By DAVE SKRETTA / AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just about the only thing that looked familiar about the NFL’s long-awaited return Thursday night was the sight of Patrick Mahomes effortlessly leading the Kansas City Chiefs up and down the field.
The Super Bowl MVP threw for 211 yards and three touchdowns, Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran through the rain for 138 yards and another score, and the Chiefs began defense of their first championship in 50 years by beating the Houston Texans 34-20 on Thursday night before a socially distanced crowd of about 17,000 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill each caught TD passes for the Chiefs. They have won 10 straight dating to last season. That run includes a come-from-behind 51-31 victory over the Texans in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Texans’ Deshaun Watson threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score, but he also was under relentless pressure and was intercepted once. David Johnson provided the biggest bright spot for Houston, running for 77 yards and a score.
The world has changed dramatically in the seven months since the Chiefs hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in Miami.
Within six weeks, the term COVID-19 had become a part of everyday life, the disease killing more than 900,000 people around the globe. The death of George Floyd at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in May touched off the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn has led to a summer of social unrest that has gripped the country.
Against that backdrop came an NFL opener unlike any other: masks worn by everyone from fans to the coaching staffs; a series of videos raising awareness of social justice initiatives and encouraging the public to vote; and ultimately both teams locking arms in a display of unity prior to the coin toss.
To the relief of many, kickoff finally brought 4 hours of normalcy.
The Texans, who blew a 24-point lead against Kansas City in the the playoffs, struck first when they marched 80 yards for a touchdown. The elusive Johnson finished it off by scampering 19 yards to the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
But just like that cold January day, the red-hot Chiefs quickly overcame their slow start.
They tied it moments later when Mahomes threw a short touchdown pass to Kelce, then took the lead when they forced a quick punt and Mahomes found Watkins in the end zone. Harrison Butker capped the first half by kicking a chip-shot field goal that sent the Chiefs to the locker room with a 17-7 lead.
Edwards-Helaire, their first-round pick, padded the lead in the third quarter. After ripping off an 11-yard gain early in the drive, the pint-sized dynamo out of LSU unleashed a wicked stutter-step before running 27 yards for another score.
The Chiefs put the game away when rookie L’Darius Sneed picked off Watson’s jump ball in the closing seconds of the third quarter. Mahomes was bailed out of a fourth-down interception by pass interference in the end zone, then he zipped a dart to Hill streaking across the field for a 31-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Watson threw a touchdown pass and ran for a TD later in the quarter to make the final score a bit more respectable.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Chiefs had a touchdown on their opening series brought back when the officials determined Demarcus Robinson failed to control a 36-yard pass from Mahomes in the end zone. They had another overturned when Watkins caught a 9-yard pass in the second quarter, though he wound up catching a screen pass for a TD two plays later.
The Chiefs lined up along the goal line about 30 minutes before kickoff and watched Alicia Keyes perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is often considered the Black national anthem, in a video designed to address racial inequality.
The Texans had already left the field when the demonstration occurred. They remained there until R&B duo Chloe x Halle finished a virtual performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then ran onto the field to a chorus of boos from fans.
Some fans were still booing when the teams met at midfield and shook hands. The teams then stood together in a line that stretched from one end zone to the other for a moment of silence before the coin toss.
In a relatively muted celebration, the Chiefs unveiled their Super Bowl banner and presented the Lombardi Trophy to their fans — along with a 20-foot replica that was wheeled onto the field — about 15 minutes before the game began.
The Texans play their home opener against the Ravens on Sept. 20. The Chiefs visit the Chargers the same day.