There is a Chinese science-fiction novel called The Three-Body Problem that has become immensely popular in the United States and around the world. The story is about an alien civilization that invades Earth in an attempt to find a more stable climate (LOL, just wait until they see what we’ve done with the place).
Unlike Earth, the alien’s home planet revolves around three suns instead of one. Their suns move like this:
Earth follows a standard elliptical path around its one sun, but this alien planet gets passed back and forth between three, and the chaos causes the climate to fluctuate wildly. The winters are extremely cold, the summers are extremely hot, and the temperatures go from one end of the spectrum to the other with little warning. Living there sucks, is the point. The aliens decide they’d rather leave than figure out how to fix it.
The Chiefs are not an alien invading force (I think), but they do present their own three-body problem for other NFL teams. Kansas City has three offensive stars with so much gravity that they make life difficult for anyone in their orbit. And as the team’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances show, no defense has successfully figured out how to overcome their pull.
The Chiefs’ pass catchers are always open. It is a marvelous thing to watch. Patrick Mahomes is great, and we often see him make amazing throws. But when the camera moves downfield, the target of Mahomes’s pass is usually wide open.
Mahomes is skilled enough to thread passes through the eye of a needle, but he rarely needs to. Just 11.4 percent of Mahomes’s intended receivers were within 1 yard of a defender this season. That was the third-lowest number among all qualified quarterbacks, per Next Gen Stats. Either the Chiefs take social distancing more seriously than every other NFL team, or they are doing something nobody can defend. The answer is the latter.
As rule changes in the NFL have made it harder to play physical defense, the sport has started to look a lot more like modern basketball. Both prize spacing above all else, and both use their stars to create confusion and mismatches. Take Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden for example. All three can score from anywhere on the court, so any time they step on the floor, defenders gravitate toward them. Football works the same way. Throughout his career, Randy Moss had the gravity to pull defenders with him merely by lining up on one side of the field or the other. Where the Chiefs differ, though, is that they have three offensive stars who all have similar levels of pull.
Travis Kelce is the league’s biggest slot receiver. Tyreek Hill is the league’s fastest player. Patrick Mahomes is the league’s most talented player, and one of its smartest quarterbacks. Alone, each of them has enough gravity to influence defenders, tilting the field in their direction. But let head coach Andy Reid put these stars into orbit at the same time and a completely new, unpredictable system emerges: a three-body problem.
The reason the three-body problem is a problem is because it is unpredictable. There are too many interrelated forces to figure out what will happen next. Kansas City’s offense poses the same challenge.
It starts with Kelce. Kelce is listed as a tight end on the roster, but the Chiefs don’t keep him around to block. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Kelce is the league’s biggest slot receiver. Guarding him one-on-one in man coverage is impossible. He’s too big for most cornerbacks and safeties, and too fast for linebackers. Even the small handful of players who can match Kelce’s speed and size get turned around by his elite route-running. Here’s a play from the AFC championship game, when Kelce dusts Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, a first-team All-Pro who’s widely considered one of the NFL’s best defenders.
Again, White is an elite cornerback, but almost nobody can guard Kelce in man coverage. The next logical option for a defense would be to try zone coverage, but that doesn’t really work either. The key to beating zone is to find the empty spots between defenders (seams) and stay there until the quarterback throws you the ball. To do that, you have to identify what kind of coverage the defense is in and get to the right spot. Kelce played quarterback in high school and has a great knack for finding those gaps.
“[Kelce’s] understanding of coverages and how he runs routes is special,” Mahomes told ESPN’s Adam Teicher in November. “I think that’s the best thing about his game. Obviously, he’s physically gifted and he’s a mismatch for guys on the field—linebackers, corners, whoever it is.
“But the way that he’s able to run routes versus coverages and adjust his routes to be right in the right spot at the right time is special. It’s something that helps me out a ton. … It’s stuff that not everybody understands. I think it’s just him thinking like a quarterback and understanding the whole concept of the play by getting other people open and getting himself open when he needs to get open.”
So if one-on-one and zone coverages aren’t viable options to defend against Kelce, the only remaining answer is to double him. But defenses can’t do that because of Tyreek Hill.
Hill is the fastest player in the NFL. Nobody can stay with him one-on-one. The Buccaneers, who will match up against the Chiefs on Sunday, found that out the hard way in Week 12. Tampa Bay started the game playing cornerback Carlton Davis one-on-one with Hill. Whoopsie. Hill had 203 receiving yards in the first quarter. Defending Hill is a lose-lose situation. If you don’t give him space, he’ll catch a lot of deep passes. Give him space, and he’ll catch a lot of short passes. The only answer is to double him. But you can’t do that because of Kelce. Defenses are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Then you add in Mahomes and things get even harder.
We know a lot about Mahomes’s arm, but Mahomes beats most teams with his brain. At 25 years old, he processes and tricks defenders like someone who is 10 years older. In zone coverage, defenders rely on reading the eyes of the quarterback to know where the ball is going and when. But Mahomes already knows how to manipulate defenders with his eyes. Even when a cornerback or safety is in the correct spot, he can move them with his head or a pump fake like a Jedi mind trick. Take this play from the AFC championship game, as pointed out in an excellent post from The Athletic’s Seth Keysor.
“What are you supposed to do if you’re [Tremaine] Edmunds?” Tony Romo said on the CBS broadcast after seeing that angle. “We’re saying stay in your zone. But [Mahomes] is looking left. He goes right. Pumps it. And you’re like, ‘He’s for sure throwing there.’ Nope! Then he goes back left again.”
Mahomes, Kelce, and Hill are all field-bending players in their own right, but Reid aligns these stars into constellations. Reid’s go-to move is having Hill run diagonally across the field. As Romo eloquently explained during the Chiefs-Browns divisional-round game two weeks ago, that is Kansas City’s most effective play. Here, Hill lines up on the left and runs diagonally to the right.
Hill has 10 touchdowns on crossing routes since 2018, the most in the league during that time, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Those crossing routes are most effective when the Chiefs put Kelce and Hill on opposite sides of the field. Specifically, Kansas City’s best formation is when Kelce is alone on one side of the field, and Hill is on the opposite side with two other receivers (a three-by-one formation where Kelce is on an island).
Take this example from the same game against the Browns. Kelce is in one-on-one coverage at the bottom of the screen with Browns cornerback Denzel Ward. Ward is no slouch. He is Cleveland’s best cornerback and a former top-five draft pick. But Kelce absolutely dusts him on the route. Ward falls down, and Kelce barrels into the end zone for a touchdown.
There are two key elements here. First is the play design. Hill runs a deep route directly to the goal post (the diagonal route). That draws the safety toward him, leaving Kelce in one-on-one coverage. Once the Chiefs get that matchup, it’s over for the defense. It’s not rocket science, but it works. And Kansas City isn’t afraid to run variations of this over and over again.
Reid also likes to create situations in which Kelce and Hill are going against three defenders: one defender guards Hill, one guards Kelce, and one has to pick who to double-team. This is the defense picking its poison. The Chiefs don’t care whether Kelce or Hill gets left in one-on-one coverage, because either will probably win the matchup and be wide open. And if both get doubled, then a third option is wide open.
Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst, says there are defensive schemes that can stop the Chiefs offense—in theory. Sure, splitting the deep part of the field into four parts for four defenders (quarters coverage) might work. “There’s a way to defend it,” Bowen says. “But that’s easier said than done. You can draw it on the chalkboard, but everything melts when you’re out there in full speed and Tyreek Hill is running at you.”
The few times that defenses have managed to cover both Hill and Kelce, it still wasn’t enough. When the Bills played the Chiefs in Week 6, they successfully wrangled both Hill and Kelce for stretches. But this is where Mahomes comes in. On this second-and-13 play, Mahomes immediately realizes the play is dead, so instead of forcing a throw, he scrambles to get 8 yards.
The Bills are playing near-perfect defense here, but Mahomes makes such a quick decision that he gains 8 yards anyway. On the next play, the Bills once again play excellent coverage, but Mahomes scrambles to get nearly 5 yards on third-and-5. The Chiefs scored a touchdown on the next play. Buffalo completely sold out to stop Hill and Kelce in that game, playing the safeties and linebackers abnormally far back and daring the Chiefs to run. And when that happened, Kansas City ran 46 times for 245 yards, the largest rushing total the Chiefs have ever had under Reid. Like an alien planet going from summer to winter in the blink of an eye, a defense can stop the Chiefs passing game only to get obliterated on the ground.
The easiest way to attempt to topple the Chiefs is to hope they beat themselves. Special teams miscues and early game mishaps have been a theme throughout Kansas City’s recent postseason performances. But the offense has been so good that none of it has mattered. In their past two seasons, the Chiefs have overcome deficits of 24, 10, 10, and nine points in the playoffs.
Kansas City’s margin of error was pretty thin late in the 2020 regular season: The Chiefs won their last seven games (not counting Week 17) by three, three, six, six, three, four, and two points, respectively. That didn’t inspire a lot of confidence—unless you saw them play. Banking on the Chiefs to come into the Super Bowl and beat themselves is a wish, not a plan. Tampa Bay’s best hope is to isolate one of Kansas City’s stars and alter his orbit.
That won’t be easy. The Bucs know better than to put Hill in single coverage again. Which means the game comes down to how much the defense can affect Mahomes and Kelce. Tampa Bay has perhaps the league’s best defensive line, led by pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett. Meanwhile, Kansas City’s offensive line is banged up. The unit is down both starting tackles (Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher) and its starting left guard (Kelechi Osemele). Then they moved starting right guard Andrew Wylie to right tackle, so both of Kansas City’s guards are backups, too. The only player starting in the same position as Week 1 is center Austin Reiter. This is a ragtag group of late-round draft picks and veteran castoffs going against one of the fastest, most athletic, and complicated defenses in the sport.
The other key for the Buccaneers is how they guard Kelce. Usually, Kelce is too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. But the Bucs have some of the most physical defensive backs and some of the fastest linebackers in the NFL. If any team can muster enough variety to guard him, it’s Tampa Bay. Rookie cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. is expected to return for this game, which will help the Bucs secondary in a huge way. The last time these teams played, Carlton Davis was shredded by Hill, but perhaps he’d do better against Kelce. It would also help if the Bucs deployed a second defender near the line of scrimmage—like linebacker Devin White—to bump Kelce near the line of scrimmage and then blitz, especially if a defensive lineman drops into coverage to confuse Mahomes.
None of this will fully solve the Chiefs offense. Trying to do that is like trying to stop gravity itself—all gains are temporary. But if the Bucs can knock Mahomes and Kelce off their path, the problem becomes solvable. If not, the Chiefs will win back-to-back Super Bowls and become the NFL’s reigning dynasty. Maybe the NFL’s other 31 teams should start looking for a different planet.