KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They didn’t expect to feel this way. This was supposed to be another celebration of their continued excellence. On another national TV stage, this time on the NFL’s opening night, they would show they still have all the important people necessary — a future Hall of Fame coach, the sport’s best quarterback and a talented young supporting cast — to remain the league’s No. 1 team.
Yet the Kansas City Chiefs left their quiet locker room late Thursday night disappointed in themselves.
The scoreboards at Arrowhead Stadium displayed the league’s first result of the 2023 season: Detroit Lions 21, Chiefs 20.
For the first time in his seven-year career, quarterback Patrick Mahomes experienced what it’s like to lose the season’s first game. Playing without All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce and All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones, the Chiefs had their eight-year streak of starting the season with a victory snapped. They had averaged 36.3 points in those games.
“Anytime I lose, I’m embarrassed,” Mahomes said. “We’ve got to be better.”
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Mahomes completed 21 of 39 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He also led his team in rushing, carrying six times for 45 yards. But the game’s most important statistic wasn’t included in the traditional box score: The Chiefs dropped eight of Mahomes’ passes.
“They know I’m going to keep firing it, so we’ll try to get it fixed this next week,” Mahomes said, trying not to criticize his teammates. “It’ll be good for the young guys to know that we’re not just going to walk in and win the game.”
Three of the Chiefs’ final four possessions were sabotaged by a skill-position player dropping a catchable pass from Mahomes. Running back Jerick McKinnon, a 10-year veteran who made one of the mistakes, said he and his teammates — receivers Kadarius Toney, Skyy Moore and rookie Rashee Rice — were trying too hard to make a highlight in the open field before securing the ball.
“You can’t make a play first unless you catch the ball,” McKinnon said. “We had a lot of missed opportunities. We didn’t make enough plays and we put our defense in a lot of bad positions. This one should hurt. It’s a long season, but this (was) not our expectations.”
The game’s turning point came early in the third quarter when Mahomes threw a perfect pass to Toney, who was running a crossing route. Instead of catching the ball, Toney let it go through his hands and right to Lions rookie safety Brian Branch, who returned the interception 50 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 14-14. The Lions’ win probability increased from 16 percent to 39 percent as a result, according to Next Gen Stats.
Toney, the Chiefs’ projected No. 1 wide receiver, never got into sync with Mahomes. A three-year veteran, Toney missed training camp and the preseason while recovering from surgery to repair meniscus and cartilage in his knee. When Toney watched Branch enter the end zone with the ball that was intended for him, he bowed his head and shouted an expletive. Later in the third quarter, Toney dropped another pass while running a crossing route, an unforced error that stalled the Chiefs’ drive in the red zone, forcing coach Andy Reid to use kicker Harrison Butker for a short field goal.
But Toney’s most egregious drop came during the Chiefs’ final dive. Trailing by one point with less than three minutes left, the Chiefs had the perfect play called against the Lions’ zone coverage. Running a deep over route, Toney was wide open for what would’ve been at least a 25-yard completion, a connection that would’ve put the Chiefs close to Butker’s range for a game-winning field goal. After the play, with fans booing Toney, Mahomes put his hands on his helmet in frustration.
“I have trust in KT,” Mahomes said of Toney, who didn’t speak with reporters. “Obviously, he wanted to play and he fought and rehabbed hard so he could play. Stuff is not always going to go your way. But I have trust that he’s going to be that guy that I go to in those crucial moments and he’s going to make the catch.”
Kelce, who missed the game because of a hyperextended knee, a non-contact injury that occurred in Tuesday’s practice, spent several minutes inside the locker room encouraging many of his offensive teammates in one-on-one conversations.
“The guy is a warrior,” receiver Justin Watson said of Kelce. “He would do anything to play. I know he’s going to be good. It’s a long season and Travis is going to (be an) All-Pro. He’s a huge part of our offense. We definitely missed Travis.”
Without Kelce, the Lions were able to effectively guard most of the Chiefs’ pass catchers with man-to-man coverage, especially after halftime.
“You’re losing the best, I think, tight end of all time,” Mahomes said. “But other guys have to step up.”
About 30 minutes before kickoff, All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones, who is holding out for a lucrative contract extension, entered Arrowhead. None of Jones’ attire featured red or gold colors. Sitting in a suite between his two agents, Jason Katz and Michael Katz, Jones watched his defensive teammates play well.
Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo called a plethora of blitzes that helped generate pressure on Lions quarterback Jared Goff. Cornerback Trent McDuffie forced a fumble, defensive end Mike Danna recorded a sack, and safety Justin Reid made a leaping pass deflection near the line of scrimmage just before the two-minute warning to give the Chiefs offense one more chance. The Chiefs don’t know when Jones will end his holdout, which could last until Week 8. But their defense held the Lions offense to 14 points.
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“That wasn’t even in my mind,” Justin Reid said of Jones’ absence. “I don’t think that was in anyone’s mind in the locker room. We’re here to play a game and we didn’t play (well) enough. You can’t make any excuses about it. You have to come back and play better.”
Before Thursday, the Chiefs were 22-18 in regular-season games when trailing in the second half since 2018, Mahomes’ first year as a starter, the lone team with a winning record in that scenario during that stretch. The Chiefs believe they should’ve earned another thrilling comeback win Thursday.
But many of the Chiefs — including Mahomes, McKinnon and Watson — left Arrowhead knowing the biggest reason for their loss will be clear to see in their upcoming film session.
“Anytime the defense doesn’t have to stop you,” Watson said, “you stop yourself.”
(Photo of Brian Branch’s interception after a Kadarius Toney drop: Denny Medley / USA Today)
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