Chiefs’ loss to Colts is a reality check, but it’s hardly defining in larger picture

First, as a public service, we remind you that the last NFL team to go undefeated was the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

And that only once since, in the case of the 2007 New England Patriots, has a team reached the Super Bowl unscathed.

So unless you were Pollyanna swigging Kool-Aid on the rocks frozen with fool’s gold, you had to know that no such scenario was in play for the 2019 Chiefs.

Because for all the perfectly rational hysteria generated by the presence of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, their defense is a living, breathing asterisk that must be affixed to even the most optimistic hopes for the season after the Chiefs essentially finished a tantalizing offsides penalty and coin toss from their first Super Bowl since the 1969 season.

Trouble is, the first loss of this deliriously anticipated campaign wasn’t just because the overhauled-but-still-suspect defense couldn’t stop the Indianapolis Colts from owning the clock like Father Time himself: Running for 180 yards on 45 carries enabled the Colts to play keep-away for 37 minutes 15 seconds, including 22:11 in the second half, punctuating part of the apparent antidote against a defense that entered the game giving up more than five yards a carry.

But that 19-13 loss Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium was about a jumble of data points, including 11 penalties for 125 yards and LeSean McCoy’s fumble and Travis Kelce’s drops (and sideline pushaway of offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy before a makeup hug) and Mahomes being sacked four times (after being sacked three times through the Chiefs’ first four games) and a hideous fourth-and-1 conversion attempt with the game on the line that was stuffed by unblocked former Chief Justin Houston.

It was about the Chiefs scoring half as many points as the fewest they’d ever scored with Mahomes as their starter, not to mention now having scored just four offensive touchdowns in their last nine quarters after scoring 12 in the first 11 quarters of the season.

And it was obscured by an absurd number of injuries to compound the ongoing absence of receiver Tyreek Hill and left tackle Eric Fisher: Receiver Sammy Watkins left Sunday’s game almost instantly with a hamstring strain; defensive starters Chris Jones and Anthony Hitchens missed much of the game with groin injuries; offensive lineman Andrew Wylie and defensive lineman Xavier Williams went out with ankle injuries; and receiver Byron Pringle left the game under concussion protocol.

Even after rattling off the list, coach Andy Reid spoke truth when he said, “Listen, with that, we got beat in about every phase you can get beat in.”

They really did, right down to the coaching that produced a curious abandonment of the run game, including zero carries by McCoy.

But this game still was much more Rorschach test than clarifying moment, much more a diagnostic check than a defining statement.

If it’s not exactly “nothing to see here,” it’s also not everything to see here, either.

Feel free to panic, but why not save that for when you know more?

Let’s start with this low bar. It could have been a lot worse: Check out the frightening replay of Mahomes’ getting his ankle crunched by a teammate and limping off the field.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a little sore tomorrow,” Mahomes said.

While injuries are part of life in the NFL, Mahomes is the one player without whom Chiefs fans would be reduced from faith to despair.

Meanwhile, as much as the offense has been able to cover for the absence of Hill and Fisher, depth isn’t infinite.

With Watkins out as well, the dynamics finally were diminished.

As well as Pringle played, leading the team with six catches for 103 yards after entering the game with two in his career, the wide receiver corps Sunday consisted of Pringle, Mecole Hardman (each playing in their first NFL season) and Demarcus Robinson. And with Kelce’s night including back-to-back dropped passes, the offense was downright clogged up.

But here’s the thing: Hill, arguably the second-most pivotal player on this team behind Mahomes, will be back in the next few weeks from a shoulder injury. Kelce seldom will play this way again. Fisher’s and Watkins’ schedules are harder to read — Fisher recently had groin surgery — but it seems likely they’ll each be back within several weeks.

None of that guarantees the offense will resume its supersonic ways with Mahomes at the helm. There are no gimmes, after all, and the more there is a book on Mahomes … the more it’s being dissected by opponents hell-bent on disrupting it.

“In this league, no matter how good your offense is, you’ve got to be efficient — you’ve got to go out there and do things the right way,” said Mahomes, who still threw for 321 yards Sunday night. “You can’t just rely strictly on talent to score in this league. Defenses are coming.”

They are, indeed, and they are arriving, too, with Mahomes fortunate not to have been sacked more or injured worse.

Just the same, the Chiefs with Mahomes averaged 35.3 points per game last season. Before Sunday, they were averaging 33.75 this season.

At least based on their body of work to date, the Colts game is the outlier. Whether it’s a mere blip is another matter. We figure it takes three times to make it a trend story.

The broader question is another matter: How far can this team go with a defense that was blown up after last season, including a change in coordinators, staff, scheme and most of the starting lineup, but that clearly remains vulnerable?

If they can’t stop the run ... ruh-roh.

Unless you unreasonably expected that the Chiefs were going to go wire-to-wire without losing, the question actually remains fundamentally the same as it did before Sunday.

It’s just amplified by what at least for the time being should be considered an aberration on offense, one that helped create the sort of inevitable fluctuation that every champion since 1972 has experienced.

How the Chiefs adjust and respond — not this loss — will be what defines the season.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.