AFC Championship Preview

New England Patriots (11-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Sunday, January 20th, 6:40 PM EST.

Eight straight conference championship games for New England.  That’s an absurd run of exceptional seasons.  It’s also got to be wildly frustrating to fans of other AFC teams.

I also know that Patriot haters all over the place are positive that the Chiefs will steamroll Brady and company.  Mahomes Magic. Gaudy offensive numbers.  Tyreek Hill’s blazing speed.  Homefield advantage at Arrowhead.  There are quite a few reasons why the Chiefs could possibly win this game.

We all know that the Chiefs can score points.  They scored more than any other unit this season.  Patrick Mahomes is having a tremendous start to his career. He can do things that we haven’t seen before, like the no-look pass or the lefty completion for a first down.  Tyreek Hill has blossomed into an elite-level wide receiver with game-breaking speed.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, are without their featured back Kareem Hunt, who was suspended indefinitely after week eleven.  They’ll need a super human performance from Mahomes to win, and he’ll need to do it in chunks.  The problem there is that the Patriots secondary has rounded into one of the top passing defenses in the league.  ProFootball Focus ranks Belichick’s pass defense as the second-best unit in the league, behind only the Bears.  Stephon Gilmore has been a lock-down number one, and as a group they recorded the third-most interceptions in the league this season.   One or two errant passes from the aggressive young Kansas City gunslinger could be the difference.

Kansas City will certainly make some big plays, and they will score points.  But slow your roll Deflate-gate conspiracy theorists.  You’re not going to like what’s coming next.

The Chiefs, despite their excellent showing last week against a suddenly fragile-looking Andrew Luck and the Colts, are not the best team in the AFC. They are certainly the best offense, but they’re still a bottom-five defense.  They have been all season long, and one badly-planned bout of offensive ineptitude by their opponent in the divisional round doesn’t change that.  The Chiefs can’t stop the run, and trust me, in Arrowhead, in January, with the forecast calling for single-digit temps, that’s going to matter.  A lot.  If they load the box as they did wildcard weekend, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady will start with the short passing game to keep them honest.  The Chargers thought that they had the measure of the Patriots offensive scheme last weekend.  Obviously, they did not.  The Chiefs will need to adjust on the fly or suffer the same fate.  If you think that the Patriots manhandling the Chargers doesn’t matter, here’s a fun fact.  The Chargers are a significantly better defense than the Chiefs.  They allowed the eighth-fewest points in the league this year.  That’s better than every team left in the playoffs…except the Patriots.  New England took the ball into the endzone five times…in the first half.  The Chiefs, by way of comparison, are the worst defense to make the playoffs, at twenty-fourth in the league in points allowed.  The Kansas City front is especially vulnerable against the run, where they allow the second most yards per carry in the league at five yards per attempt.  That’s really bad news for the Chiefs in bad weather.  It’s also exceedingly bad news against a New England team that isn’t overly dependent on Tom Brady’s arm to move the ball and has multiple weapons (James White, Sony Michel, Cordarelle Patterson) and wrinkles in a well-designed run scheme.  The Patriots were the fifth-best team in the NFL running the ball this year despite Sony Michel missing almost a quarter of the season.

The Chiefs defense does do one thing exceptionally well, and that’s sacking the quarterback.  It will be strength against strength there, as they go head to head with a Patriots offense that’s done a very solid job protecting Tom Brady and schemes well to get rid of the ball quickly.  If this game somehow becomes a downfield shootout, this battle will be a key to victory for either team.

What about the weather?  Brady and company have been really, really good in bad weather.  Why?  Because they intentionally practice outside in bad weather, and because collectively they’re used to playing outdoor games in the northeast in January.  Brady comes in to Sunday’s game with a career record of 5-1 when the mercury dips below 20 degrees.  Almost all of those are playoff wins, obviously.  Young Patrick Mahomes has never thrown a professional pass in these types of conditions.  To think he’s going to throw for 400-plus yards and five TDs to outpace New England isn’t impossible, but it is, at best, improbable.

As for the Arrowhead Stadium advantage?  It’s a loud place to play.  No question.  But with fans drinking coffee and hot cocoa instead of beer and wearing masks or scarves to protect their faces from the forecasted “arctic blast”, let’s just say that the noise-o-meter might not be going off the charts as expected.  Brady and New England will have no trouble calling audibles when needed.  They won’t get multiple delay of game penalties because of the noise.  It’s a road game, and New England has been less than stellar on the road, but it won’t be a game-breaking advantage for the Chiefs as it has been in some matchups.

Prediction: Yes, the top four scoring offenses in the NFL are facing off in the conference championships.  That doesn’t mean that this thing becomes a repeat of the Patriots 43-40 win from week six.  Look for the Patriots to control the clock.  Expect a lower (but not low-low) score, and the greatest coach-QB combo in history will further cement their legacy with help from the best defense and running game still alive in the playoffs.  Patrick Mahomes will almost surely have his time, but not this year.

Patriots 28

Chiefs 23

Photo Credit- SB Nation

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