The Kansas City Chiefs have a big problem and no idea how to solve it.
Their offense -- which dominated the NFL with explosive plays and creative concepts through the first five weeks of the season -- has stopped working. Kansas City gained 236 total yards in Sunday's 16-10 home loss to the Buffalo Bills. This just one week after losing to the New York Giants.
You don't want to lose to the Giants. The only other team to lose to the Giants this season is the Denver Broncos, who did it in Week 6 and haven't won since. It's possible that a loss to the Giants is to a team's 2017 season what Mrs. O'Leary's cow was to 1871 Chicago. We'll find out when and if the Chiefs get this thing turned back around.
The question is whether they can. Kansas City's offensive struggles aren't rooted in injury or personnel deficiencies or even in Alex Smith, really. The root of the Chiefs' current issue is that opponents keep defending them the same way, and they can't overcome it.
The Bills kept both safeties deep for much of Sunday's game, allowing the Kansas City offense to unfold in front of their defense and reacting accordingly to cut off the big play. Cover 2 isn't the most common of looks for the 2017 Bills, but it's an awfully common one for the Chiefs' opponents over the past two months.
"We've played some teams that show a very low percentage of Cover 2 in their other games and then they've popped to that against us," Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. "We have Cover 2 beaters, but conversely, if they're in Cover 2, that should open up our run game. So we need to run the ball better somehow."
Schwartz and the offensive line are taking this on themselves, shouldering the blame for the rut in which the running game finds itself. Schwartz pointed to what he described as "next-gen stats" that show how much room running back Kareem Hunt had to run early in the year vs. lately. In the first five weeks of the season, Hunt averaged 3.88 yards per carry before first contact -- the third-best figure in the NFL over that time. In Weeks 6-12, he has averaged 1.37 yards per carry before first contact -- the 41st-best figure in the league over that time.
Good for the line for taking the blame, but a lot of this is the ability of opponents to take away big plays. During the Chiefs' 5-0 start, Hunt and Tyreek Hill were lining up in all kinds of zany formations and confusing defenses with their speed and the types of plays the Chiefs were running. Andy Reid was Jean Girard to the rest of the league's Ricky Bobby -- sipping a macchiato and reading French literature while still driving his race car too fast for anyone else to catch. Problem is, he got caught, and he can't seem to catch back up.
"Just limited the big plays," Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White said after Sunday's game, as if it had been that simple all along. "A guy like Hill, they want to get him the ball in space and get him over the top. We did a great job of keeping him in front of us."
The Chiefs understand the problem. After the loss to the Giants, tight end Travis Kelce said, "Teams are running Cover 2. Until we can beat Cover 2, we're going to struggle."
But that's crazy, right? It's not as if Cover 2 was invented this year. Teams see it -- and beat it -- somewhat routinely. When you have offensive weapons the caliber of Hunt, Hill and Kelce, you should be able to figure out a way to beat it. That's why the calls to replace Smith with raw rookie first-round pick Patrick Mahomes at quarterback are too simplistic. Sure, you can make the case that the team "needs a spark" and that Mahomes might provide one. But the issue here is that Reid's offensive design has taken a punch and hasn't regained its footing yet.
Every NFL team encounters problems during the season. The teams that find ways to fight through and overcome them are the ones that win. The teams that don't are the ones that lose. Minnesota was 5-0 last season but went on to miss the playoffs. It happens. The Chiefs are still in first place in the AFC West, but they're far from home free. The Raiders and Chargers are each a game behind, and the Raiders already beat the Chiefs once. The Chargers, who started 0-4, have the look of a bully who can rough you up with elite edge rushers and slice you up with a still-game Philip Rivers, the best quarterback in the division.
The good news for the Chiefs is that they know exactly what the problem is, and exactly how teams are going to continue to try to make it worse. The bad news is that they've had time to fix it but haven't. Which makes you wonder whether they can. Kansas City has the time, it has the information and it has the players. It's up to the Chiefs' coaching staff to muster a counterpunch before it's too late.
Some other stuff we think we learned in Week 12:
Antonio Brown is better than you
One of my favorite parts of the week was the final 17 seconds of that wonderful Steelers-Packers game, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gave up all pretense and basically let everyone, including the Green Bay Packers, know he was going to Brown to win the game. As the Pittsburgh Steelers gathered at the line of scrimmage, Roethlisberger appeared to be talking only to Brown, instructing him on what he was doing and where he was going to go with the ball. He got 23 yards on the first play and 14 on the second -- both on clearly telegraphed throws to Brown, and enough to get Pittsburgh in range for the winning field goal even after losing 2 yards on a weird Le'Veon Bell catch on the drive's third play.
Due respect to Atlanta's Julio Jones, who on any given week can morph into a world-devouring superhuman, but no one plays the wide receiver position better than Brown does. His week-to-week consistency, his ability to beat a variety of coverages, his technique, his post-catch determination to find every possible yard. ... He's an artist. A technician.
I remember talking to Washington's Terrelle Pryor back in training camp, and he was raving about the time he spent working out with Brown in the offseason. He used that word, "technician." Hang on. I'll dig up the quote. Here it is:
"He's a technician, like a boxer, like Floyd," Pryor told me. "Every little thing matters, every movement matters. He's a workhorse, and it's good to see how he works. It's like a game. It means the world to him. Taking every single rep, every single cone drill very serious, and doing it at the utmost speed, fast."
When it's time to win a game in November, that summertime worth ethic shows up. You could watch Sunday and see the Steelers maybe "playing down" to an outmanned opponent, and that could well be an issue. But if it's Patriots-Steelers for the AFC in January as everyone expects it to be, the Steelers are coming armed with the best in the league at running back and receiver. And if it's close, who knows?
There's going to be at least one mediocre team in the AFC playoffs
That Dec. 17 Patriots-Steelers game in Pittsburgh could determine the No. 1 seed in the conference, but odds are both of those teams get byes. The coveted AFC playoff seed could be the No. 3, which now belongs to AFC South-leading Tennessee but could easily swing to Jacksonville if the Jags win the South or could end up in the hands of whichever team wins the West. Regardless, the No. 3 seed plays the No. 6 seed, and that No. 6 seed is a free-for-all right now involving the mediocre likes of Buffalo, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Oakland and the L.A. Chargers.
The team in the No. 6 spot for now is 6-5 Baltimore, which means this could be the year of an 8-8 wild-card team. First-round byes are nice, but a home game against an 8-8 wild-card team sounds like a fine consolation prize.
The Rams had a good week
Seattle is a vampire, and it already has beaten the Los Angeles Rams head-to-head. So there's no resting comfortably for L.A. until the division is clinched. But Sunday mattered. If you were picking games, odds are you had this week as a pickup for the Seattle Seahawks, who got to play the San Francisco 49ers while the Rams had to host the red-hot New Orleans Saints. Seattle tapped in its six-inch putt and beat the Niners, but what the Rams did in knocking off New Orleans a week after a tough loss to Minnesota said a lot more about the state of the NFC West. Playing without Robert Woods, who has been his No. 1 receiver, Jared Goff just hummed along and delivered. He has been a revelation under new coach Sean McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, and while it obviously helped that New Orleans was dealing with injuries in the secondary, that was a huge bounce-back win for a team still trying to prove itself as a real contender. Resiliency is the kind of thing you don't know you have until you prove it.
The Rams still have to confront a three-game stretch against the Philadelphia Eagles, Seahawks and Tennessee Titans, but at 8-3 and with a one-game division lead, they're in position to cash in. And after Sunday, if it comes down to it, the Rams have the tiebreaker on the Saints for playoff seeding. Who'd have imagined writing that sentence in September?
And speaking of the NFC South race ...
Yeah, no idea. The Carolina Panthers somehow keep winning, and are tied with the Saints for first place. The Saints hold the tiebreaker because they beat Carolina head-to-head, but of course they play again Sunday in New Orleans and whoever wins that game is in the driver's seat, right?
Not so fast, say the Atlanta Falcons, who, yes, lost to the Panthers in Charlotte but haven't played the Saints yet and know a little something about finishing strong. Atlanta has won three in a row -- including one in Seattle -- since that loss to the Panthers and has four division games left.
The Falcons and Panthers each still have to play the Minnesota Vikings, who beat New Orleans in Week 1, while the Saints' only remaining non-division game is against the New York Jets, so that seems to work in the Saints' favor. But ultimately, you can't have any idea how this will turn out. The NFC South could put three teams in the playoffs. If that happens, you could end up with a scenario in which the Saints and Falcons play three games against each other in a span of five weeks, or one in which the Panthers and Falcons meet in a Dec. 31 regular-season finale and then again six or seven days later in the wild-card round. Zany stuff.