Here are five things we learned from the game:
1. The Chiefs defense might be for real
How many games does a defense have to play well before people should be able to say they’ve turned a corner? Three? Four? Half a season?
Look… I get it: the Denver Broncos offense isn’t very good. There aren’t a lot of bragging rights to be be had by dominating them. Giving up 31 points at home isn’t a good look, either — even if it’s against a certain Hall of Fame quarterback who’s routinely been finding (and exploiting) the weaknesses of just about every defense he’s faced for 15 years.
But coming into this game, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins — whether you want to give him credit for it or not — had the NFL’s second-highest passer rating. He was just behind Russell Wilson — and just ahead of Patrick Mahomes. He was leading the league in yards per pass attempt, too.
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was leading the league in rushing yards — and was fifth in yards per attempt with 5.3.
Neither of those guys had a good day on Sunday. And from what I saw, it sure looked like it was the Chiefs defense that was responsible for it.
Nobody expects the Kansas City defense is suddenly going to become one of the best in the league. But at some point, we’re going to have to start giving it credit for what it’s accomplishing.
2. You can’t always look at defensive stats to see who played well
Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones sat out three games with a groin injury — and hadn’t put a lot of numbers on his stat sheet before then — but he sure made a lot of noise in his return.
- It was Jones who put the pressure on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on a third-down play in the first quarter, forcing Cousins to throw an incompletion off his back foot — and a Vikings punt.
- On another third-down play in the second quarter, Jones and Emmanuel Ogbah scheduled a meeting to be held in front of Vikings guard Pat Elflein. The agenda consisted of pushing Elflein back into Cousins for a sack (credited to Jones alone) and forcing another punt.
- Jones had another big third-down play just before the half, getting right in Cousins’ face and forcing another incompletion and punt.
- In the fourth quarter’s most important defensive play — when Minnesota was at third-and-17 just inside the two minute warning with the score tied at 23 — Jones nearly sacked Cousins again. But his effort wasn’t a failure. Cousin’s pass fell harmlessly to the ground at the feet of a running back, and the Vikings had to punt.
Jones’ stat sheet for Sunday’s game shows three tackles (two solo, one for loss), one sack (only half of which he truly deserved) and two quarterback hits. But he wrecked the Vikings offense.
3. Hart High School is going to have to wait for a while
But it’s not even clear that he’s even Matt Moore — that former journeyman NFL backup quarterback who was an assistant high school football coach at William S. Hart High School in Santa Clarita, California.
On Sunday, Moore often looked more like than Patrick Mahomes than any previous version of himself.
- In the first quarter, he aired it out deep to Tyreek Hill for a 40-yard touchdown strike that only Hill could catch.
- In a second-quarter drive, Moore threw across his body to complete a pass — and two plays later, threw off his back foot so that only Sammy Watkins could make a spectacular one-handed catch.
- In the third quarter — virtually in the grasp of Vikings pass rushers — Moore found Hill again for a 30-yard reception.
- When the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, Moore hit Hill for 52 yards on consecutive plays that set up the tying field goal.
And he made it clear that he’s learned the central tenet of being a Chiefs quarterback: when it doubt, throw it to Travis Kelce. He hit Kelce on five consecutive targets in the first half, but then got his wires crossed with the tight end on what certainly would have been a touchdown late in the second quarter.
But then Moore forgot about Kelce — until it was second-and-21 in the last Chiefs possession, when he hit him for a 17-yard catch to set up a manageable third-and-4 — that he converted with a 13-yard pass to Hill. On the next play, Harrison Butker sewed up the game.
To be sure, there were moments in the game when we were reminded there are good reasons Moore is the backup and not the starter. So while his career at Hart High probably isn’t over, his sabbatical might last a while longer.
4. Second-and-long isn’t the time to run
That sound you’re hearing off in the distance? That is Ethan Douglas’ head exploding.
For the last couple of weeks — in his amazing Stacking the Box Score articles in these pages — Ethan has been railing about Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s tendency to call running plays on second-and-long. Ethan has the facts on his side: such a play usually doesn’t work.
I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of second-guessing NFL coaches on their in-game decision-making. It was just a week ago in this space that I said the outcry over Reid’s decision to punt on a fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter of the Packers games was distracting us from the real problem: the offense’s inability to move the ball in a critical third-down situation. Travis Kelce had it right: he should have caught the ball on the play before.
Generally speaking, fans think a play-call is a stroke of genius of when it works — and think it’s moronic when it doesn’t. So I tend to think that talking about play-calls is a waste of everyone’s time; the controversy is too dependent on the outcome.
But I’m going to make an exception after Andy Reid called a handoff to Darrel Williams on second-and-17 at his own 19-yard line just before the two-minute warning in the first half.
Sorry, coach. I love you, man… but that was just silly.
Even though they’re really informative and cool, I don’t need Ethan’s snazzy data-scraping code, newfangled EPA statistics or even colorful charts and graphs to know that.
A simple query with the Pro-Football-Reference Game Play Finder reveals that while the Chiefs have been better at it that a lot of NFL teams over the last decade, running the ball on second-and-long is a bad idea. The Chiefs have been successful on these plays — that is, converting the down or scoring — less than one time in six. And these rushing plays on second-and-9 or longer have averaged just 4.8 yards.
Another such query shows the Chiefs have gained more than four yards in only four of the 25 times second-and-9 runs have been called during this season alone.
I don’t like to complain about play-calling — and I don’t like to listen to other people complain about it it, either. But enough is enough. With regard to these particular down-and-distance situations, it’s time for an intervention.
5. There’s always time for a good butt-kicking
It’s perfectly OK for us to be critical of the personnel moves an NFL general manager makes. Those critiques are fair game — and for a lot of folks, it’s a big part of the fun.
But whatever his failures might be, let’s take a moment to recognize one of the best moves Brett Veach has made since becoming Chiefs GM: nabbing placekicker Harrison Butker from the Carolina Panthers practice squad. And let’s also be fair: special teams coordinator Dave Toub deserves a lot of that credit, too.
Butker has been money for the Chiefs since his arrival — perhaps no more so than on Sunday. A clutch 54-yard field goal and a 44-yard game-winner within two and a half minutes of each other? As your friends in New York might say — provided you actually have any friends in New York — that’s cherce.
Unfortunately, in Butker’s particular line of work, you’re pretty much only as good as your last kick. (I happen to know the name of a placekicker who owns a Super Bowl ring — but whose name may not be spoken aloud in polite Kansas City society).
So a day may come that we curse Butker’s name. But until then, let’s revel in his… well, there’s no other way to say it.