to the 17-9 Week 2 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the disjointed 23-20 victory against the Jets (where the Chiefs had a 17-0 lead). Those games, along with the poor overall performance in the opener, are evidence something is amiss in K.C.

Receiver Defections Catching Up 

It starts with Mahomes’ supporting cast on offense.

The Chiefs’ wide receiver corps is missing a true No. 1 after the departures during the past two offseasons of the team’s leading wide receivers, Tyreek Hill (111 catches, 1,239 yards, nine TDs in 2021) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (78 catches, 933 yards, three TDs in 2022).

The Chiefs’ wide receivers combined for only 65 yards on seven receptions in the Jets game. Reid and Mahomes have not gotten the production they were counting on from $10 million-per-year man Marquez Valdes-Scantling (six receptions, 104 yards), Skyy Moore (seven catches, 112 yards), Rashee Rice (13 catches, 112 yards), Kadarius Toney (nine catches, 57 yards) and Richie James (one catch for 6 yards).

Justin Watson has added eight receptions for 163 yards. This questionable group has combined for only two touchdown receptions.

Kadarius Toney Kansas City Chiefs

Toney cost the Chiefs a likely win in the opener against the Lions when he had three drops, including one on the final drive that would’ve set up a winning field goal attempt. 

Kelce is getting extra attention with the wide receivers less effective. He has 17 catches (two TDs) to lead the team, but his yards per game (52) have dropped by 26 yards compared to last season. That's a 33 percent decrease compared to 2022. 

Protection Also Downgraded

The offensive line lost its two starting tackles in free agency — Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie. Donovan Smith is a big drop-off from Brown on Mahomes’ blind side. The Chiefs didn’t want to pay Brown top tackle money, so he left for a $16 million per year deal in Cincinnati while Wylie received $8 million per year from Washington. 

The Chiefs added RT Jawaan Taylor with a $20 million-per-year deal, but they could’ve given that money (or a little less) to keep Brown at the more critical left tackle spot. Brown was a Pro Bowler for the past four years.

Taylor is not off to a great start. He had five penalties in Week 2, two in Week 3 and allowed a safety in the Jets game when he was called for grabbing the facemask in the end zone. 

Even though Mahomes has only been sacked twice, he has to scramble more to escape pressure. He has scrambled 23 times compared to 61 all of last season. That's dangerous for a quarterback who dealt with an ankle injury late last season. 

He's scrambling so much that he actually leads all quarterbacks in scramble yards, according to TruMedia.

Mahomes’ passer rating has dropped from 105.2 last year to 92.0 (which would be a career-low and ranks 15th) after he threw two bad interceptions in the Jets game.

He has thrown for 252 yards per game through four games compared to 309 yards per game last season, his yards per attempt have fallen from 8.1 to 7.0 and his completion percentage has dropped from 67.1 to 64.3. 

Run Game to the Rescue?

The Chiefs leaned on the running of second-year RB Isiah Pacheco to lead the offense against the Jets. He rushed for 115 yards, including a 48-yard TD run. Things could open up for the passing game if defenses are more cognizant of the Chiefs’ run game, which is up 21 yards per game over last year.

Not counting the 41 points the Chiefs scored against the Bears — who have one of the league’s worst defenses — Kansas City is averaging only 20 points per game in its other three games. That would rank 20th after leading the league with a 29.2 average last season.

And the Jets are the only top-10 defense from last season that the Chiefs have faced. The Chiefs' turnover ratio is minus-3, the same number they finished with in 2022.  

Chiefs Face Other Challenges

Kansas City's defense was underrated last season when it ranked second in sacks with 55. DE Frank Clark (7.5 sacks including playoffs last season) was another salary cap casualty. This season, the Chiefs rank 19th with 10 sacks, well off their 2022 pace. The Chiefs have only allowed 15 points per game, but Detroit is the only strong offense they’ve faced. 

There are many top-10 offenses coming up on the schedule including the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday, the Chargers in Weeks 7 and 18, Miami in Week 9, Philadelphia in Week 10 and Buffalo in Week 13. The Bengals in Week 17 will be a challenge if they get their act together.

It's not surprising the Chiefs have to navigate rough waters as a championship team since the NFL system works against the best teams. They invariably have to deal with a surging salary cap, a tougher first-place schedule and usually drafting at the bottom of every round. Their 2023 first-round pick, Felix Anudike-Uzomah, is a backup defensive end with eight tackles and a half-sack. 

It was difficult to keep a Super Bowl roster in place with Mahomes as a $55 million quarterback (even with a lower cap number this year), Kelce who is on a $14.3 million-per-year deal and Jones, who makes $25 million in his new deal after his holdout.

Major contributors such as Hill, Smith-Schuster, Brown, Wylie, Clark and WR Mecole Hardman were replaced by outside free agents and draft choices and the new players don’t always pan out.  

Time Remains to Right the Ship

There’s a lot of season left, and the Chiefs have time to smooth out their rough edges, but they just don’t look like the same dominant team through four weeks. They are fortunate to have the Eagles, Bills and Bengals at home and meet the Dolphins in a neutral-site game in Frankfurt, Germany. 

In the AFC West, the Chargers are a quality team, but they’ve lost star WR Mike Williams due to a torn ACL, and their coach, Brandon Staley, continues to make perplexing fourth-down decisions. The Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos aren’t threats.

So, barring an unlikely Chargers sweep of their two meetings, Kansas City should emerge as AFC West champs for the eighth straight season. They should have a good shot at a top-two seed with the Buffalo game looming large on who gets home-field advantage as the No. 1 seed. A wintry AFC title game in Buffalo is not an attractive option for any opponent.

Perhaps Mahomes’ greatness will lift the Chiefs to become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champs since the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. As of now, the warning signs are there for it to be an unlikely result. 

  Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.