The hallucinogenic football produced by the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs left any observer with the sensation they had just seen a watershed performance, a glimpse of the NFL’s present colliding with its future. Rams 54, Chiefs 51 left possibilities spinning in your head, forced you to reckon with the state of the sport and leave aside more earthbound ramifications. It was, as Mark Maske wrote, the new NFL in its fulsome entirety.
In the light of day, as the wooziness wears off, the way the action and results shaped the rest of the season are coming into focus. Remove the big-picture effects, and the game still carried ample meaning. Here are four takeaways from the Monday night epic.
The Chiefs can win it all. Kansas City lost in a way that in no way dims its Super Bowl aspirations. Yes, the Chiefs’ defense again surrendered an avalanche of points and yards, but it also delivered the kind of big plays defenses have to produce to have a chance. It’s more important to create turnovers than to prevent yardage, and in edge rusher Dee Ford and interior force Chris Jones, the Chiefs have a pair of players capable of changing games.
Patrick Mahomes passed for 478 yards and six touchdowns, but Monday night may become a learning exercise for the MVP candidate. He’s still in his first season as a starter, and he showed a lack of patience that comes with inexperience late in the game. In their penultimate possession, the Chiefs had plenty of time to drive, and Mahomes forced a deep pass, one of his three interceptions, while a defender hit his arm. Mahomes is too great to be desperate, even trailing at the end of games. He’ll figure it out: Andy Reid constantly mentions how Mahomes’s greatest strength is correcting the few mistakes he commits.
The Chiefs have lost to the Patriots by three and to the Rams by three, scoring 40 and 51 points on the road. They’ll be fine.
Scoring last is more important than teams are acting like it is. Endgame strategy is going to radically change, probably before coaches are ready to accept it. The Chiefs and Reid shouldn’t be blamed for not taking advantage, but they had a unique opportunity to seal the game before the final 14 points were scored.
With 4:30 left and the Rams up, 47-44, Sean McVay called his final timeout before a Chiefs’ fourth-and-2. After the Chiefs converted, they should have had a specific plan not just to score, but to score with as few seconds left as possible. That seems too cute and too risky, to try to drain the clock while trailing. But in the new environment, it’s not as risky as scoring and then giving a team like the Rams the ball back.
The Chiefs scored with 2:50 left. It sounds insane to say the Chiefs erred by scoring too fast when they were behind so late in the game, but that’s what happened. Say it again: Giving the ball back to an offense like the Rams’ is a risk. Especially with the Rams having burned all three timeouts, Kansas City had a chance to kill the clock and end the game, or come close, with possession. They had reason to be confident they would score a touchdown, and if not, at least kick a field goal. To win, teams need to rethink the endgame. The aim should be not only to take the lead, but to score last.
Here is where the counter comes: The Rams scored with 1:56 left, leaving plenty of time for Patrick Mahomes, and the Chiefs couldn’t answer because Mahomes threw a pick. That is true. But if that happened again, would you bet on the Chiefs scoring or the Rams making the stop?
The Rams can beat the Saints. The Saints are the better team, but given the number of possessions and huge plays a rematch between those teams would include, it’s going to be a toss-up. The Rams have the kind of defense needed to beat New Orleans. The Saints are scoring on 62.5 percent of their possessions, which is a mockery of historical trends. No defense is going beat them through attrition or sustained competence. But when a defense has players like Aaron Donald and a risk-taking secondary, it can make one big play to blow a drive, steal a possession or even score itself. The ability to score a pair of defensive touchdowns in a game is not a happy fluke. It’s a sign the Rams have the right kind of defense to win in 2018, whatever traditional yardage stats say.
Be like Sean McVay. Every time you hear an announcer say, “I understand you have to be aggressive, but …” the next thing he says is obsolete in the 2018 NFL. Booger McFarland admonished Sean McVay at the end of the game for passing rather than plunging into the line three times to kill Kansas City’s timeouts. McFarland was wrong. McVay was trying to end the game with his offense on the field, and that’s what every coach should try to do. Teams must engineer the game to score last. The Rams couldn’t last night, but they made the proper effort to do so.
Last year in the Super Bowl, the Eagles beat the Patriots, 41-33, as the losing quarterback threw for more than 500 yards and the teams combined for one punt. That was not an aberration. Unless and until the league rearranges the rules again, Monday night’s carnival will become not a normal occurrence, but not quite abnormal, either. It was wonderful. It was the future, and now teams must figure out how to handle it.
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