5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 23-16 loss to the Chiefs

The Pats are the prey, not the predator.

Patriots OL Joe Thuney holds back quarterback Tom Brady as he was exchaning words with Chiefs DT Chris Jones after a play.  The New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs in a regular season NFL football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA on Dec. 8, 2019. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Patriots OL Joe Thuney holds back quarterback Tom Brady as he was exchanging words with Chiefs DT Chris Jones after a play. –Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 23-16 loss to the Chiefs, a frustrating defeat that saw a struggling offense have points taken away by poor officiating and virtually eliminated Bill Belichick’s team from the fight for the top spot in the AFC …

THE PATS ARE THE PREY, NOT THE PREDATOR

Since the unbeaten start that brought them into November at 8-0, the narratives have suggested that when the Pats went to Baltimore they wouldn’t find the same formidable Ravens defense. That the Eagles’ secondary was ripe for exploitation. That the Texans’ pass defense presented a chance for Brady and his receivers to get connected. And most recently that the Chiefs couldn’t stop the run.

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In reality, though, it’s worked the other way. Seeing New England on the schedule has actually been a chance for those beleaguered defensive units to boost their rankings.

Once the predator that would devour an opponent’s weaknesses, Tom Brady’s attack has now become the prey that hungry foes can feast on to get healthy.

New England only had life entering the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game because of a scoring drive that converted a couple of third downs with 39 yards worth of penalties, then another that required they cover only 19 yards after a blocked punt. At the start of the fourth, they closed to within a touchdown because the defense forced and recovered a fumble, then Jakobi Meyers drew a 24-yard flag brought the ball into the red zone.

Their first touchdown came on a reimagined flea flicker, and that play stood for more than three quarters as the Patriots’ only gain of more than 20 yards, until more trickery, when James White tossed it to Meyers for 35 up the right sideline. Meanwhile, the regular quarterback’s completion percentage hovered around 50 percent — fast becoming the new normal — as Brady threw a number of balls a way in the face of pressure, and saw his teammates flatly drop a few others. The biggest one of those came from Meyers in the end zone.

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They opened with a concerted effort to run it against the league’s 30th-ranked rushing defense, but when that went nowhere they gave up on that approach quickly. Sony Michel handled the ball on the first four plays from scrimmage, and finished the day with just six.

Maybe he’ll get his chance next week. The Bengals, after all, began this week as the NFL’s worst rushing defense.

But maybe it should be Cincinnati that’s salivating in anticipation of the matchup.

TELLING TURNING POINTS

Each star quarterback threw a bad interception in the first half, each gifting their opponent a golden opportunity to seize momentum by giving them the ball in virtually the same spot. And the respective ability — or inability — to capitalize was an early indicator of the biggest difference between the sides.

Patrick Mahomes was picked by J.C. Jackson on the Chiefs’ first possession, when the Patriots already led, 7-0. Just pick up a few yards and the Pats would be in good position to take a two-score lead before the league’s reigning MVP had completed a pass. Instead, Sony Michel lost a yard on a run, Brady’s next two throws went incomplete, and New England punted from the plus side of the field. Kansas City subsequently got onto the scoreboard with a field goal.

In the second quarter, Besahud Breeland leaked off of Julian Edelman and got his hands on a Brady throw meant for Matt LaCosse. He returned it to the New England 35, so just five yards from where the Pats had taken possession after their first takeaway — except the result was vastly different. The Chiefs stunted initially, too, except they hit for a 20-yard gain on one third down, then scored via Travis Kelce’s direct-snap run on another.

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With that, KC had not just successfully avoided falling behind by two scores, it had scored on three straight drives to take a 17-7 advantage of their own. By halftime the lead had ballooned to 13, with the boos cascading from Gillette Stadium’s seats suggested that by then the home crowd recognized that its offense was a lost cause.

COMPLAINING ABOUT THE CALLS ISN’T SOUR GRAPES

Before griping too much about the job done by Jerome Boger’s officiating crew, realize that the Chiefs were called for 10 penalties that cost them 136 yards. The Patriots, on the other hand, were flagged five times for 25 yards.

Yet it’s Patriot fans who come away feeling slighted by the referees. And who have every right to feel so.

The failures of Boger’s crew over the final 18 minutes conspired to cost New England points, at a minimum, and perhaps a pivotal win in the Pats’ fight for the top of the division and the conference.

It began rather innocuously, when Belichick was forced to challenge the spot on a third-and- four Kansas City completion that appeared to be misplaced by a full yard. Fine. That happens. Forward progress and the precise placement of the pigskin can be tough to see. It cost the Pats a timeout, and extended a drive, but it was survivable.

The killer came next. When the officials missed that Devin McCourty had knocked the ball free from Kelce before the tight end was down, it forced Belichick to use his second challenge in a three-minute stretch.

He won this one — but the fact the initial call was blown so badly had major ramifications. First, it canceled any chance Stephon Gilmore had to run in an open field after making a recovery. He might’ve scored; instead, the Pats settled for a field goal.

Second, in order to get the ball, Belichick had to use his only remaining challenge. That meant that when the refs inaccurately ruled N’Keal Harry out of bounds before he reached the end zone, the Pats had no recourse. That would’ve brought the Pats within an extra point of tying the game, and had it been reviewed the call would certainly have been reversed. Instead, New England just had to live with the error. Same for when Phillip Dorsett was clearly interfered with by his defender on a third-and-6 throw during the Patriots’ final drive.

Bad calls happen. Kansas City had to live with a few among the 10 penalties it took Sunday. But that doesn’t make the what-ifs of defeat sting any less for a clearly perturbed Belichick and his legion of sour fans.

THIRD DOWNS DESTROYED THE DEFENSE

The second half showed why it’d be foolish to give up on the Patriots’ defense. At halftime it was looking like the Pats didn’t have anything for the Chiefs’ speedy talent, and ultimately they did lose for the third time in four games this season against a quarterback with a passer rating of 100-plus. But their dominance over the third and fourth quarters breathed life into the belief that they’re good enough to make New England dangerous in the postseason.

However, it can’t be overlooked that the way they played on third down during the first half was a primary reason why the Pats were in such a hole to begin with.

The league’s best group at getting off the field let the Chiefs convert a third and 10 on their first scoring drive. Next time they took the ball, KC extended a drive with a Gilmore holding penalty and with Mahomes hitting Tyreek Hill on third and 19. A possession later they picked up a pair of third downs on the way to paydirt.

Not counting penalties, the Chiefs converted four of their first seven third downs. After that, the Pats yielded them the necessary yardage just once in nine tries. As a result, after posting 269 yards of offense and 20 points in the first half, the Chiefs managed only 77 yards and three points thereafter.  They handled Hill, save for one route where he burnt Jonathan Jones. They handled Kelce, aside from his Wildcat run. They handled Mahomes, all things considered. In the end, they did their job against an excellent offense.

FOCUS ON THE EAST

Coming into Sunday, there was a question for Patriots fans about the game taking place in Buffalo. Should they root for the Bills, knowing that a Ravens loss would put the Pats in a better position to secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed? Or root for the Ravens, knowing that a Bills loss would create some space in the tussle atop the AFC East?

It turned out that the Ravens beat the Bills — which worked out for New England, because with the Patriots losing to the Chiefs, it’s time to focus solely on winning the division and securing the bye that comes with being the conference’s No. 2 seed.

With three games to go, New England trails Baltimore by the equivalent of two games. It would take a major gaffe from the Ravens for them to give that away, but with the Bills coming to Foxborough in a couple of weeks, and looking like a legitimate threat, the East is still very much in play. That division championship still in the Patriots’ control, as is a first-round bye. Win out, and at 13-3 they’re guaranteed of both.