EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Walking off the field, Travis Kelce wanted to be honest. The scoreboards inside MetLife Stadium displayed the final score of Sunday night’s game, a score that could have made the All-Pro tight end satisfied: Kansas City Chiefs 23, New York Jets 20.
Kelce, however, was fuming. Although the Chiefs escaped their prime-time matchup with a victory that pushed their record to 3-1, Kelce didn’t want to sugarcoat the team’s performance, especially the offense, which scored just six points after the first quarter. Kelce, the franchise’s longest-tenured player, was upset about the turnovers, penalties and other mistakes that turned what could’ve been a blowout into an unsatisfying win.
Inside the Chiefs’ locker room, safety Justin Reid was trying to find the words to best capture the experience of Sunday’s game.
“I mean,” Reid said, pausing for a few seconds. “Everybody feels like we could’ve (done) some things better.”
Across the room, tight end Noah Gray had an even harder time with a similar question: Through four games, how would you describe this season?
“Um … I don’t know,” Gray said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
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The Chiefs are the NFL’s reigning champions — and their season has been weird, disjointed or perplexing, depending on your perspective. None of their four games has been alike. They lost their opener to the Detroit Lions in a game in which two of the best players — Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones — weren’t in uniform. The Chiefs defense, with Jones, responded the next week by preventing the Jacksonville Jaguars from reaching the end zone. Last week, the Chiefs dominated the Chicago Bears, one of the league’s worst teams. But Sunday’s game against the Jets was a particular type of unusual.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the league’s reigning MVP, was a precision passer in the first quarter. Running back Isiah Pacheco scored on a 48-yard touchdown, the longest carry of his career. And the Chiefs defense smothered the Jets on their three drives, surrendering just 43 yards on 13 snaps.
Yes way, Noah Gray 🔥
— NFL (@NFL) October 2, 2023
Early in the second quarter, the Chiefs led 17-0 and had the ball.
“I’ve learned in my seven years that you can win pretty, but you have to win ugly, too, in order to win Super Bowls,” Mahomes said. “Even though I hate it while it’s happening, I feel like it makes you better in the end when you win games like this, when not everything is going perfect.”
The second quarter was perhaps the Chiefs’ worst 15-minute stretch of the season. A pivotal moment for the Jets (1-3) came when they scored their first points via a safety. Chiefs right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who has committed a league-leading nine penalties, pulled the facemask of defensive end Bryce Huff while in the end zone. The Jets ended their next possession with a 31-yard field goal. Then, on the first snap of the Chiefs’ next drive, Mahomes threw his worst interception of the season, an intermediate pass that went right to safety Ashtyn Davis. The Jets converted the takeaway by scoring on a 1-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Zach Wilson to tight end C.J. Uzomah.
In the final minute before halftime, Mahomes — who later acknowledged that he was being greedy — threw an intermediate pass intended for Kelce. Mahomes thought he could loft the ball over linebacker C.J. Mosley.
“Obviously, I couldn’t,” Mahomes said of Mosley, who made an easy interception. “He made a good play on it.”
C.J. Mosley’s turn to get an INT 👀 @TreyDeuce32RTR
— NFL (@NFL) October 2, 2023
When Mahomes touched the ball again, early in the third quarter, the game was tied 20-20. Wilson opened the third quarter with his best drive of the game as he threw a 10-yard strike to receiver Allen Lazard and then scrambled and dived into the end zone for the two-point conversion, a highlight that produced the loudest roar of the night.
“I think he found himself,” Reid said of Wilson, whom the Jets selected with the second pick in the 2021 draft. “After the first quarter, he was the guy that they drafted him to be.”
The most reliable part of the Chiefs offense was Pacheco, the second-year player who played in his home state of New Jersey for the first time in his pro career. The Jets’ defensive linemen, though, dominated the Chiefs’ offensive line after the first quarter, often pressuring Mahomes. Chiefs receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore and Justin Watson struggled to get open.
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On the Jets’ lone drive of the fourth quarter, the Chiefs grabbed their only takeaway, a fumble recovery by defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton, who fell on the ball after Wilson botched the snap from the shotgun.
“To be a champion, you have to be able to win in a lot of different styles,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “That’s why (No.) 15 is the greatest in the world.”
A dropped snap gives the ball back to the @Chiefs 👀
— NFL (@NFL) October 2, 2023
The Chiefs started their final possession on the Jets’ 47-yard line with more than seven minutes left. Mahomes and his teammates were determined to mount a touchdown drive to take an insurmountable lead. Instead, the Chiefs ended the game with an odyssey of a journey: a 15-play drive during which they moved — forward and backward and forward again — 45 yards.
The most pivotal moment came after Taylor committed a holding penalty, setting up a third-and-23 play. The Jets sent a four-man pass rush with seven defenders in zone coverage. Five seconds after the snap, none of the Jets’ pass rushers were near Mahomes, who watched the seven defenders in zone move farther and farther from the line of scrimmage. Mahomes didn’t scramble forward until seven seconds into the play.
“If they’re not blitzing, we need to give him as much time as possible,” center Creed Humphrey said of Mahomes. “I’m proud of how the guys played, especially on that last drive.”
Mahomes gained 25 yards running through the middle of the field before he was touched by a defender. He celebrated getting the first down by screaming and pumping his right fist.
“I’m faster than people think,” Mahomes said. “I don’t run pretty, so people think I’m slow. But I move a little bit better than people think. Maybe one day I’ll get a spy. That’s my goal. If I get a spy, then I know I’ve made it.”
From 3rd & 22 to a first down. @PatrickMahomes things 🔥
— NFL (@NFL) October 2, 2023
The Chiefs faced another third down a few minutes later, a third-and-20 snap that made Jets coach Robert Saleh furious. While pressured, Mahomes threw a deep pass that was intercepted by cornerback Michael Carter. But the turnover was nullified by a holding penalty against cornerback Sauce Gardner, which gave the Chiefs a first down.
“They’re a handsy defense,” said Valdes-Scantling, who was covered on the play by Gardner. “That’s what they do. (Gardner) is a really good corner, but he has long arms. He’s very handsy. It was definitely a big moment. The goal wasn’t to get the holding call. The goal was to catch the ball. That was prevented because of the penalty.”
Mahomes used his legs again to seal the victory. After the two-minute warning, he scrambled for 9 yards on third-and-8, finishing the play by sliding in bounds at the 2-yard line to ensure the Jets never touched the ball again.
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The Chiefs didn’t celebrate much in their locker room. They didn’t play music or laugh much. Kelce was one of the last players to leave the locker room. On a night when the Chiefs felt relief more than joy, Reid was one of the few players to make a joke.
“We do things in Kansas City fashion, man,” he said, smiling. “We make everything can’t-miss TV. You don’t want to miss it. We’ll have you on the edge of your seat.”
Then, Reid shared his belief that Sunday’s game can prove to be beneficial for the Chiefs.
“Last season, I can’t count how many close games came down the final possession,” he said. “But that toughness and tenacity was valuable to us as we hit the playoffs. This is a game for this season that we’re going to be able to refer back to as overcoming some adversity.”
(Photo of Patrick Mahomes: Elsa / Getty Images)
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