The Kansas City Chiefs understand all the potential hurdles that come with being defending Super Bowl Champions -- the lost hunger resulting from a dream fulfilled, the emotional drain of an intense journey, the long-term impact of an offseason in perpetual celebration. Today, things just got even more real. This is a team that adopted the mantra "run it back" as it embarks on an attempt to claim back-to-back titles. If that actually does happen, then the Chiefs' schedule indicates that they will have earned every last bit of that desired glory.
The first two months of this season are going to tell us everything we need to know about how prepared Kansas City is to be the hunted. The Chiefs' first seven games include four against teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2019. They will play just three contests at Arrowhead Stadium before the calendar turns to November. And if you think the back end must be easier, consider this: Of the four NFC South opponents Kansas City will face this year, the two toughest will come on the road as well (against Tampa Bay in Week 12 and New Orleans in Week 15).
That's the type of gauntlet that only the most focused and talented of teams could weather. It's not simply that the Chiefs are taking on some of the league's best. It's that most of those teams will be coming at them in waves, without much room for relief. Even the AFC West -- which Kansas City has won four straight years -- is going to offer more of a test this fall. Every division rival has spent this offseason beefing up on defense and adding as many weapons as possible to counter all the firepower the Chiefs' offense brings to the table.
All those opponents know Kansas City is coming into this season intent on a repeat, even if that has only happened once this century (when New England claimed Super Bowl wins in the 2003 and 2004 seasons).
"I think as a team, a lot of the time when you win that Super Bowl, you kind of relax because you feel like you've done it," Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said during a recent video press conference. "You went out there and accomplished the goal and you relax a little bit that offseason. But I think with our team, the little bit of difference that I think we have is that it feels like every single guy on our team, once we won the Super Bowl -- we definitely celebrated for a week or two -- (and then after) it was that mindset that we're going to get back after it. We want to do this again."
The Chiefs should feel good about their roster heading into this season. They currently are bringing back 20 of 22 starters from that 2019 squad, largely because the franchise received some good fortune along the way. Wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson remained with the team because the free agent market wasn't especially favorable to veterans at that position. The same was true for cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who was a valuable member of an improved secondary but agreed to a one-year deal after finding nothing better in free agency.
The Chiefs found the first round of the draft much to their liking, as well. Instead of addressing more pressing defensive needs like cornerback or linebacker, Kansas City tabbed LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire as the next weapon to help Mahomes operate the league's most explosive offense. The only major question surrounding the Chiefs at this stage -- aside from when Mahomes, entering his fourth NFL season, will receive what should be a record-setting extension -- is whether Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones will be with them. Kansas City gave him their franchise tag, but no long-term contract has been agreed upon thus far.
If the Chiefs move on from Jones, they'd have a huge problem up front. Kansas City won the Super Bowl largely because its defense morphed from a weakness into a strength during the second half of last season. Without Jones -- and with a suspension looming for Breeland as the result of a substance abuse violation (as well as potential discipline from a recent arrest) -- that road to repeating will be even more daunting. It's not like the Chiefs are the only team in the NFL that can score points in bunches.
The Ravens averaged a league-best 33.2 points per game in 2019 and figure to be more dangerous on defense (after adding defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe in free agency and drafting LSU linebacker Patrick Queen in the first round). Tampa Bay already is thinking Super Bowl after adding Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski this offseason, while the Saints have been one of the most complete teams in football over the last three years. Even the Houston Texans -- yes, that same bunch that has baffled countless people with the recent personnel moves of head coach Bill O'Brien -- scored 62 points in two games at Arrowhead (a 31-24 regular season win and that wild 51-31 loss in the AFC Divisional Round).
"I think it's going to be exciting," said Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu when asked at a recent virtual press conference about divisional rivals loading up for Kansas City. "I'm a football player. I love to play football. I love the competition. I love that part of it. I think any time opposing teams can have exciting players on the other side, I think it's going to lift us naturally. I think we understand what teams are trying to do, what style of play they're going for."
The Chiefs don't have many players who know what it's like to defend a championship, but it helps that their head coach does. Andy Reid was an assistant for the Green Bay Packers when that franchise beat New England in Super Bowl XXXI and then lost to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII. He acknowledged in a recent video press conference that there is a certain "climb-the-ladder" attitude that comes with winning that first championship. Reid also stressed that the teams that give themselves a real shot at repeating push themselves to a higher level of excellence the following year.
What Reid realizes is that great teams fail to even return to the Super Bowl all the time. It's not as if the Philadelphia Eagles weren't loaded when they tried to repeat after winning Super Bowl LII (injuries played a huge role in derailing that goal). The Green Bay Packers were similarly stocked with talent after their championship season in 2010. They went 15-1, enjoyed a 19-game winning streak and ultimately lost to the New York Giants -- at home -- in the NFC Divisional Round.
Kansas City will come into the 2020 NFL season knowing that those teams were fully capable of winning a second straight championship before falling short. The Chiefs will sharpen their concentration and listen closely when Reid talks about the fact that "you really have to focus in on trying to be better, trying to challenge yourselves to be even greater than what you were that previous year. It's a mindset, and it starts now." Reid has been around long enough to know all the tricks involved in finding new motivations for a successful team. However, if he needs any more incentive, all he has to do is keep alluding to the same message sent by this schedule: This task will be much harder than the last.