December 31, 2017. That was the day the NFL was introduced to Patrick Mahomes.
The Texas Tech product walked into what was then Sports Authority Field and took the place of season-long starter Alex Smith for a Week 17 bout that meant very little to both teams. But for much different reasons.
The Chiefs entered the game with a 9-6 record, riding a three-game win streak and looking to secure a wild card spot in the playoffs. The Broncos on the other hand sat at 5-10, struggling through a season during which there was palpable tension between the star-studded defense and the underwhelming offense led by Trevor Siemian.
Mahomes finished the game 22-of-35 (63%) for 284 yards and one interception. He certainly showed promise, but nothing like the dynamic playmaking ability that fans would soon grow accustomed to in the coming seasons.
In his next two seasons as the full-time starter, Mahomes would throw for 9,128 yards and 76 touchdowns against 17 interceptions (a touchdown-to-interception ratio of nearly 4.5:1). He led the Chiefs to 23 wins in those two seasons, was voted league MVP, earned first team All-Pro and AP Offensive Player of the Year honors, was selected to two Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl. Showtime.
The seemingly unstoppable Chiefs have lost a total of nine games in the last two seasons. Looking more closely at the statistics from those nine games, it becomes clear that a win against Kansas City requires two major accomplishments: Be a top-10 scoring offense and have a positive turnover ratio.
Six of the Chiefs’ nine losses during that span came at the hands of teams who finished the season in the top 10 in scoring offense. The Patriots, who beat them twice in 2018, finished the season ranked fourth in scoring offense (27.3 points per game). They also ranked fifth in turnover ratio (+10).
The Rams, who beat the Chiefs 54-51 in one of the most epic games of the entire 2018 season, ranked second in scoring offense (32.9 points per game) and ranked fourth in turnover ratio (+11). The Chargers and Seahawks, who also beat the Chiefs in 2018, ranked sixth and seventh in scoring offense, respectively, averaging 26.8 points per game. Both teams finished the season with a positive turnover ratio.
The average points-per-game for the opposing team in each of the Chiefs’ losses is 26.2 points. That’s the bar that the Broncos, and the other 30 teams in the NFL, must meet in order to be victorious against the defending champs.
Taking care of the football also appears to be non-negotiable, since no team with a negative turnover ratio has been able beat Kansas City during the Mahomes era.
Despite finishing with a positive turnover ratio in each of the last two seasons, the Broncos averaged just 19.1 points per game during that span, falling a full touchdown short of the target average.
There are definitely reasons for optimism, though, as Denver’s offense looked markedly better during Drew Lock’s five-game rehearsal last season. During the first 11 games of the season, Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen led an offense that averaged a dismal 15.9 points per game. Lock was able to elevate that average to 21.4 points per game during his brief stint.
Denver’s heavy offensive emphasis in both free agency and the draft will give the potential quarterback of the future a puncher’s chance to improve upon that mark again in 2020.
Failing to reach 26 points per game doesn’t necessarily ruin the Broncos’ chance at a victory, as there have three teams during the Mahomes era who have pulled it off, but it certainly makes the process more difficult.
The Colts, who beat the Chiefs 19-13 in week five of 2019, are one of the three outliers in this sample. They finished the 2019 season ranked 17th in scoring offense (22.6 points per game) and 12th in turnover ratio (+2). They did, however, possess the ball for 37 minutes and 15 seconds in that game, exactly 14 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the Chiefs. They also out-rushed the Chiefs by 144 yards (180 yards to 36 yards). The Colts, smartly, beat the Chiefs by keeping the ball out of Mahomes’ hands. They fought the wind simply by shutting the window.
The Texans, the second of three outliers in this sample, ranked 14th in scoring offense when they beat the Chiefs 31-24 in Week 6 of 2019. They, like the Colts, controlled the clock for the majority of the game and out-rushed the Chiefs by a wide margin. They possessed the ball for 19 minutes and 38 seconds longer and out-rushed the Chiefs by a total of 139 yards (192 to 53).
The Titans, who managed to stun the Chiefs 35-32 in Week 10 last season, only averaged 23.6 points per game but, like the Colts and Texans, they managed to out-produce the Chiefs in one major offensive category. Just as Atlas held the weight of the world on his shoulders, Derrick Henry carried the Titans on his back as he rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns, nearly doubling rushing total for the Chiefs as a team (97 yards).
Outside of that, Tennessee’s victory is somewhat baffling. The Chiefs had more plays, drives, first downs and total yards than the Titans in that game. They also held onto the ball for nearly a full quarter longer than Tennessee. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
The principles laid out may seem obvious to even casual football fans. Score a decent amount of points and don’t turn the ball over. And if you can’t do either of those things, you better be able to run the ball into the ground and keep Mahomes on the sideline.
But the fact remains that only eight teams in the last two seasons have been able to do what was necessary (the Patriots did it twice).
The NFL is by no means an exact science, but the small sampling of losses that can be examined provide a pretty clear picture of what the Broncos will need to do in order to beat the Chiefs for the first time since September of 2015.
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