The First Read, Week 6: Chiefs' troubles are real; Mike McCarthy has Cowboys rolling

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 6 of the 2021 NFL season, including:

— A rising juggernaut in the AFC

— Mike Williams’ super-hot start

— What Jaylon Smith has to offer the Packers.

But first, a closer look at a shaky start to the season in K.C. …

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This point was coming sooner or later for the Kansas City Chiefs, as it does for every team that’s been used to having its way in the NFL. Their vaunted offense is no longer exceptional enough to compensate for other flaws. A defense that has endured its share of problems throughout the Patrick Mahomes era has declined to the point that it’s now comical. Just as importantly, Kansas City’s stars aren’t producing at the same level, and the role players aren’t elevating their own games.

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The Sunday Night Football matchup between the Chiefs and Bills was supposed to tell us plenty about Buffalo and its chances of reaching the Super Bowl. We wound up learning considerably more about Kansas City after that 38-20 loss, and how bad this is likely to get. The same team that played in two consecutive Super Bowls — and won one in the 2019 playoffs — is currently a mediocre squad. The question now is whether they can regain the swagger and effectiveness that once made them great … or if they’re about to spend the postseason watching the games from their respective living rooms.

“We know that we have what it takes to be great,” said Mahomes after the Buffalo game. “We still have a lot of the players, we brought in a lot of good players that have been really good [in] other places, so we know that we have what it takes. It’s just about coming together now and finding a way to do that. We’ve had spurts here and there offensively, defensively, special teams, stuff like that. But at the end of the day, it’s about coming together as a team, because in this league, it’s not about good players, it’s about good teams.”

The Chiefs are now 2-3 and still last in the AFC West. They are tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the most turnovers in the league (11), and no defense is giving up more points than this bunch (32.6 per game). The Chiefs are learning a hard lesson about prolonged success — that opponents spend every year trying to attack you, whether that’s through the draft, free agency or schematic changes. What is on display in Kansas City these days isn’t so much the decline of the Chiefs but the rise of their competition.

The scary part for Kansas City is the Chiefs have already faced four teams that are legitimate contenders (Buffalo, Cleveland, Baltimore and the Los Angeles Chargers) and only beaten one (the Browns, in Week 1). You can say that’s a rigorous gauntlet for any team, but that’s exactly how the playoffs work. If the Chiefs can’t handle these opponents now, it’s hard to imagine them making a postseason run come January. They also have a schedule that isn’t going to ease up, as Green Bay (in Week 9), Dallas (in Week 11) and five more divisional games await.

This isn’t to say the Chiefs are done. It’s only to point out that their margin for error has become incredibly thin, while their options for improvement aren’t vast. Safety Tyrann Mathieu even questioned this team’s sense of urgency, saying, “Every team we play wants to beat us. They want to beat us bad. I think we have to understand that coming into these kind of games.”

It would be easy to explain Kansas City’s problems as simply being emblematic of the usual Super Bowl hangover that plagues teams that lose that game. This feels like more than that. The Chiefs have openly talked about wanting to build a dynasty since Mahomes became their starting quarterback in 2018, and these issues may be the consequences of that. They’ve played a lot of high-intensity football games over the last three years, which can lead to mental fatigue. They’ve also had quite a bit of roster turnover, which can result in the elevation of younger players who might not yet grasp what it takes to play championship-caliber football (see: wide receiver Mecole Hardman, whose yards-per-catch mark has declined in each of his three seasons) or the reliance on veteran additions who don’t meet expectations (see: defensive end Frank Clark, who’s had 14 total sacks since coming over from Seattle in 2019).

Whatever the factors are, the Chiefs can no longer afford to believe their problems will improve because they have the best quarterback in the game and an offense that has been stunningly prolific under Hall-of-Fame coach Andy Reid. There are plenty of other talented signal-callers blossoming all over the league, along with creative young coaches roaming the sidelines. The difference is, those teams used to wilt against Kansas City when the game’s outcome hung in the balance. Now, as Sunday night revealed, the Chiefs are the ones who are failing to rise to the occasion.

HOT READS

Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.

1) Buffalo is the most complete team in football: All questions about the Bills’ legitimacy ended with that beatdown delivered inside Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night. The only thing that is debatable today is where they rank among championship contenders. This vote has them at the top. That defense that entered the Chiefs game with two shutouts against lightweights like Miami and Houston? It looked even more impressive as it derailed Kansas City’s vaunted attack. The glaring mistakes that quarterback Josh Allen made in two losses to the Chiefs last year, including a defeat in the AFC Championship Game? There were few to be found in this contest, as he ripped the Chiefs apart with deep throws and designed runs. The Bills even forced and recovered a fumble on a kickoff, which could’ve broken this game open earlier, if the subsequent Buffalo drive hadn’t been short-circuited by penalties. In short, they resembled a team that has learned some valuable lessons from last year’s playoff loss and created an impressive game plan for how to reach and win a Super Bowl. This group isn’t just relying on Allen to lead them to victories with his brilliance. They have a more reliable running game, a strong defense and a humility that comes with knowing there’s plenty more to do beyond the first month of the season. There are other great stories in the NFL, including the Cardinals, Rams and Chargers. None of those teams are better than Buffalo at this stage.

2) Antonio Brown keeps getting better: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver became a huge X-factor for this offense during the second half of last season, and he’s been exactly that through the first month of this year. Brown has caught at least five passes in three of the four games he’s played in thus far. On Sunday, he torched the Miami Dolphins for seven catches, 124 yards and two touchdowns. Coincidentally, the Bucs also lost the only game Brown has missed this season, that 34-24 defeat to the Los Angeles Rams. Let’s not forget that it wasn’t that long ago that Brown was a toxic presence with serious off-field issues who was a member of three teams in the 2019 calendar year. He deserves credit for how he’s turned things around, but so does Bucs quarterback Tom Brady. In fact, the most impressive thing Brady has done in Tampa is help this star receiver regain and maintain his focus. There were a lot of people who wondered if Brown would work out with this franchise. Now, his impact is undeniable. This offense goes to a whole new level with him on the field.

3) Mike McCarthy deserves some respect: There’s a lot of love being thrown toward the Cowboys these days. It’s time for some of that to start moving in the direction of their head coach. It’s been trendy to bash McCarthy as the man who couldn’t win more championships with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and his first season with the Cowboys only created more ammunition for his critics. But look at what he’s doing with Dallas this year. He’s given his coordinators (Kellen Moore on offense and Dan Quinn on defense) the freedom to maximize the talent at their disposal. He’s managed the Cowboys through some difficult personnel losses on both the offense and defensive line, either because of injuries or suspensions. Sure, the clock management issues a few weeks back were glaring, but that feels like a lifetime ago, these days. The Cowboys, now 4-1, are one of the most impressive teams in the league, and they’re going to run away with the NFC East. They’re even looking like the most dangerous competitor to Tampa Bay for the conference crown. That isn’t just happening because Dak Prescott is playing at a high level, the running game is thriving and the defense has featured some rising stars. McCarthy has plenty to do with that success as well.

THREE UP

The Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver used to be a player who made his name off his athleticism, often by out-jumping defensive backs for 50-50 balls. Now he’s off to the best start of his career and looking more like a complete receiver with each passing week. Williams — who has never had more than 49 catches in either of his five previous seasons — already has four games with at least seven receptions. The 2017 first-rounder is also on pace for 105 catches and 1,601 yards, which means his timing couldn’t be better as he finishes the final year of his rookie deal. Williams was fortunate to not work out an extension during the offseason. His future price tag is ballooning with each passing week. 

It’s hard to imagine what the Saints offense would look like without their Pro Bowl running back. They haven’t had wide receiver Michael Thomas all year, as he’s still recovering from offseason ankle surgery. They’ve battled an assortment of injuries to their offensive line and limited the offense so much that quarterback Jameis Winston is averaging just 178 passing yards per game. So what’s been their best offensive strategy? Handing the ball to Kamara time and again. His 94 rushing attempts rank second in the NFL, and remember — this is a player who’s never had more than 194 carries in any of his previous four pro seasons. The Saints (3-2) literally might be winless if he wasn’t in their backfield.

You never know how many chances you’ll get to praise the Steelers on this side of the football, so let’s take advantage here. It’s not just that Pittsburgh found a way to generate some consistent offense in a win over Denver. It’s that the Steelers found success against a good defense. They ran the ball effectively with Najee Harris, gave Ben Roethlisberger enough time to make plays with his arm and unleashed wide receiver Chase Claypool. Most importantly, that much-maligned offensive line gave up only sack. This might not be sustainable — especially with a shoulder injury ending the season of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster — but at least it was a glimmer of hope.

THREE DOWN

It’s strange to even write the words that the Seahawks will be without their Pro Bowl quarterback for at least the next four weeks. Wilson has been that reliable, that consistent, that durable. Now he’s dealing with a surgically repaired finger on his throwing hand, which means Seattle can likely bid farewell to its postseason hopes. The NFC West is too strong for us to think the Seahawks can keep pace without their leader, even taking into account the encouraging performance backup Geno Smith gave in emergency duty during last Thursday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

The offensive issues in Miami are understandable, given that quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is hurt. But the defense? This was supposed to be the strength. The Dolphins have given up 138 points in four straight losses, and head coach Brian Flores is openly distressed about where this is heading. Miami has invested too much money in that side of the football to be this lousy.

God bless the Detroit Lions’ first-year head coach. He’s so passionate about turning around this franchise that he nearly cried at his press conference following the Lions’ 19-17 loss to Minnesota. We get it. Two opponents in the last three weeks have beaten the Lions on last-second field goals — including a league-record 66-yard boot by Baltimore’s Justin Tucker in Week 3 — and this team is 0-5. Now comes even worse news: The Lions have to play the Bengals and Rams next. Better keep the Kleenex close by. This isn’t getting easier anytime soon.

SCOUT’S READ

One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

Can Jaylon Smith turn around his career in Green Bay after Dallas released him?

PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR AN NFC TEAM: “If he’s healthy, he can add range and playmaking to their run defense and a good coverage athlete who can match up with all those backs in the NFC North. Again, it’s all dependent on his health and whether he’s tapered off in athleticism. He got that big contract in Dallas a couple years ago because he emerged as one of the more versatile and explosive playmakers at the position, a linebacker who could play all three downs. But you have to wonder if that knee injury he had coming out of college is starting to rob him of what he did at his best. The Cowboys clearly saw some trouble coming, because a few years ago, he was in the conversation for best inside linebacker in the game. At that time, he was a universal fit who could play the Will, Mike or as your sub ‘backer. But I also see what Dallas was thinking. They have Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch won’t cost them big if they want to keep him around, and that scheme (brought in by new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn) puts a lot of pressure on that position. I think he can help the Packers. But I also know the Cowboys don’t get rid of good players in their prime.”

MVP WATCH

A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 6 (arrows reflect movement from last week’s edition):

EXTRA POINT

My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Buffalo over Tampa Bay.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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