1. Let’s start with some secondary truths: The Patriots offense played terribly for most of the game, continuing an awkward new trend of jarring ineptitude in the Tom Brady era. The usually excellent defense gave up 17 points to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the second quarter as the game turned toward the visitors. The Chiefs’ equipment showed up two hours before the game, which was more than a couple hours before the Patriots offense showed any sign of arriving. And the Patriots lost, 23-16, falling for the third time in five games and dropping to 10-3 overall. It was a frustrating performance yet again. They’ve now lost to all of the other division leaders in the AFC (Ravens, Chiefs, Texans), and while they were 9-5 at one point a year ago, it’s hard right now to see this team as currently constructed returning to the Super Bowl for the fourth straight year, let alone winning the thing. They’re not done. It would be foolish to declare Bill Belichick and Tom Brady done, and I’m not going to join that race to do so, especially after their resilient if unrewarding second half. But there’s much to repair, and not a lot of time to do so. I wouldn’t bet against them. For the first time in a long time, I wouldn’t bet on them, either.
2. Now for the other truth, the one that is going to be the most debated topic of the week in sports, one that damaged what was a thrilling ending to the game, and one that could have an enormous effect on how the AFC playoff race shakes out. That truth? The officiating was atrocious in this game, and on multiple occasions it undermined the Patriots. A whistle blew dead a fumble return for a potential touchdown by Stephon Gilmore. N’Keal Harry was called out of bounds on what should have been the tying touchdown, but because the Patriots had to use challenges on other lousy calls, they had none left to lose. And on the second-to-last play of the game, the refs missed a blatant pass interference inflicted on receiver Philip Dorsett in the end zone. I’m not going to say it was the worst officiated game I’ve ever seen, because NFL officials are inept on any given Sunday. But if this were a playoff game, Roger Goodell would be waking up tomorrow to a bunch of folks in Gronk jerseys wielding pitchforks and torches outside his bunker. Justifiably.
3. Offensively, the Patriots played poorly for much of the game, a fairly familiar sight lately. Now we understand why Tom Brady – who finished 19 of 36 for 169 yards — was so mad after the win over Philadelphia. He saw this coming, the inability of the receivers to create separation, the indecision among the running backs, the inability of the line to keep the swarm from coming. And yet … the Patriots almost stole it. Could have stolen it. Maybe would have stolen it if not for Jerome Boger and his inept band of whistle wielders. Boger’s crew ended up calling 15 penalties for 161 yards in the game. He was on TV so much it was like he was auditioning for a role as the rules expert on CBS’s broadcast.
4. Speaking of which, where was CBS rules official Gene Steratore during this broadcast? I’m writing this in the immediate aftermath of the game and recall hearing from him once or twice, but he should have been in the booth for the entire fourth quarter given the way Boger and his fellow zebras kept proving they were the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers of officials. This is where we should note that Steratore’s brother, Tony, is the back judge on Boger’s crew. Maybe he was reluctant to criticize, maybe he wasn’t, but I would have liked to have heard a few more explanations from him about the refereeing disaster unfolding. It wasn’t the strongest day overall for CBS’s top crew. Jim Nantz forgot the Patriots lineman’s name is Lawrence GUY, and Romo got caught talking about the missed opportunity for the Patriots offense – as if it were their fault — over a replay of Harry tucking the football into the end zone.
5. The tense ending – and the Patriots’ resilience in the fourth quarter, returning in its old familiar form even on a day when little went right beforehand – was remarkable given how bleak the game looked from the second quarter on. If the Patriots braintrust came up with some inspiring words or brilliant adjustments at halftime, they had evaporated by the time the Patriots finally took the field. The Chiefs used up the first 6 minutes 14 second of the half marching toward a 41-yard Harrison Butker field goal, his third, which put the Chiefs up 16 at 23-7.
6. That might have been a small moral victory for the defense, but it was the precursor to more of the same ineptness from the Patriots’ offense, whose first three plays of the second half went: James White drop, 5-yard completion to Julian Edelman, Chris Jones sack of Brady for minus-12 yards, punt. It’s not McDaniels’s fault, but sometimes it feels like the ghost of Ernie Zampese is running this offense.
7. But then, a spark. And a spark from where they so often have gotten a spark during their generation of greatness: their special teams. Nate Ebner blocked Dustin Colquitt’s punt with 5 minutes 14 seconds left in the third quarter, darned near snatching the ball while it dropped from the punter’s hands to the foot. Two plays later, Brandon Bolden – like Ebner, one of those back-end-of-the-roster types with an uncanny knack for coming through, ran it in from 10 yards out, and suddenly it was 23-13.
8. Then, the defense, which gave up 17 points in the second quarter while the Boogeymen apparently had another engagement, made a play of its own … and it should have been a bigger one if not for some premature whistle deployment by the officials. Devin McCourty punched the ball loose from Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce as he tried to take a looping path to a first down. Stephon Gilmore picked it up and took off on a race to the end zone, but Kelce was ruled down by contact. The Patriots challenged the call and won, but they lost a chunk of yardage – and perhaps even 6 points – that came with Gilmore’s recovery.
9. Brady and the struggling offense tried to turn the spark into a flame, but couldn’t quite do so. They ended up having to settle for three points and a seven-point deficit at 23-16 … but they came awfully close, and had they had a challenge to use (they burned one earlier challenging a spot), they might have had the tying touchdown. N’Keal Harry appeared to touch the ball to the pylon on his first catch of the game, but he was ruled out at the Chiefs 3. Every replay made it look like a touchdown, and Patriots fans suddenly were in favor of unlimited challenges.
10. Two possessions into the game, Patriots fans couldn’t have been blamed for wanting Josh McDaniels to ditch his game-plan and go with an all-trick-play offense. On their first possession, the Patriots got into uninspiring third-and-long situations on their first two sets of downs, with the drive extended both times by pass interference penalties on the Chiefs.
11. After the second pass interference, committed on Phillip Dorsett by Charvarius Ward on a chuck-it-up deep ball for a 31-yard pickup, McDaniels ditched the conventional and dug into the playbook for some trickery. The result? A Brady handoff to James White … which quickly turned into a White-back-to-Brady flea-flicker that resulted in a 37-yard touchdown catch by a wide-open Julian Edelman.
12. The Patriots had a chance to take an even bigger lead when J.C. Jackson picked off Mahomes at the Chiefs 46 and returned it six yards to the 40. But the Patriots offense wasted the opportunity, with Sony Michel losing a yard on first down and Brady throwing a pair of incompletions, bringing on Josh Bailey. Should have had Julian Edelman or Mohamed Sanu attempt a pass there, and I’m only half-kidding. (James White threw a pass to Jakobi Meyers for 35 yards on the final drive. But still so Sanu!)
13. It’s weird to say, but as exhilarating as a well-executed trick play can be, there’s a small level of annoyance that comes with it, because the Patriots tend to lean on them in situations in which nothing else is working. It was an awesome play. It’s also a reminder that the conventional offense needs to get its act together.
14. The Patriots’ chance to go up 10-3 in the first quarter was thwarted when 6-foot-7-inch Chiefs end Tanoh Kpassagnon went all Dikembe Mutombo on Nick Folk’s 41-yard field goal attempt. It wasn’t quite enough for us to call for the return of Patriot-for-a-week Kai Forbath. But does anyone know whether Shayne Graham is busy?
15. Patriots fans required no reminder of how potent the Chiefs’ offense can be. Mahomes and friends dropped 71 points in two games on the Patriots last year – and that included a scoreless first half in the AFC Championship Game, a 43-40 Patriots win in overtime. But they got that reminder anyway before this first half was over. This game went from a potential double-digit Patriots lead (after the Mahomes pick gave them great field position) to a double-digit Chiefs lead in the span of about a quarter of play.
16. Mahomes put the Chiefs up, 10-7, on 48-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardiman, a drive that included a 21-yard conversion to Tyreek Hill on third and 19. Both plays were a reminder of how enviable the Chiefs’ big-play ability is. If you fall asleep even once, Mahomes and those speedy receivers will deliver a wake-up call.
17. The Chiefs increased their lead by getting tricky in their own right, with tight end Travis Kelce taking a direct snap and bursting into the end zone, capping a seven-play, 35-yard drive to put the visitors up 17-7. And we went from wondering whether Mahomes was hurt – he kept shaking his throwing hand on the earlier series – to wondering whether the Patriots could stop him at all the rest of the way.
18. That was the Chiefs’ second touchdown in less than four minutes. How did they score again so quickly? Why was that drive just 35 yards? No, the Patriots didn’t punt or have another field goal blocked. Brady threw an interception, his seventh of the season, and perhaps his weirdest. Brady was picked off on the Patriots’ first play after the Chiefs first touchdown, and I wish Tony Romo had elaborated more on what exactly happened. Bashaud Breeland did the honors, stepping in front of a throw intended for Matt LaCosse.
19. Initially, it looked like a horrible decision by Brady. But Romo, who had the extra-scratchy voice going on the CBS broadcast Sunday, pointed out that Breeland got toasted by Edelman on a slant route and ended up slipping into the lane in front of LaCosse for an easy pick. Watching the replay, it looked more like Edelman had a step on Breeland, but the defensive back read the play well and peeled off toward LaCosse rather than ending up there almost by chance, as Romo seemed to indicate. Either way, it was a great if perhaps fortunate play by the Chiefs, and a regrettable one by Brady.
20. Brady finished the first half 10 of 19 for 101 yards, with a flea-flicker TD pass, the Breeland pick, and more than a few obvious moments of frustration. The most notable, and justified, came when Meyers dropped a well-placed third-and-7 pass. We’re seeing the last couple of weeks why Brady has always been reluctant to trust him.
21. The Patriots went for it on fourth down from the Chiefs 28, but Brady, under pressure, missed Edelman by a few inches on what likely would have been a first down. When it’s not even working right for those two, it feels pretty hopeless. It was almost fitting that on the final play of the game, Brady, under siege, went to Edelman, only to have the ball tipped away by Breeland on a perfect bit of coverage. It was Brady’s best option, but it wasn’t quite enough.
22. I’m all for letting NFL players have some freedom with their uniforms, but those yellow gloves Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu was wearing looked like a penalty flag the entire game. Ban yellow gloves on Honey Badgers! (And Travis Kelce, too. He also had ‘em.)
23. So what’s next for the most frustrating 10-3 team you’ll ever see, one that still has the heart but may not have the talent? Well, they’re on to Cincinnati. C’mon, you knew it was coming.