Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce Still Own the Disappointing AFC WestOctober 11, 2022
No difference exists in the record book when assessing a win by one or 100 points. But the distance between the Kansas City Chiefs and the rest of the AFC West remains as vast as ever.
With Monday's 30-29 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, the Chiefs improved to 4-1 overall and 16-3 against their division rival since Andy Reid took over as head coach.
On game days, a fine line exists between winning and losing. Disparity lies in how good teams find ways to win while certain organizations lose in the most heartbreaking ways.
Case in point: Josh McDaniels and the Raiders dropped to 1-4 after they came up short on a two-point conversion attempt with 4:27 left to play. With the game on the line, wide receiver Davante Adams couldn't get a second foot down to convert a first down as the clock ticked to 51 seconds. On Las Vegas' final offensive play, Adams and fellow wide receiver Hunter Renfrow ran into one another, and Derek Carr's prayer of a throw hopelessly fluttered to the turf.
Bad teams don't make the necessary plays when called upon to do so. However, fortune favored the Raiders a little more in 2021.
A season ago, the squad squeaked into the postseason. As ESPN's Jason Fitz noted, Las Vegas won seven games last year on walk-off plays. This season, the team's four losses have come by a total of 14 points.
The Chiefs have two distinct advantages over everyone else: quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce are the very best at their respective positions. In an offense-driven league, they are the game's most unstoppable duo and have been for some time.
Mahomes is the standard-bearer at his position. Even as the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen dominates during what looks to be an MVP season, the Chiefs signal-caller has redefined how the league evaluates quarterbacks. The throws Mahomes regularly makes border on superhuman.
Because of the four-time Pro Bowler's ability to pull off the improbable on a regular basis, the confidence of the Chiefs offense is tangible. The team is never out of a game, and it's more than capable of overcoming adversity when other teams would crumble.
Kansas City had every reason to pack it in against Las Vegas. The Raiders jumped out to a 17-0 lead with under 10 minutes to go in the second quarter. Mahomes and Co. responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive only to have one of the worst calls of the season go against them during the next possession.
On 3rd-and-8 from the Raiders' 46-yard line, defensive lineman Chris Jones burst through the middle of the line for a strip-stack. But the officials inexplicably called roughing the passer after determining that Jones had landed on Carr with his full body weight—even though he had already stripped the ball—and Las Vegas later kicked a field goal for a 20-7 lead.
"If we're going to continue to call roughing the passer at that high of a velocity, then we've got to be able to view it in the booth," Jones lobbied after the contest.
A botched call of that magnitude may have sent another team spiraling. Instead, the Chiefs became more determined. During Kansas City's next four drives, the offense scored 24 points. Mahomes completed 17 of his next 23 passes, including three touchdowns to Kelce, who had already scored earlier in the second quarter.
The Chiefs struggled to protect the edge early in the contest. Once the offensive line settled in and Mahomes got into a rhythm, he was nearly perfect. As NFL Next Gen Stats noted, he became the first player this season to earn a perfect passing score when targeting the seams. He also holds the highest expected points added mark on non-pressured dropbacks over the last two weeks, per The Ringer's Austin Gayle.
Amazingly, the Raiders failed to cover the most prolific receiving tight end in the game's history each time Kansas City got near the end zone. Kelce's four touchdowns were the most by a tight end since the 1985 campaign and the second-most ever, per CBS Sports' Doug Clawson. The 33-year-old became the first player since at least 1950 with four touchdown catches and fewer than 30 receiving yards, according to Stathead (h/t Pride of Detroit's Jeremy Reisman).
The connection between Mahomes and Kelce is simply different, and it's so much more than the latter serving as the former's security blanket. Mahomes can make any throw in any situation. He's fearless when it comes to uncorking a pass that no other quarterback would would even attempt. Kelce displays strength, body contortion and supple hands to continually work himself open, reel in passes and create after the catch.
The duo has connected to gain 610 yards on scramble plays since the start of the '18 campaign, per Next Gen Stats. Only one other tandem—Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett, who aren't teammates anymore—has eclipsed even 400 yards.
Mahomes and Kelce continue to go to work and wear out their opponents. The rest of the AFC West tried to close the gap this offseason yet failed to do so.
Las Vegas' start has put it in a black hole so deep that its fans might not even recognize where they are. Unless they make a completely unexpected run, the Raiders are all but done regarding the playoffs.
The 2-3 Denver Broncos might have a slightly better record than the Raiders, but the honeymoon for quarterback Russell Wilson ended much sooner than expected. The offense is a mess, and the crown jewel of the franchise's offseason doesn't look anything like the player it envisioned. In fact, the Broncos rank 31st in scoring. The unit's misadventures in the red zone are a horror story perfect for the Halloween season.
The Los Angeles Chargers were supposed to be the team to finally challenge the Chiefs' divisional supremacy. Quarterback Justin Herbert is playing through injured ribs. Left tackle Rashawn Slater is out for the season with a ruptured biceps tendon. Defensive end Joey Bosa has a significant groin injury. Wide receiver Keenan Allen is nursing a hamstring injury. Considering the circumstances, their 3-2 start is impressive, though expectations were much greater.
A litmus test awaits the Chiefs with the Bills on the docket. The AFC's two best teams will meet in a titanic clash for conference superiority, at least during the regular season. How Kansas City responds against elite competition will say far more about where the Chiefs stand than anything they do in the disappointing AFC West.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.