By Matt Derrick
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark makes no bones about the fact that Kansas City’s 23-16 win over the New England Patriots Sunday was the kind of game the team wouldn’t have won earlier in this season.
“We had to deal with the trials, deal with everything, and then you get past it and then you see the results,” Clark said after a win that helped the Chiefs clinch a playoff berth and the AFC West title. “That’s kind of what we’re seeing now. You’re seeing the results of all the stuff we had to go through back then.”
The Chiefs defense arguably put together its best back-to-back performances of the season the past two games. Last week Kansas City throttled the Oakland, holding the Raiders out of the end zone until a garbage time score in the final minute. Then on Sunday the Chiefs slayed their nemesis from a year ago, the New England Patriots, holding Tom Brady to just 169 yards passing and closing out the game holding the Patriots to three points on three fourth-quarter possessions.
One thing stands out to head coach Andy Reid. He believes the defense under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has improved week by week as the season progresses.
“We had a little bit of a hiccup at Tennessee, but other than it’s consistent progress forward. I think Spags and the coaches have done a heck of a job. Most of all the players have bought in. They’re flying around making plays. They were able to get to Tom and do some nice things, did some nice things in the run and ended up putting it down right there at the end and made some plays.”
Defensive tackle Chris Jones credits Spagnuolo for creating the environment for the defensive to grow and mature.
“He’s a players-first coach,” Jones said. “We’re able to relate things to him on the sideline and he’ll go out there and make adjustments. By him being here and this leadership that he’s brought to this building is phenomenal.”
On Sunday in New England, the Chiefs defense showcased a perfect blend of tenacity up front and aggression on the back end. With the game winding down, the Chiefs weren’t afraid to put 11 men on the line of scrimmage, daring quarterback Tom Brady to beat them yet confident he wouldn’t.
The Chiefs defensive line picked up three sacks with six quarterback hits, and those statistics don’t reflect the numerous other times the front seven harassed Brady in the pocket. Safety Tyrann Mathieu said the team’s stout defense started up front.
“When your defensive line is playing how they’re playing, on the back end we’re able to see things so slowly,” Mathieu said “We understand how the routes are starting to develop.”
New England’s final offensive play presented a case study of that theory. The Patriots line up three receivers to the left with Julian Edelman in the slot. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland knew from his film review that with Edelman in that position, only two routes were possible: a 7-route, where the receiver runs straight then cuts for the corner of the end zone, or an over route, where Edelman would run to the opposite of the field. With the game slowing down for him, Breeland made the call.
“I know process of elimination the down and distance that they were in I wasn’t getting an over, so I played the seven,” Breeland said. As Edelman cut toward the corner of the end zone, Breeland reached around the receiver and tipped the ball away harmlessly, sealing the victory.
Breeland says that wouldn’t have happened without the defensive line making Brady uncomfortable for 60 minutes.
“If they can do that, we’re going to continue to grow and do what we do in the back end,” Breeland said. “But we work hand in hand. We help them out, they help us out, and I feel that’s what really propelling us to where we’re at right now.”
New England’s biggest offensive plays came from the trick play. The defense bit hard on a flea flicker on the Patriots’ first drive, resulting in a 37-yard touchdown from Brady to Edelman. New England’s final drive got a via a jet sweep pass from running back James White to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers for 35 yards.
The defense dwelled on those plays after the game. “That’s keying in on your details,” Clark said. Breeland saw both those plays ran in his direction, and he wasn’t happy with the end results.
“But at the same time, I feel like they took their hat off to us on that aspect,” he said. “They really can’t go and run traditional routes on us as a secondary, us as a defense. For them to have to do trick plays, being Tom Brady and (Bill) Belichick, that means a lot and shows a lot of respect for your unit.”
The victory coupled with Oakland falling to Tennessee makes the Chiefs AFC West champs for 2019. The championship hats and t-shirts made their way through the locker room, but the celebration took on the muted tone that comes with winning the division for a franchise-record fourth-straight season
“Division champs is not conference champs or Super Bowl champs,” Mathieu said. “I think the goal is to get where we were last year and win that game. But I think winning the division, that’s a start.”
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.