Over the last five-plus seasons with the sorcery of Patrick Mahomes, what looked like late-game predicaments often morphed into magic for the Chiefs.
So much so that you could almost expect the preposterous. And even figure they had their opponent right about where they wanted them when they were facing, say, a 27-19 deficit with 1 minute, 9 seconds left as they were on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
But that’s not how it is or how it feels any more.
Belief has been replaced by skepticism. Or at least reality.
Because now you know you can’t expect those routine fantasy endings from the Chiefs (8-4) anymore.
Not that there wasn’t still hope late Sunday ... and still for this season.
And not that they Chiefs couldn’t have cut it to 27-25 and possibly tied it if not for a bewilderingly negligent late officiating whiff on interference by the Packers on Marquez Valdes-Scantling — a miss so egregious it at least once and for all doused any of that nonsense about the Chiefs getting all the scripted breaks.
The Chiefs didn’t lose because of that, though.
Technically, they lost because of another set of blunders in the red zone and, somehow, still more miscommunications in the passing game and because a defense so stalwart all season finally blinked.
More to the point, though, they lost because they are a peculiar and curious team whose identity and trajectory is indeterminate through 12 games.
Just when you thought maybe they were resuming the form we’d come to expect, the progression to mean I’d anticipated, their instrumentation is spinning so wildly now that you could say we don’t even know who they are any more.
They might still be the “it” team of the NFL, with all the appeal of Mahomes and three Super Bowl appearances in the last four seasons and the fuss over this whole Travis Kelce-Taylor Swift thing.
But they no longer possess the glowing “it” factor that so defined them through an enchanted time.
“It always comes down to the end,” Mahomes said Sunday, “and who can make the best plays at the end of football games.”
Not so long ago, that was the very essence of the Chiefs.
The Right Stuff that said they’re never out of a game, like when they became the first NFL team to rally from double-digit deficits in all three postseason games along the way to winning Super Bowl LIV. Or that enabled them to overcome the Eagles’ 24-14 halftime lead on the way to winning Super Bowl LVII.
Largely because of a decidedly diminished offense, a unit that can gain all kinds of yards but too often sputters in the red zone, they’ve drifted from a groove into a rut just when this team usually is accelerating into the stretch.
All of a sudden, the Chiefs have lost three of their last five — a stark contrast to this time of year in the previous four seasons.
In 2019, they won their final six regular-season games. In 2020, they won their last 10 before sitting starters in the final regular-season game. A year later, they won nine of their last 10 regular-season games, and last season they won 10 of their last 11 before the playoffs.
Now here they stand, fourth in the AFC and about to play host to Buffalo (6-6) as the defense comes off its worst game of the season — albeit one in which they lost two starters (linebacker Drue Tranquill, already a replacement for Nick Bolton, and safety Bryan Cook) to frightening injuries (a concussion and a grim lower-leg injury, respectively).
Meanwhile, the offense remains stranded in this odd space in which it routinely moves the ball more than 5.5-plus yards a play but is averaging more than 8 points fewer per game than the 30 a game it produced in Mahomes’ first five seasons as a starter.
Moreover, at this stage, it’s impossible to predict how the game will unfold week to week. Three weeks in a row, for instance, the Chiefs were shut out in the second half. The last two weeks, they’ve fallen behind by double digits in the first half.
Then again, there is at least one constant: Mahomes and this group of receivers simply aren’t in sync overall. It’s hard to watch, really, especially after the generally spectacular choreography of the pass game in his time with the Chiefs.
For all the strides rookie Rashee Rice has made, it’s baffling — and exasperating — that second-year man Skyy Moore and Marquez Valdes-Scantling don’t have a reliable rapport with Mahomes by now. But you saw the absence of that rhythm in glaring fashion again Sunday, with Mahomes’ deep miss to Valdes-Scantling and the crucial interception Mahomes threw when Moore stopped running.
Add it all up, and it comes down to this:
The Chiefs remain a fine team but are more flawed than recent versions of themselves and thus have much less margin for the considerable errors they make — like three sacks and a holding penalty on their two first-half drives into the red zone.
So the task remains what it has for a while now: They’re free to stand or fall based on shoring up the self-inflicted issues … that they keep inflicting on themselves.
Starting right about now.
“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be at …” Mahomes said, later adding, “So we’re kind of in the ‘go zone’ now, where we’ve got to try to get it going through the stretch.”
But until it’s regenerated, without the same sort of magic and aura of invincibility that animated them for so long.