It was no ordinary opening to the NFL season between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 7 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. The Patriots were determined to put on a show for their fans to celebrate last February’s improbable Super Bowl comeback victory, the team’s fifth world championship since 2001. Yet, for all the lengths to which the Patriots went to make the night about their past accomplishments, their celebration was upstaged by a running back who was still carrying the football for the University of Toledo (Ohio) when the Patriots won the Super Bowl.
The Patriots honored their victory with Super Bowl LI patches stitched to every one of their blue jerseys. Rapper Flo Rida performed before the game, followed a by a display of all five Vince Lombardi Trophies, a new Super Bowl banner and a hyperbole-filled speech from super fan and actor Mark Wahlberg, detailing the insurmountable odds the Patriots overcame to win the Super Bowl last year.
The celebrations appeared to roll seamlessly into a strong start for the defending Super Bowl champs. They jumped out to a 7-0 lead after an impressive 73-yard drive on their first possession of the season. On the ensuing Chiefs possession, running back Kareem Hunt, a third-round pick playing in his first NFL game, fumbled on his first carry of his young NFL career, something he never did even in college. However, that was the last moment that Patriots fans were happy to see No. 27 of the Chiefs on the field.
From that point on, Hunt torched the Patriots defense, compiling 148 rushing yards on 17 carries, five receptions for 98 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Hunt’s 246 all-purpose yards were the most ever in an NFL debut, and according to ESPN Stats and Info, he is one of only three players in NFL history to have 150 total yards and three touchdowns in his debut.
What made Hunt’s play even more impactful was the timing with which he delivered big play after big play. With just over two minutes left in the first half and the Pats up 17-7, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith led his team 92 yards down field, but it was Hunt who punched in the touchdown off a screen-pass, trimming the Patriots’ lead to three.
Then, with the Chiefs down six to begin the fourth quarter, Hunt ran a beautiful go route up the seam. With a perfect throw from Smith, edge-rusher Cassius Marsh had no chance of catching Hunt on his way to a 78 yard, game-tying touchdown. With the extra point, Kansas City went up 28-27 and the Kareem Hunt show was in full swing.
Two drives later, Hunt capped off another drive by stiff-arming safety Duron Harmon to the ground and diving past the pylon into the end-zone, stretching the Chiefs’ lead to eight.
After exhibiting his pass-catching and tackle-breaking skills, Hunt showed he isn’t a one-trick, or even a two-trick, pony. With 4:15 to go in the game, Hunt took a toss from Smith, darted around the edge of the defense and sprinted upfield 58 yards before Patriots safety Devin McCourty mercifully pushed Hunt out of bounds. The run sucked the life out of the Patriots defense, put an exclamation point on what may be the greatest debut in NFL history and emphasized that, for now, there’s a new sheriff in town.
Besides a season-ending Achilles injury to Chiefs safety Eric Berry, there’s a lot to be excited about if you are a Kansas City fan. Beyond Hunt’s historic performance, Smith had a career day, completing 28 of 35 passes for 368 passing yards and four touchdowns, dramatically outplaying future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady on Brady’s home field. The Chiefs also got significant contributions from second-year wide receiver Tyreek Hill, (seven receptions, 133 receiving yards, one touchdown) and edge-rusher Justin Houston (two sacks).
The Patriots, meanwhile, are walking away from this game with big losses off the field as well. Star linebacker Dont’a Hightower left the game midway through the third quarter with a minor right MCL sprain. Receiver Danny Amendola also left the game in the second half with a head injury after compiling six receptions for 100 yards. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Patriots are hoping that Hightower will recover in time to play the New Orleans Saints next week, while Amendola is still in the NFL’s concussion protocol. The Patriots need these players to recover quickly as they are already without key playmakers in receivers Julian Edelman (torn ACL) and Malcolm Mitchell (knee).
The Patriots have been the team to beat in the AFC for some time, but after Thursday night’s performance, it’s looking like the Chiefs hold that honor, for now.
All stats from pro-football-reference.com unless otherwise stated.