Ten days before this debacle against the previously winless Colts on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Chiefs scavenged out a 27-24 win over the Chargers that came with some contradictory implications.
The meaning of that game was in the eye of the beholder, really.
In one sense, it was a testament to grit and resourcefully whisking a win out of defeat. In another, it was laden with potential fool’s gold if the Chiefs mistook a dangling misfire by Justin Herbert turned into a game-changing 99-yard interception return as some kind of armor.
Safe to say there was no gray area to be interpreted in the Chiefs’ wretched 20-17 loss to Indianapolis.
This was an entirely rightful and well-earned defeat, because slapstick special teams play and an off-kilter offensive performance offset a largely terrific defensive game.
And because of finding a way to win, this time they did just the opposite by generating a stupefying number of critical turns in the game — including the late one by Chris Jones that was the most memorable and absurd.
Absurd because his crucial unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty gave the Colts new life instead of facing a fourth-and-14 at their own 31 with the Chiefs leading 17-14 and just under 5 minutes left.
And absurd because we are entirely left to wonder what words provoked a game-changing flag that officials later said was called because of “abusive language” directed at Colts quarterback Matt Ryan.
Asked if he could elaborate during a postgame media pool interview conducted by ESPN’s Adam Teicher on behalf of the Pro Football Writers of America, referee Shawn Smith said, “No, but it will be in our game report” to the NFL.
So unless and until that becomes public, we are left to speculate on what that means … and to what degree we might consider it appropriate. And left to wonder what was entailed in Ryan’s part of an exchange that Jones referred to as “a conversation.”
Certainly, neither of them wished to specify anything.
In his postgame interview session, Ryan said he didn’t “really know” what Jones said before later laughingly acknowledging that he knows and isn’t saying.
“Yeah, pretty much,” said Ryan, who also made it a point to say, “You’ve got to keep your cool sometimes in those situations.”
For his part, Jones said he didn’t remember what he said but that he didn’t think he said “anything vulgar or disrespectful” or, later, “horrendous.”
He was surprised by the flag, he said, emphasizing that he’d “never been flagged for talking.” He repeated that he’d felt he was in a “conversation” with Ryan. And he offered that perhaps the official simply “heard something that was loud” over other words.
But Jones didn’t dispute the call, either, saying “I just can’t say anything (in) the heat of the moment. The game is changing, so I’ve got to evolve to the game.”
And he also seemed to embrace the notion that it was entirely avoidable.
“I kind of put us in a situation to get back on the field, and then we got scored on,” he said. “And that sums up the game. So I’ll take that one. It was my fault; it was definitely my fault.”
He later said “apologize to my team” and that he takes “full blame.”
But Jones needn’t take the full blame at all.
Because even if that moment perhaps was the most indelible and was indicative of the rest of this lost day, it was one of too many problems to count that doomed the Chiefs.
That was as much from the start and throughout as toward the end, when the penalty on Jones enabled the Colts to resume the game-winning drive that culminated with Ryan’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Jelani Woods with 24 seconds left.
For starters, the entire game was framed by the special teams play.
After the Chiefs forced a three-and-out on Indy’s first drive, Skyy Moore’s muffed punt gift the Colts with a first and goal at the Kansas City 4 and unleashing an appalling day of special teams blunders.
With kicker Harrison Butker still out injured, Matt Ammendola, alas, was a liability with a missed extra point and a 34-yard field goal. His limitations would seem to also have figured in an ill-considered fourth and 11 fake field goal that resulted in an incomplete pass from holder Tommy Townsend to Noah Gray.
To say nothing of a host of other special teams miscues, such as Moore letting the bounce of a punt go over his head to pin the Chiefs at the 1, that dictated the complexion of the game.
But the offense also was more of an issue than a solution for the Chiefs, whose only two touchdowns were set up by turnovers forced by the defense that gave them great field position.
Like the special teams, the offense was balky from the start. On the first series, for instance, Patrick Mahomes overthrew Marquez Valdez-Scantling on a would-be 76-yard TD.
“If I hit that throw,” Mahomes said, it’s “probably a whole different ballgame.”
Yep. And that wasn’t the only indication of the Chiefs being out of rhythm on offense on a day when Mahomes went 20 of 35 with half the incompletions landing somewhere between maybe should have been caught and harder to catch than they should have been.
That even happened a couple times with the incredible Travis Kelce.
More notably, Mahomes and his gaggle of new targets simply aren’t in sync yet. Meanwhile, returnee Mecole Hardman (who left the field with an injury but returned shortly thereafter) had 1 catch for 2 yards and now has 7 for 67 all season.
But here’s the good news for the Chiefs:
If any of those facets of the game had been better, if any one of five or six ruinous plays had gone differently, they likely would have won this game. Heck, if they had Butker they almost certainly would have won.
Plus a defense brimming with young players has been better than expected and opportunistic, nice indicators of better days ahead.
But the biggest lesson of the Chargers game was punctuated with this loss on Sunday:
The margin for error is sparse for this team right now, leaving it as free to manufacture ways to win as ways to lose.
If you want to blame the loss on officials or on Jones, so be it.
That’s missing the point of where the Chiefs stand, though, and whether they are a work in progress … or a work in regress.
“I don’t know if you can assess how the team is yet …” Mahomes said, later adding, “We’ll see how we respond.”