This was a different kind of bitter green pill for the Jets defense to swallow.
The defense's modus operandi over the first three games was to struggle a little in the first half, feel the opponents out, then buckle down, tighten up and keep their foes out of the end zone over the last 30 minutes.
Kansas City presented another issue entirely. While the Jets D shifted its script up by 15 minutes to dominate the Chiefs and Mahomes' passing game in the middle two quarters, this time the first and fourth quarters and Mahomes' feet instead of his arm were the villains of the game in the Jets' 23-20 Sunday night loss.
"For our standard, we started off kind of slow," LB Quincy Williams said. "We came to the sideline got a lot of looks real fast, made some corrections and fell back on our fundamentals. When we came out we were all communicating on the same page and we were unstoppable."
"I thought the defense did what it needed to do," head coach Robert Saleh said. "Especially after the first quarter, spotting them 17 points, I felt like we knuckled down and got back to what we do best. Getting the takeaways, getting the safety. The safety kick-started it. We scored, got the football, kicked a field goal, came back to get a takeaways, came back to score again. The defense was really good, especially after spotting them 17. ... It was good."
But not perfect as perhaps they needed to be against a two-time NFL MVP in Mahomes and a team that played in three Super Bowls and won two in the past four seasons.
Yet in the middle 30 minutes, the defense conspired with Zach Wilson and the Jets offense to give Green & White fans at MetLife Stadium and in the primetime audience the glimmer of a thought that they just might be able to pull this one out against the defending NFL champs.
After getting popped for two long touchdown plays in the first quarter, the defense had an outstanding run of six possessions that produced one KC field goal, two interceptions of Mahomes, two third-quarter punts and that safety.
It came when Bryce Huff put an outside move on Chiefs RT Jawaan Taylor, who grabbed Huff's facemask at the KC 1-yard line but held on and visibly torqued the mask on the other side of the goal line. Penalty in the end zone equals safety and the Jets were not only on the board but building momentum.
"That safety was huge," TE C.J. Uzomah said. "That helped energize us for sure."
Mahomes, who in his only other meeting against the Jets, threw for five touchdowns, wasn't sacked and didn't turn the ball over in 2020 at Arrowhead Stadium, suddenly looked mortal. He underthrew one pass that S Ashtyn Davis swallowed up, misfired on another potential pick that LB C.J. Mosley couldn't hold, then at the end of the first half threw a downfield ball for favorite target Travis Kelce that Mosley was all over for the second INT.
See the best game action photos during Sunday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs.
But the fourth quarter was the Jets' waterloo. The first drive went 13 offensive plays and 80 yards, took 7:23 off the clock, and produced ultimately the deciding points on Harrison Butker's 26-yard field goal for the 23-20 lead. Then after Wilson couldn't handle a shotgun snap and KC recovered, Mahomes directed a 15-play, 45-yard drive that lasted the rest of the game, 7:24.
The key plays were Mahomes scrambles — 25 yards on third-and-23 on which edge/LB Jermaine Johnson thought he was being wrapped up by his man in red across form him, to the Jets 30,
"I got grabbed, and I obviously already had the one personal and didn't want to try to get him off me," Johnson said. "I tried to signal tp a ref that I can't move. I'm trying to show resistance because I know that's what they need to see. I want that one back. I should never have put myself in the position for him to hold one."
After that, the QB's 9-yard dash and slide inbounds before the goal line on third-and-8 to the 11 was the final kneeldown dagger for the Jets this night.
In between came the defensive holding call on CB Sauce Gardner while he and WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling were hand-fighting coming off the line of scrimmage. The hold was devastating, since it wiped out a third-and-20 situation and a third Mahomes INT, this one by Michael Carter II.
"I saw it. It is what it is," Carter said of the Sauce flag. "I didn't think it was that egregious. I think [tjhe official] threw it after the pick, too. The penalty happened, obviously I don't agree with it. I would like to have an interception. But we had plenty of other opportunities to get off the field, so we've got to do better as a defense especially on those third-and-longs. ... I don't think it should've come to that in the first place. We've just got to be way better getting off the field in some of those clutch situations."
Some bottom line numbers weren't flattering to the Jets' game-long cause. For the game the D yielded 401 total yards, 204 of them rush yards. They gave up seven of 12 third-down conversions. It wasn't a shutdown performance, and yet it was good enough to give KC fits and perhaps defeat the Chiefs.
Put it this way: The unfavorable Jets outcome didn't do anything to the Jets' psyche heading forward toward Denver, back home for Philadelphia and then to the bye week.
"This game shows what we already know," Johnson said. "We're a bunch of fighters and we've got a lot of talent. But moral victory stuff is just ;... We want to win. So we're going to go out there, watch film, go to practice and look for that win next week."