KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just about the only thing that looked familiar about the N.F.L.’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 M.V.P. threw for 211 yards and three touchdowns, Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran through the rain for 138 yards and another score, and the Chiefs began defending their first championship in 50 years by beating the Houston Texans, 34-20, before a socially distanced crowd of about 17,000, a figure limited due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill each caught touchdown 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.
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 world has changed dramatically in the seven months since the Chiefs hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in Miami.
Within six weeks, the term Covid-19 became a part of everyday life, with the disease killing more than 900,000 people around the globe. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May renewed Black Lives Matter protests, which in turn has led to a summer of social unrest that has gripped the country.
Against that backdrop came an N.F.L. 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 before the coin toss.
The Chiefs lined up along the goal line about 30 minutes before kickoff and watched Alicia Keys 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, remaining there until a virtual performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ended, 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.
The kickoff brought four hours of normalcy.
The Texans, who blew a 24-point lead against Kansas City in 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 the 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 draft pick, padded the lead in the third quarter. After ripping off an 11-yard gain early in the drive, the pint-size dynamo out of L.S.U. 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 touchdown later in the quarter to make the final score a bit more respectable.