FOXBORO -- The message on the Kansas City Chiefs' celebratory t-shirts after Sunday's 23-16 road win over the New England Patriots said it best: "The West Is Not Enough."
The Chiefs clinched a playoff berth in Week 14 by winning the AFC West title, but this team is capable of accomplishing much bigger goals, and the reason they're equipped to do that was on full display at Gillette Stadium.
Kansas City's defense was bad last season. There's no mistake about it.
The Chiefs nearly reached Super Bowl LIII but couldn't stop Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his offense late in the fourth quarter and in overtime of the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium. Brady picked apart a lackluster Chiefs pass defense en route to a 37-31 victory. The Patriots scored 80 points combined in two games versus the Chiefs in 2018 (both wins), but Kansas City's defense showed Sunday that it's much better equipped to slow down New England's offense (or any offense with a quality quarterback) in 2019.
Why were the Chiefs able to close out this game after failing to do so with a Super Bowl berth at stake last January.
"We got some stops in this game to (close it) out and get that win in the end," Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "We scored the first drive after we came out for the second half and didn't score again. It felt like we didn't get a first down again, and the defense stood tall. So for them, with all the different stuff that happened in the game, for them to only give up 16 points or whatever it was, it shows that they have the mentality that they're going to come back versus adversity every single time."
The Patriots held the Chiefs offense to just three points and 97 total yards in the second half Sunday. Kansas City's defense wasn't going to be bailed out by Mahomes -- the unit had to take care of business itself.
The two most important stops for the Chiefs defense came in the fourth quarter. The Patriots got the ball back trailing 23-16 with 10:06 remaining in regulation. New England picked up two first downs and reached midfield before being forced to punt. The Patriots again got the ball back trailing by seven points with 5:04 left on the clock. Brady drove his team into the red zone and faced a 4th-and-3 from the 5-yard line. Chiefs cornerback Bashaud Breeland broke up Brady's pass intended for Julian Edelman in the end zone to seal the win for Kansas City.
"We never focus on the offense. If the offense scores, that's a plus for us," Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones said. "As a defense, (our mentality is) we don't need the offense to win games for us. I feel like last year we kinda (leaned on) the offense scoring a lot of points to win games, we don't need that (right now). We, as a defense, can stand up to anyone, or any team in this league, So, when (Mahomes) throws an interception, it's OK, we'll get the ball back for you, Pat. We're going to go out there and play our ball."
The Chiefs are a top-tier Super Bowl contender. They're the only team in the NFL that's beaten both the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. Mahomes is able to make plays no other quarterback in the league can pull off, and the offense as a whole is loaded with elite speed and playmakers at the skill positions.
The only element missing was a strong defense, and after a brutal 35-32 loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 10, the coaching staff made the necessary adjustments. The improvements Kansas City's defense has made of late -- it's allowed an average of just 14 points over the last three games -- are quite encouraging for the franchise as the playoffs near.
"I can tell you that every week, we've gotten better," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. "We had a little hiccup in Tennessee, but other than that, it's been consistent progress forward. I think (defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) and the coaches have done a heck of a job. Most of all, the players have bought in. I mean, they were flying around making plays. They were able to get to Tom Brady and do some nice things, do some things in the run game. And ended up putting it down right there at the end and made some plays."
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