The KC Chiefs are winning ugly. Problem: That sort of winning just isn’t sustainable

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The Chiefs played another football game, and because this is 2021 and everything is now weird, that means the Chiefs’ defense dominated (again) and Patrick Mahomes stood behind a microphone answering questions about why he’s struggling (again).

The Chiefs are now a team that wins ugly?

And often has to win ugly?

And the wildest part: This is now normal!

The Chiefs beat the Broncos 22-9 at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night, and we don’t mean to focus on the negative here because there’s plenty of positive. The defense is on an absolute heater right now, with Daniel Sorensen’s pick-6 highlighting a five-week run in which opponents have averaged just 11.2 points.

They haven’t lost since Halloween and have some real momentum toward entering the playoffs as the favorites in the AFC.

This is all good! But the offense, man.

Would you believe the Chiefs’ 267 total yards of offense against the Broncos is their third-lowest total with Mahomes at quarterback? And that two of their three lowest with Mahomes at quarterback have come in the last month?

Of course you would. Because you watch the games. And you know that the offense is in the kind of rut that can make both the analysis and the conversation way too familiar.

“I say this every week, but we didn’t executive in certain positions,” Mahomes said.

“We’ll keep working on it until we get it right,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I know I’m saying that every week. But we’ll keep working on it.”

They’re right. They are saying this every week. It’s been true every week.

Reid was talking mostly about the dropped passes. Entering the week, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill ranked 1-2 in the entire league in expected points lost from dropped passes, using data from Sportradar and nflfastR. They were on-brand with that against Denver, each man dropping catchable passes, including one that hit Hill’s hands and turned into an interception — at least the sixth time a ball has hit a Chiefs pass catcher and then been picked off.

Mahomes was talking more generally. He’s a good teammate, so he’ll talk more about how he needs to be more accurate and will mention that the interception off Hill’s hands was thrown too high. Penalties have also been problematic, but there isn’t a team in the league that won’t say that.

“We obviously feel like we’re not playing our best football,” Mahomes said. “We have spurts where we’re really good, and we have spurts where we’re not scoring, we’re not finding ways to finish drives.”

The fear is that as well as the defense is playing, the Chiefs’ four opponents that are currently in the AFC playoff picture have scored an average of 32.3 points. The Chiefs will need more than this from the offense, and the offense is working on months of evidence that it can’t solve a Cover 2.

This should not read like a takedown. The Chiefs have won five games in a row, and these concerns would be much more serious otherwise. Winning ugly still means winning, and this regular season was never about getting to the playoffs as much as succeeding in the playoffs.

If the stagnant results from the offense are from creative tension, and part of the Chiefs’ process of presenting their best selves in the playoffs, then we’ll all just have a hearty laugh about this in a few months.

But we don’t need locker room access to see that Mahomes and his teammates are frustrated by the lack of production, and we don’t need strong imaginations to see a playoff run stopping short without better offense.

The list of what needs to be fixed would include fewer drops, more production from pass catchers not named Tyreek or Travis (how does Josh Gordon have just six targets?), more action for the backs in the passing game, and a more coherent plan to attack the one defensive strategy the Chiefs know they will face as long as they show they can’t beat it.

But Mahomes needs to be at the top of the list. It says a lot about both his talent and importance to the Chiefs that he is again among the league leaders in passing yards and touchdowns but is still vastly underperforming both his capabilities and what the Chiefs need.

The Chiefs’ offense has always had flaws. There’s a lot of talk about the lack of a third pass-catching threat, and the Chiefs could make some profit there, but in the last three seasons their No. 3 pass catcher has averaged 584 yards. At the moment, Mecole Hardman is on pace for 618.

The truth is that for three years Mahomes has been so brilliant that none of that has mattered. They didn’t need a short-yardage run game, or a third one-on-one receiving threat, or the best protection. Because Mahomes erased so many mistakes.

That hasn’t been true often enough this season. His decisions can be second guessed, his accuracy is off a little and we’re not seeing the spectacular plays that he once made routinely.

These are the highest levels of criticism, to be sure. But the Chiefs’ standards are at their sport’s highest levels.

They can probably keep winning regular season games without any drastic changes, but they have to know the games that mean more will require more.

They won’t be able to keep saying these same things in the playoffs. Not after wins, anyway.

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