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Jaguars admit Chiefs looking like AFC’s top contender

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The visitors’ locker room at Arrowhead Stadium is small and cramped, with short ceilings and drab white walls adorned by old, wooden lockers. It has a bandbox feel that prompts visiting players to flee toward the team bus as soon as possible.

Yet, in the aftermath of the Kansas City Chiefs’ 30-14 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday, several Jaguars defenders lingered on the defensive side of the room – which is separated from the offense by a wall of lockers – long after most of the media had left, talking openly about the game as they dressed. They just had to talk about what they’d experienced. For months, the Jaguars had thought of themselves as Super Bowl contenders – as the next man up, of sorts – in the AFC. And after losing to the New England Patriots in the conference championship game eight months ago, they were convinced they would go back this year, not only bigger and badder but also ready, finally, to take the crown from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

And who knows, maybe they still will.

But on this wet, dreary Sunday in the nation’s heartland, you could absolutely say that Kansas City officially put Jacksonville on notice, Captain Phillips-style. Because during a year when the AFC can safely be described as wide open, the Chiefs left little doubt that it is now Kansas City – not Jacksonville – that is the captain now.

And get this: Even the Jaguars – an immensely proud bunch with no shortage of talent or swagger on their top-ranked defense – will tell you that.

“If I was a betting man, I’d say that in years past, the AFC championship definitely has to go through Foxborough,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “But [this year] it’s coming through here.”

And why does he think that?

“We came here with all this hype, talking about how good we are as a defense, myself included,” Gipson said, “and we got drug out there – straight drug.”

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (center) celebrates a TD during the first half of Kansas City’s victory over the Jaguars. (AP)

Jacksonville actually outgained the Chiefs 502-424, but it’s not hard to see why Gipson feels that way. This is what happens in the NFL when an offense reaches the cusp of being generational, like the ’98 Vikings, ’99 Rams or ’07 Patriots; when an offense goes to that place – where everyone, even the defenders, know they’re seeing something special – it makes proud men speak with the type of hyperbole that reflects the brilliance they just faced.

“In my opinion, that was probably the best offense in the NFL, the way they were able to go up and down the field on us and drive on us, which no one was able to do the last few years,” safety Barry Church said.

The Chiefs even took a 30-7 lead early in the fourth quarter despite their top-ranked offense – which had been roaring along like a brand-new Ferrari through the first four games of the season – performing more like a Ford Mustang (albeit one more in line with the 1969 Mach 1 that John Wick drove).

Kansas City buried Jacksonville despite the Jags making Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes – everyone’s quarter-season MVP – look somewhat mortal. The rifle-armed 23-year-old still made some ridiculously good throws while completing 22 of 38 passes for 313 yards, but he also threw his first interception of the season in the second quarter and another in the fourth, with the latter coming when the game had long been decided.

Not that either had an effect on the Jaguars’ impression of the second-year star.

“We’ve just got to get pressure on the quarterback,” Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye said. “He was able to extend plays … in my opinion, he reminds me a lot of Aaron Rodgers, because that’s what Aaron Rodgers is so good at, extending plays and still looking downfield.”

“He’s growing fast,” defensive end Calais Campbell said.

Bouye even noted one play where Mahomes converted a third-and-long, despite underthrowing his receiver.

“That just shows you how good he is,” Bouye said.

It also shows how good the Chiefs’ play-calling is, and make no mistake about it, that stood out, too. In past years, defenders have respected the Chiefs’ schemes due to the brilliance of coach Andy Reid, but they were able to counter it since they knew their former starter, Alex Smith, didn’t always pull the trigger on deep balls.

The same, however, cannot be said for Mahomes, who often connects on the schemed-up uppercuts Reid has designed for Mahomes’ Greatest Show on Turf-like supporting cast, starring Pro Bowlers at running back (Kareem Hunt), tight end (Travis Kelce) and receiver (Tyreek Hill).

“I’ve never played an offense with that many weapons,” said Gipson, who faced the Chiefs with the Browns in 2015 and with the Jaguars in 2016. “Maybe [Reid] didn’t pull out all the stops [then], but this game plan, man, I can’t say enough. I’ve never seen a team do that to us consistently, and they had their way with us all game.”

If the Chiefs are going to fully capitalize on what looks to be a special year – and thus fully capitalize on the offense’s generational potential – the defense will have to be better. Their performance Sunday was a good start.

They harassed Blake Bortles repeatedly, sacking him five times and hurrying him 11 others, and picked him off four times, too, though one of those – which landed into the arms of a Chief after the ball slipped out of Bortles’ hand and hit an offensive lineman – was so comical that even Mark Sanchez was sitting at home, somewhere, laughing.

However, no one on the Jaguars’ defense was about to start blaming their mistake-prone offense for the loss, not after the bruises that had just been inflicted by Mahomes, Reid and company.

“Can’t be too concerned about what’s happening on offense when we come out and get drug like that,” Gipson said. “Nobody’s confidence has wavered … we just know we got our butts kicked today and that’s part of the NFL.”

The Chiefs did that against the odds, given the strength of the Jaguars’ defense, which features no shortage of blue-chip players. Theoretically, the Chiefs should have an easier time next Sunday, when they head into Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots and their 16th-ranked defense.

But everybody knows the Patriots are exceedingly tough to beat at home, and while they lack the Jaguars’ defensive talent, they have football’s best defensive mind in Belichick. If there’s any defensive concept that Mahomes and this offense will struggle with, Belichick will find it. If it works, you can expect the rest of the NFL to copy it in an effort to limit the league’s highest-scoring offense.

If the Chiefs lose and figure out whatever weakness Belichick finds quickly – or they roll and win anyway – one could argue that there’s no stopping this team.

The Jaguars, however, aren’t ready to concede that. By the time the Chiefs’ statement win was over, Bouye had already told Kelce the Jaguars would see them again in the playoffs, and several players from a strong defense stood in that cramped visitors locker room and vowed the same thing to anyone who would listen.

“I’m not gonna go and say they’re better than us, but they beat us today,” inside linebacker Telvin Smith said. “We see ’em again, we’ll see what happens.”

“They’re the No. 1 offense in the league and we’re definitely, in my opinion, gonna come back here for a playoff game,” Church said.

“They’re playing like the best team in the AFC and the road to the Super Bowl is probably gonna come through here if they keep this pace up,” Gipson said. “And if it comes down to it, next time we’ll be ready.”

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