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Chiefs learn tough lesson in AFC title game defeat to Patriots

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs will be wise to learn a valuable lesson from their 37-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Yes, home-field advantage is nice, as is a record-setting offense and a generational talent at quarterback. What is even better is an understanding of how little things often lead to major success at this stage of the season. The Chiefs' season is now over because the Patriots still know best how to win games when they matter most.

The hardest thing for the Chiefs to accept about this game is that it could've easily gone in their favor. It didn't because they couldn't make stops at critical moments, couldn't produce enough key plays when the opportunities presented themselves and couldn't find an answer for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

"They didn't give us anything that we weren't ready for," Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford said. "It's just that their execution was so good. We executed at times, but they did it more than we did."

It's crazy to think this game was so close. The numbers suggest it should've been a blowout. The Patriots converted 13 of 19 third downs, amassed 524 yards and controlled the ball for 43 minutes and 59 seconds (compared to 20:53 for Kansas City). Even more astonishing was New England's ability to limit the Chiefs' two best pass catchers -- Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce and Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill -- to a total of four receptions for 65 yards.

When the Chiefs look back on this game, they'll regret how they trailed 14-0 at halftime. They'll wince at the fact that they scored 31 points in the final two quarters of regulation but had no answer for Brady in the fourth quarter or overtime. After winning the coin toss in overtime, the Pats' 14-time Pro Bowl quarterback calmly drove his team 75 yards on 13 plays, with running back Rex Burkhead scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 2-yard run. Brady faced third-and-10 three times in that possession and converted each one with a huge completion.

The Patriots had plenty of help along the way, including a critical offside penalty by Ford on what would've been a game-clinching interception by cornerback Charvarius Ward with 54 seconds remaining in regulation. All-Pro quarterback Patrick Mahomes also struggled to connect with his receivers in the first half (he finished with 16 completions in 31 attempts for 295 yards and three touchdowns) and faced more pressure than he's been accustomed to seeing all season (the Patriots finished with four sacks). In other words, there was plenty of blame to go around in this one.

The easy thing to do would be to simply say the Patriots were better on this day, which was their eighth straight appearance in the AFC championship game and third consecutive win in this contest. The reality is that the Chiefs are very well aware of how dangerous they've become. What they have to do now is apply the pain and experience that comes from losing in this game into motivation for next season.

As Chiefs inside linebacker Reggie Ragland said: "When you get chances to beat the G.O.A.T. (Brady is often referred to as the 'Greatest of All Time'), you have to beat him."

"You have to take in the hurt," Mahomes added. "You have to accept that it hurts and it's supposed to hurt. You put in all this work and do everything you can to get to the Super Bowl and win it. To fall short, it's going to hurt and (Chiefs head coach Andy Reid) told us to accept that."

Mahomes was pretty candid about how the Patriots succeeded in frustrating him in the first half. New England played man coverage extensively throughout the game and often assigned two defenders to shadow Kelce and Hill. That strategy led to plenty of opportunities for other Kansas City weapons -- wide receiver Sammy Watkins had four receptions for 114 yards while running back Damien Williams had 96 total yards and three touchdowns -- but the Chiefs offense didn't deliver its usual explosiveness. After a season when Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns as a first-year starter, he couldn't generate the same fast starts that had become a Kansas City trademark.

Said Reid: "They blitzed about every down. Played man coverage. They were able to get home there a little bit on some of their gains. We made a few adjustments at halftime and came back and pressured them. That's my responsibility."

The Chiefs did find their rhythm in the second half. They took a 21-17 lead after Mahomes hit Williams with a 23-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Mahomes also drove his team to a game-tying, 39-yard field goal by Harrison Butker after the Chiefs took over possession with just 39 seconds left in regulation. Everything Mahomes displayed in those moments -- that impressive combination of calmness, determination and fearlessness -- is why Kansas City fans are so thrilled about this team's future.

The tough part is that all those brilliant moments by Mahomes weren't enough in the end. The Patriots started this game by playing like a team that knew exactly what it took to get to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs opened it by looking like a squad that was trying to figure it out on the fly. That little head start proved to be the difference, and the Chiefs will see that after all the pain from this loss settles.

What they'll also understand in the coming months is that there was plenty to like about this season. Mahomes surpassed every expectation imaginable, as he's pretty much a lock to win the Most Valuable Player award. The team's core is young and dynamic -- Kelce, Hill and Watkins will be just as dangerous next year -- and the emergence of Williams was a major lift for a franchise that released Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt in late November. A defense that was abysmal for most of the year still needs improvement, but there is some talent, particularly if the Chiefs can keep the pass-rushing trio of Ford, defensive end Chris Jones and outside linebacker Justin Houston together.

Most importantly, the Chiefs have to remember the things that ultimately cost them a chance to reach their first Super Bowl since the 1969 season.

"It hurts," Mahomes said. "It hurts everybody. We knew we had the opportunities in this game and this season and we put in the work. But we know this can be a building block. We know this can be something that carries us in the future. Right now, it's the end -- but hopefully, it's just the beginning."

That is the right attitude. As brilliant as the Patriots were in winning a tough playoff game on the road, the Chiefs did score 31 points on just 47 plays. That speaks to how potent Kansas City can be when everything is clicking and how deadly that offense will be with another year of experience. K.C. unleashed Mahomes on the NFL this season and he's only going to become more deadly with time.

The other certainty with the Chiefs is that this night will be a defining moment in their journey. It didn't end the way they wanted and the sting of this defeat will linger more than any other they've endured during Reid's six years as head coach. However, they aren't the first team to learn a hard lesson from the Patriots in the playoffs. They're just now in the best position to apply that to whatever success they hope to achieve in the future.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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