The Chiefs’ trip to New England on Sunday makes this a fine time to visit the What Might Have Been file.
Return to 2017, the year Patrick Mahomes was drafted. The Chiefs opened that season at the Patriots.
Often, a first-round draft pick is a starter from the outset of his pro career. That was true for all three quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft: Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson.
Mahomes didn’t so much as enter a regular-season game until the Chiefs’ 2017 finale at Denver. But he was there during the pre-game ceremony for the Chiefs’ 2017 opener, when the Patriots celebrated yet another Super Bowl triumph, the fifth of six for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
“I’m glad I wasn’t playing that first game,” Mahomes said. “That would have been a tough test coming out of the gates when they’re dropping a banner.”
Instead, then-Chiefs veteran Alex Smith started at quarterback. And Smith enjoyed one of the best games of his career, throwing for 368 yards and four touchdowns — with no interceptions — as the Chiefs won 42-27.
In his first year as the Chiefs’ starter, Mahomes and KC fell twice to the Patriots, including an overtime loss in the AFC Championship Game. Mahomes improved his career record against New England to 2-2, recording regular-season victories in 2019 and 2020.
This time around, the Patriots are coming off a 21-18 victory at the Pittsburgh Steelers but stand 3-10. Still, Mahomes knows the obstacles a Belichick defense can present.
“He does everything,” Mahomes said. “He’ll take stuff he did 10-15 years ago and implement it into to the game plan that he runs now. It’s your job as a quarterback to adjust on the fly.”
Here’s what to watch in Sunday’s game, which kicks off at noon (Central) at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.:
CHIEFS PLAYER TO WATCH: GUARD JOE THUNEY
Thuney meets his old team for the the first time. He spent his first five NFL seasons with the Patriots, winning two Super Bowls. The Chiefs have improved their rushing attack in recent weeks, but running back Isiah Pacheco could miss a second straight game. The Patriots have excelled against the run this season, limiting foes to 88.2 yards per game, third in the NFL.
PATRIOTS PLAYER TO WATCH: WIDE RECEIVER JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER
Coming off a 933-yard season in Kansas City, Smith-Schuster hasn’t done much for the Patriots. His 29 receptions for 260 yards has produced one touchdown. But he’s coming off his best game of season, with 90 yards on four receptions against the Steelers.
Quarterback Bailey Zappe, set to make his third start in place of Mac Jones, was solid at Pittsburgh, too.
“He’s an elite competitor,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said of Smith-Schuster. “And he’ll be hungry against his former team.”
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER TO WATCH: CHIEFS RETURN SPECIALIST RICHIE JAMES
Except for a pair of fumbles, the Chiefs’ punt-return operation has been productive. James is the latest to handle return duties and brought one back for 25 yards against the Bills. James, who missed eight games with an injury, also has a reception in each of the last two games.
THE COACHING GIANTS
Belichick owns 301 regular-season victories, which ranks third among head coaches in NFL history. Andy Reid’s total of 255 ranks fourth.
Sunday marks the first meeting between coaches in the top five since Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins met Chuck Noll and the Steelers in 1990. And these two have had some great battles in their careers.
Belichick leads the head-to-head meetings 7-5 and is 3-0 vs. Reid in the postseason (including Reid’s time with the Eagles). Reid leads the regular-season series 5-4.