KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It has been a mere eight months since Patrick Mahomes quarterbacked Kansas City from a 24-0 hole to beat counterpart Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, a brutally efficient comeback that ultimately propelled the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl title in 50 years.
A whole lot has changed, though.
The COVID-19 pandemic effectively canceled in-person offseason training for all 32 teams, along with wiping out all preseason games. That means the Texans-Chiefs rematch at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night will be the first NFL game since February, when Kansas City outscored NFC champion San Francisco 21-0 in the fourth quarter to beat the 49ers 30-21 at Super Bowl LIV. It also means the crowd at what is historically one of the toughest road venues in the league will be limited to about 17,000 fans.
The Texans no longer carry star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (traded to the Arizona Cardinals) or their leading rusher from last season, Carlos Hyde (signed with the Seattle Seahawks), on the roster. As for the Chiefs, Andy Reid no longer carries around the heavy and ignominious tag of being the league's best active coach never to win a championship.
"You have to expect the unexpected, and that's what we're trying to do," Mahomes said. "We're going to have a game plan for everything, and I'm going to make adjustments as quickly as possible so we can get off to a fast start. Hopefully."
There are plenty of reasons for both teams to anticipate a good start.
Sure, the Texans underwent a dramatic makeover on offense with the departures of Hopkins and Hyde, but in their place came wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb along with a healthy David Johnson at running back. And their defense has a healthy J.J. Watt, something they only enjoyed for about half of their games last season — and have missed far too often during the defensive end's outstanding career.
"We have an opportunity going to the defending Super Bowl champs' home stadium right off the bat and compete with a great team. That's what you want," said Watson, who signed a four-year, $160 million contract extension last week. "This is the best opportunity you can have to start the season."
Watson's contract extension is the second largest in NFL history. The first: The 10-year extension that Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, signed that could ultimately pay him about a half-billion dollars.
Nice paydays for two quarterbacks taken two picks apart in the first round of the 2017 draft.
"These two guys are just great players. Very, very dynamic players," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "It's always interesting how the schedules are made that this is the game that opens up the season, especially with what's gone on.
"What's gone on the last six months, it's unprecedented. Now you have this game with these two quarterbacks who have done so much early in their careers; it's a great night for the league and a great night for football."
The Chiefs are among a handful of teams that have been cleared by local and state authorities to have fans for the opening week of the season, but the number was capped at 22% of capacity for Arrowhead. Those who attend — almost exclusively season ticket holders — will be required to wear face coverings whenever they are unable to maintain social distancing.
The last time Reid could remember coaching in front of so few fans was as an assistant at San Francisco State in 1985.
"If we were playing UC Davis, we would have that. But it's been a while," he said. "They had the ultimate jump ball just to get into the stadium, however that was picked. So I know they'll be revved up and ready to go."
The Chiefs raised their Super Bowl flag last week — when they handed out their rings during an on-field ceremony attended by players, coaches and their family members — but they'll do it again for the crowd during a pregame ceremony.
The NFL plans to play "Lift Every Voice And Sing," which is widely considered the Black national anthem, along with "The Star-Spangled Banner" before games this season as it recognizes social justice initiatives across the country.
Reid and O'Brien both were asked whether their teams plan to kneel Thursday night. Neither coach disclosed his team's plans.
"There will definitely be conversations leading up to the game, whether it's within our team alone or with the Chiefs," Watt said. "However it may be, to make sure that whatever everybody does, we're on the same page."