When the Chiefs in February played in their third Super Bowl in four seasons, and won their second in that span, it set the stage for them to pursue the first NFL repeat title in nearly two decades. As the instant favorites, no less.
And since the advent of the Patrick Mahomes Era, they’ve been so good for so long that they’ve earned heaping helpings of benefit of the doubt.
So it’s been only natural to keep figuring that, even with each exasperating step back this season, two forward are imminent. Or that they’re just a tweak or two away from finding themselves even as they’ve been increasingly trending toward being unable to overcome their liabilities and self-inflicted mistakes.
That’s why we’ve been rationalizing week by week in this space — albeit going from they’re still in fine shape after a season-opening loss to the Lions; to it’s probably just a blip when they fell to the Broncos; to well, there’s no shame in losing to the Eagles; to they can still fix this after last week’s loss to the Packers.
Then came the agonizing 20-17 loss to the visiting Bills on Sunday in a game that will be forever remembered for a mesmerizing potential game-winning play erased by Kadarius Toney lining up offside — a spectacle that evoked the Dee Ford offside in the AFC Championship Game five seasons ago.
Also indelible will be the attached fury of Mahomes raging on the sideline, and normally restrained coach Andy Reid with a tremor in his voice calling the play “a bit embarrassing” to the NFL itself.
“You don’t want to be talking about this stuff after the game,” said Mahomes, who called the lateral downfield from Travis Kelce to Toney a “legendary moment.”
Instead, it’s a mere asterisk at best after Toney unquestionably lined up offside — only to be denied, as Reid and Mahomes stressed, the customary warning an official can extend in such situations.
The moment was crushing, to be sure. And even if by the strict letter of the rule it was indeed a penalty, it’s particularly hard to accept a week after the Chiefs’ loss to the Packers was accented by one of the most incompetent and negligent missed pass interference calls I’ve ever seen.
As the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. And that’s the prevailing anthem of plenty of Chiefs fans on social media, and it’s easy to understand why they feel that way.
But all of that noise obscures the broader story of the day:
It’s not that the fix is in; it’s that the Chiefs just aren’t fixing themselves.
That’s why they lost for the fourth time in six games, leaving them 8-5 — as many losses as they’ve ever had with Mahomes at quarterback, and with four games yet to play.
That left them two games behind Baltimore (10-3) in the critical race for the No. 1 seed and a first-round playoff bye, with Miami (9-3 entering its Monday night game) also a factor. For that matter, it leaves them just a game ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West.
Most to the point, though, it left them adrift because of what the controversial ending will eclipse.
In what was a swing game for their season against a Buffalo team that was 6-6 coming in, the Chiefs once again continued to flash their fundamental flaws when just playing sound football was all they needed to do.
From the get-go: Their first series of the game was a microcosm of the season and a foreshadowing of what was to come Sunday.
Almost seamlessly, they moved 45 yards on seven plays … only for Mahomes’ lob into the left flat to be tipped and intercepted by Buffalo’s A.J. Epenesa.
So by day’s end, the Chiefs were about on par with their fine season-long average of moving the ball 5.6 yards a play. But they had only 17 points to show for it, in part because they committed two more turnovers to give them 22 for the season — among the most in the NFL — and now have a minus-seven ratio for the season.
That’s pacing for their worst since Reid took over as coach in 2013, though it’s notable that they won the Super Bowl last season after being minus-three in the regular season.
The Chiefs also mirrored their season to date, and reiterated who they’ve become until proven otherwise, at about every turn.
Every time they’d start to get traction or momentum against the Bills, it dissolved rapidly.
With Buffalo leading 14-0 in the second quarter, Mahomes put the ball in Richie James’ hands for a would-be first down on second and 18. James couldn’t hold on, but a play later Mahomes found Travis Kelce for 23 to convert the third and 18.
That hearkened to some of the magic that’s been missing, and it had the earmarks of a revived drive. But Toney dropped a pass on second and 12, and Mahomes had another apparent miscommunication with Marquez Valdes-Scantling .... and the drive evaporated.
We could go on with the usual suspects, from another turnover (a fumble by Rashee Rice) to more drops to costly penalties to a three-and-out dud drive midway through the fourth quarter after a strong defensive stand.
With the score tied at that point, a point of the game that belonged to them not long ago, the Chiefs held the ball for less than a minute before punting.
That led to what proved to be the game-winning drive for a field goal by the Bills — enabled in part by an illegal contact penalty by Jaylen Watson that offset a third-and-10 sack by George Karlaftis and gave the Bills a first down at the Chiefs’ 22 with 2 minutes, 12 seconds left.
All of that, and plenty more, explains this loss more than the spectacular play that we’ll always remember and didn’t count.
In fact, the game was more or less rinse, lather, repeat of all the self-defeating patterns we’ve been seeing.
Sure, there could yet be time to mend some of these ways. But the Chiefs effectively keep saying “starting … now,” and not getting it done.
So we’re left to wonder not just where the mystique has gone, or who they are anymore, but whether this season’s edition is just missing what it takes to be a legitimate postseason threat.
Only time will tell, and we learned a long time ago never to count out a Mahomes-led team.
But the benefit of the doubt has faded out for this season. The burden of proof is on the Chiefs now in a way it hasn’t been since Mahomes’ arrival changed everything.