There may be a learning curve for New England's offense without Julian Edelman after all.
For the first time since 2000 — in Bill Belichick's very first game as a head coach for the Patriots — New England lost its season opener at home. The Kansas City Chiefs rolled up 21 straight points in the fourth quarter stun the Patriots, 42-27, evaporating any chance for a perfect season before it had hardly even begun.
The 42 points allowed were the most by the Patriots in the Belichick era.
Despite committing an unfathomable 15 penalties for 139 yards, Kansas City spoiled the unveiling of New England's fifth Super Bowl banner at Gillette Stadium thanks to one of the best games of quarterback Alex Smith's career and a breakout performance from rookie running back Kareem Hunt.
Smith, labeled as a "game manager" for much of his career after being drafted first overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, threw for 368 yards — the second highest total of his 13-year career — and four touchdowns, also the second-best mark of his career. Smith finished 28 for 35 with a passer rating of 148.6.
Hunt was filling in as featured back for Spencer Ware, an integral part of the Chiefs' offense who, like Edelman, was also lost for the season to a knee injury.
The rookie out of Toledo University could not have had a more miserable start to the game than by losing a fumble on the very first carry of his NFL career. But Hunt's response may well have been the difference in the game, as he exploded for 246 all-purpose yards (148 rushing, 98 receiving) and three touchdowns.
Tom Brady, playing in his first game as a 40-year-old, completed just 16 of 36 passes for 267 yards and took three sacks for 20 yards. He didn't throw an interception, but he also failed to throw a touchdown pass.
In flashes, the Patriots offense operated smooth as ever even without the services of Edelman. The team seamlessly glided in for a touchdown on its first possession of the season with a nine play, 73-yard drive that took less than three minutes.
Yet even in building up an initial 17-7 lead, the engine stalled out far too often for the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski was targeted three times in the first quarter, but came up with no receptions in the period. He finished the game with two catches for 33 yards.
Chris Hogan — expected by many to take Edelman's place in the slot — was targeted four times for the game and didn't record a catch until the fourth quarter. He did have four carries in the game on end around plays.
Danny Amendola was having a fine game (six catches, 100 yards) slotting in to Edelman's role prior to entering concussion protocol in the fourth quarter. He did not return.
And then there's Malcolm Mitchell, who was placed on injured reserve Thursday with a knee injury and will miss a minimum of eight weeks. A once-stacked receiving corps for the Patriots is now among the most glaring question marks on the team.
“We're going to have to do a better job, and he's not coming back,” Brady said after the game. “So, the guys that are in there are going to have to do a good job. Every position that we have is going to have to do a better job than we did tonight. There was nothing really positive about anything that was done, so we've got to get back to work. We've got nine days before the next game, and hopefully we play a lot better than tonight.”
Trailing 21-17 midway through the third quarter, Dont'a Hightower exited the game with a knee injury to weaken an already beleaguered Patriots front seven. On the following two plays, the much-ballyhooed New England secondary rose to the occasion on ensuing plays to pick up the slack.
Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore — each of whom had been targeted on Kansas City touchdowns earlier in the game — came up with pass defenses to force the Chiefs to punt.
Aided by a 26-yard pass interference penalty, Mike Gillislee capped off a brief three play, 54-yard drive which followed to put the Patriots back on top with his third rushing touchdown of the game.
A three-and-out followed for the Chiefs, returning momentum firmly to the New England sideline.
It felt like the Patriots were ready to put the game away this time, especially after Brady finally connected on a deep ball with Brandin Cooks for 54 yards to move the Patriots deep into Kansas City territory.
But once again, the drive came to a halt before crossing the goal line. Stephen Gostkowski connected for his second field goal to give New England a 27-21 lead, but Smith responded for the Chiefs with his second touchdown pass of 75 yards or more in the game. He capitalized on a gargantuan mismatch in coverage between Hunt and defensive end Cassius Marsh, with Hunt outrunning Marsh and a slew of other defenders all the way to the end zone. Cairo Santos added the extra point to give Kansas City a narrow 28-27 lead, but it was a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
Trailing once again, the Patriots didn’t exactly have a resounding response. For the second time in the game, the team failed on a fourth down conversion — this time from the Chiefs 40-yard line. Gillislee, the ball carrier on each failed fourth-down conversion, was quickly smothered by a Kansas City defensive line that generated a great push all night long in short-yardage situations.
The Chiefs went up eight points on Hunt's second rushing touchdown of the game with 5:14 to go in the fourth quarter. Kansas City put the finishing touches on the stunner with a 21-yard score for Charcandrick West with 4 minutes even to go. West’s run was preceded by a 58-yard gain for Hunt on the ground.
Brady was sacked twice as New England grasped for air on its final drive, effectively ending opening night with a whimper.
“I just think we need to have more urgency and go out there and perform a lot better,” Brady said. “That is a winning attitude and a championship attitude that you need to bring every day. We had it handed to us on our own field. It's a terrible feeling, and the only people that can do something about it are in that locker room. We've got to dig a lot deeper than we did tonight because we didn't dig very deep tonight.”
The Patriots travel to New Orleans to play the Saints a week from Sunday on Sept. 17 at 1 p.m.