If their AFC foes want to stop the Kansas City Chiefs from reaching a third consecutive Super Bowl, they haven’t shown it this offseason.
There’s a blueprint out on the Kansas City Chiefs. None of the AFC teams are following it.
In three years with Patrick Mahomes as their starting quarterback, the Chiefs have lost 10 games. The opponent has averaged 35.7 points in those affairs. For their part, the Chiefs were forcing teams to score often, averaging 29.1 points of their own in those losses.
However, and perhaps more importantly, the opponents also averaged 6.3 QB hits and 2.3 sacks.
Last year, the only AFC teams to achieve both averages were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Yet Baltimore and Pittsburgh also checked in first and third respectively in blitz rate.
We know from years of data that blitzing Mahomes is a poor idea. The Ravens are a case study, as they’ve posted an 0-3 record against Mahomes while blitzing him at a higher rate than any other opponent.
For sacks, the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns exceeded the 2.3/game threshold, albeit by small margins. Yet only Denver was in the top 10 for pressure rate in 2020, per Pro Football Reference. Furthermore, only Miami and Indianapolis ranked in the top 20.
To stop Mahomes and the Chiefs, a team must score repeatedly and pressure their superstar quarterback. Looking around the AFC, the candidate for doing such is hard to find.
Frankly, it’s borderline malpractice for these teams to have not spent on pass-rush help. The free-agent crop was fantastic, and yet here’s the full list of every unrestricted free agent with at least five sacks last year who changed teams:
Matt Judon: Baltimore -> New EnglandCarl Lawson: Cincinnati -> New York JetsYannick Ngakoue: Baltimore -> Las VegasJarran Reed: Seattle -> Kansas CityTrey Hendrickson: New Orleans -> CincinnatiBud Dupree: Pittsburgh -> TennesseeDenico Autry: Indianapolis -> TennesseeHaason Reddick: Arizona -> Carolina
Stunningly, only the Tennessee Titans and Chiefs made last year’s playoffs and signed such a player.
In Buffalo, Bills general manager Brandon Beane saw his team lose twice to the Chiefs last season, totaling two sacks for a total of four yards lost. No additions.
The Ravens, Colts and Steelers lost the production of Judon, Ngakoue, Autry and Dupree without adding any replacement firepower. Indianapolis may also lose edge rusher Justin Houston as well, who remains a free agent. Again, no replacements.
The Titans did well to scoop up both Dupree and Autry, but did so while losing receiver Corey Davis, tight end Jonnu Smith, corners Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler and safety Kenny Vaccaro. Ultimately, how much ground was gained in Nashville? Especially when considering the Titans ranked 30th in sacks and 31st in pressure rate a year ago.
With Cleveland, few teams have the weaponry to match Kansas City, but the Browns have an argument. They also has a star pass-rusher in Myles Garrett but still finished 16th in sacks, 24th in pressure rate and 25th in QB hits last year. The numbers must drastically improve despite the loss of edge rusher and current free agent Olivier Vernon, who had nine sacks before tearing his Achilles in Week 17.
Then there’s the offensive requirement of knocking off the Chiefs.
Of the 2020 AFC playoff teams, none added a significant offensive playmaker. The Ravens signed oft-injured receiver Sammy Watkins away from the Chiefs on a one-year deal, while Tennessee attempted to replace Davis with Josh Reynolds, also a one-year pact. Buffalo signed veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders to backfill the loss of John Brown, but did little else.
Of course, the biggest addition of these clubs was the Colts trading for quarterback Carson Wentz. However, Wentz was arguably the worst starting quarterback in football last season, so bad he was benched and then dealt despite the Philadelphia Eagles having to eat a comical $34 million in dead cap space.
Essentially, from an offensive standpoint, the biggest threats to Kansas City’s reign in the AFC added a total of three veteran receivers with little upside and a quarterback who may well be worse than the man he’s replacing in Philip Rivers.
All of this while Kansas City appears at least somewhat vulnerable.
The Chiefs added to their offensive line with center Austin Blythe, guards Joe Thuney, Kyle Long and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and right tackle Lucas Niang, the latter two coming back from opting out for COVID reasons last year. They also return their entire, star-studded coaching staff.
Conversely, general manager Brett Veach released star tackles Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz, with the former recovering from a torn Achilles and the latter potentially retiring after back surgery. Kansas City also lost Watkins and could lose cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who remains a free agent, while missing on targets in left tackle Trent Williams and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
There was an opening for the Chiefs’ biggest rivals to make up ground. It hasn’t happened.
If there’s a plus for the AFC, it’s Kansas City’s current black hole at left tackle. However, with a bevy of first-round draft prospects at the position and Fisher being a potential option come summertime, the Chiefs are in a reasonable spot.
Ultimately, Kansas City’s signings of Thuney and Reed are arguably the best duo of signings of any AFC team from the 2020 postseason fray, only potentially widening the gap.
The good news for the conference?
Football is both a game of attrition and, come January, 60 minutes. There are no best-of-sevens.
There’s one contest, and if the Chiefs are off or injured, the opponent can win.
The bad news?
Those teams could have used free agency to increase their chances of not only beating Kansas City in the playoffs but outpacing the Chiefs in the regular season, potentially earning a bye and home-field advantage. Currently, Kansas City is the odds-on favorite to be watching Wild Card weekend from home before welcoming in an opponent the following weekend.
While the NFL Draft is still ahead, the notion of a contender finding either an elite pass rusher or a star receiver is more fantasy than fact.
Since 2000, only 17 rookies have amassed double-digit sacks. Of those 17, four were selected outside the top-15 overall picks: Clay Matthews (No. 26), Darren Howard (No. 33), Maxx Crosby (No. 106) and Mark Anderson (No. 159). In a class not believed to be strong in edge rushers, finding an impactful one will be tough.
As for pass-catchers since 2000, there have been 12 who totaled more than 1,000 yards in their first pro campaign, but the outlook is better here.
Most league personnel evaluators agree the incoming receivers class is loaded. In the past, there have been myriad bargains found outside the early picks including Marques Colston (No. 252), Keenan Allen (No. 76), A.J. Brown (No. 51), Michael Thomas (No. 47), Randy Moss (No. 21) and others.
There’s a far greater chance the AFC contenders bolster their pass attack than their pass rush.
Still, relying on rookies to overtake one of the most powerful teams in recent memory is more hope than plan.
The AFC has the blueprint to beat the Chiefs. Incredibly, the entire conference strayed from it.