When the Chiefs beat the Ravens 34-20 last season, Patrick Mahomes also improved to 3-0 over quarterback counterpart Lamar Jackson in the subtext that likely will underscore the series for years to come.
And the trend suggested something more at play.
The Chiefs, Jackson said after that game, had become “Kryptonite” for the Ravens, who, after all, had won 14 straight regular-season games to that point.
And while it might be understood that Jackson was just offering lively comment in the moment, it also could be surmised that the Chiefs indeed had established a certain psychological advantage over the Ravens until demonstrated otherwise.
More of the same was percolating Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium, where the third play from scrimmage was Tyrann Mathieu’s 34-yard interception return for a Chiefs touchdown — his first of two interceptions in the first quarter of his first game of the season after missing the opener while recovering from COVID-19.
But the semi-era of an aura of invincibility over the Ravens unraveled as the game proceeded. The Kryptonite melted away into mere fool’s gold. More to the point, it was eclipsed by the startling re-emergence of an old nemesis of the Chiefs: abject futility against the run.
Or as Chiefs coach Andy Reid put it, with a certain understated edge, after the galling 36-35 loss:
“When you have the opportunity to tackle, you’ve got to tackle,” he said, adding that his team also might do well to do a “better job getting off blocks.”
There was plenty more to chafe a Chiefs fan on Sunday night, of course, including the late-game offensive meltdown that was equally fundamental in the loss but more of what could and should be considered an outlier.
After all, that element required the first interception Mahomes has thrown in a September game in his NFL career (after throwing 38 touchdown passes in those 12 outings) and the ghastly first NFL fumble of Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the Chiefs were driving towards what seemed an inevitable game-winning score after the 2-minute warning.
“Turnovers will kill you in this league, and we had two of them,” Reid said. “Down the stretch (at a) crucial time.”
Had either of those gone the other way, particularly the fumble, chances are we’d be writing about a game in which the Chiefs navigated the high-wire without going haywire. We’d be figuring they could enjoy the luxury of winning, much like they did a week before against Cleveland, even while flashing their soft underbelly and at least theoretically prospering by that.
Instead, they’re staring at a reality check, both in the sense of this immediate loss but also within the reset of the dynamics of their rivalry with the Ravens.
All the more jarring because those issues were exposed last week against Cleveland, but a dimension worse against Baltimore despite the return of Mathieu and Frank Clark from a hamstring injury.
Their return didn’t keep the Chiefs from giving up 481 yards overall and 251 on the ground. It didn’t help them get better in the red zone, where the Ravens scored four touchdowns in four opportunities to match what Cleveland did a week before.
And even the return of Mathieu, the glue and soul of the defense, didn’t avert a miscommunication in coverage that allowed Jackson to throw a 42-yard touchdown (on a jump pass).
This early season figured to be a different sort of challenge for the Chiefs, who in three previous seasons with Mahomes at the helm had not lost a September game. The lurking potential liability, at least for the first few months, seemed to be in the form of the offensive line, featuring three rookies among five new starters.
From our vantage point, that unit seemed likely to take a number of weeks to gel and stood to suffer some growing pains that would lead to some losses along the way to becoming a more cohesive unit.
In many ways, it seemed like a parallel scenario to what the Chiefs went through two years ago after they blew up their defense and changed coordinators, personnel, schemes and staff.
Funny how things go sometimes, though: While the line certainly can get better, it also staked the Chiefs to 405 yards on Sunday and four offensive touchdowns in each game. It’s no finished product, but this early production is encouraging and definitely ahead of where it appeared it might be.
Meanwhile, it seems the defense itself suddenly is the looming point of comparison to two years ago. And problematic as that might seem, the moral of the story also is that sometimes a work in progress really becomes just that.
Even if we might have thought this group was past that remedial stage, well, evidently it’s not. But that group, you may recall, didn’t become a consistent asset until after a grim 35-32 loss at Tennessee in Week 10.
Then it held the next six opponents to 21 points or fewer and came through in the clutch in the crucible of the Super Bowl.
That sort of improvement or surge may or may not happen now. But the Chiefs have been to back to back Super Bowls with much of this personnel. So as distressing as these two defensive efforts have been, it also seems reasonable to anticipate they’ll be able to fix some of what ails them, assuming the energy and urgency to do so is there.
In that sense, there might be some upside to this game. Had they eked out a win, maybe there would have been a more contented sense of, “ah, we’ve got this.”
Instead, there’s no denial now: The Chiefs’ defense has issues, and if it doesn’t get better, this team will stay vulnerable.
And just maybe it understands that … and has the coaches and players and will and means to correct it.
“Every now and then, you need a (butt-kicking), you know?” Mathieu said. “And I think our team responds best when we get punched in the mouth.”