When the Patriots and Chiefs got together for a Sunday night classic in Week 6, it was reasonable to believe a January rematch was coming.
Andy Reid has long been knocking on the door, and right from the beginning this team looked different than any other he’d coached in Kansas City. They’re stacked with all-time speed and talent on offense. Patrick Mahomes is an incredibly gifted passer dropped into an amazing situation. This is a Super Bowl-caliber team.
And the Patriots? Nobody should ever bet against the Pats reaching the AFC Championship Game.
They’ve done it eight years in a row. They breeze through the conference in some seasons. Other years, it’s a bit of a struggle.
This year’s arc would be described as the latter. But the Pats are on the precipice of a Super Bowl berth yet again, with Reid’s Chiefs the last remaining challenger.
Here are five things to watch in what should be a terrific AFC Championship Game:
BACK TO THE WELL?
The Patriots trounced the Chargers with an offensive gameplan that was heavy on running backs. They threw to James White an outrageous 17 times. They blew the Chargers off the ball in the running game, paving the way for 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns from Sony Michel.
They face a new challenge in a Chiefs defense that overwhelmed the Colts in the divisional round, but the same principles may apply.
During the regular season, Kansas City allowed 2,709 yards from scrimmage to running backs, which ranked third-worst in the league. Only the Cardinals (2,781) and the Bengals (2,728) allowed more.
The obvious strength of the Chiefs defense is the pass rush. Chris Jones is among the most disruptive interior linemen in the game. Dee Ford registered a career-high 13 sacks. At 29 years old, Justin Houston can still be a force; he racked up nine sacks in 12 games during the regular season, and got to Andrew Luck twice in the divisional round blowout.
Outside of the pass rush, the Kansas City defense is susceptible. And the best way to neutralize the pass rush is with the short passing game (White) and physicality up front (Michel running out of ’21’ personnel with James Develin).
DEFENDING HILL AND KELCE
This one’s easier said than done.
The Patriots have always fared well against Travis Kelce. The stud tight end averaged 41.3 receiving yards in his past three games against New England. In the first two of those matchups, the Pats didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. They simply trusted strong safety Patrick Chung to handle Kelce in man coverage.
Earlier this year, Chung and Devin McCourty drew the Kelce assignment. But the Pats also made life difficult for Kelce by using a defensive end or linebacker to bump him at the line as he released. The strategy has its drawbacks; if Kelce is detached far enough away from the formation, using a linebacker to jam him subtracts a potential pass-rusher from the equation. Still, the strategy worked well in Week 6. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots revisit it.
As for Hill? That’s a different story.
He’s dominated in his only two games versus the Pats, catching 14 passes for 275 yards and four touchdowns. More than half of those yards came on a pair of 75-yard touchdown receptions (a Stephon Gilmore busted coverage in Week 1 of the 2017 season, and then a slip-up in coverage by Jason McCourty in Week 6 of this year). Both were zone coverage situations.
There’s a lot that goes into containing Hill. It starts with the man-to-man matchup. The Pats primarily used Gilmore to cover the 6-foot-1 Sammy Watkins in Week 6. Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones were on Hill. They could switch up the strategy this time. Undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson should be capable of handling the Watkins assignment (he was a healthy scratch in the first meeting).
The Chiefs are at their most dangerous when Patrick Mahomes is operating outside the confines of their normal offense.
In other words, when he’s extending plays and keeping his eyes downfield.
Travis Kelce has a phenomenal feel for finding open spots in these “playground” situations. And nobody can stick with Tyreek Hill if Mahomes extends the play.
Against the Ravens, Mahomes rolled all the way to the right sideline and found Hill on the other side of the field for a 48-yard gain. Against the Pats, he did the same and found Kareem Hunt streaking down the right sideline for a 67-yard touchdown. Many of his third-down completions, such as a 27-yard connection to Hill versus the Pats, come when he has time to drift behind the line of scrimmage.
To limit his opportunity to do this, the Patriots need to generate pressure. The strategy of rushing three and dropping eight on third down against Mahomes blew up on the Pats in Week 6.
The key is disguising pressures, something the unit mastered in the latter stages of the season. The Chargers offensive line struggled mightily to identify which players were rushing and which were dropping into coverage.
If they can do the same thing against the Chiefs, and if they rush with discipline and don’t allow Mahomes to escape the pocket, they’ll be in good shape.
Few players can take their games to another level in the playoffs like Julian Edelman.
Edelman only added to his postseason legacy against the Chargers, torching their secondary for a career-high 151 receiving yards.
He’s by far the most important player in the Patriots’ passing game, and Tom Brady will be counting on him once again for a vintage performance.
Edelman will be going up against an exploitable secondary. Under Bob Sutton, the Chiefs primarily play man coverage (which is a decent place to start given how badly Brady and Edelman have shredded zone coverage in recent playoff games). Kendall Fuller mans the slot. Steven Nelson and Charvarius Ward handle the outside spots. Edelman could see all three.
In the Week 6 matchup, Edelman caught passes against Fuller (a 17-yard touchdown on a corner route), Nelson (a 21-yard slant), and Orlando Scandrick.
Based on the latest reports, the temperatures won’t dip to extreme lows in Kansas City.
The current projection calls for temperatures in the 20s and a low chance of precipitation for kickoff. That’s not much different than what the Patriots and Chiefs played in last weekend.
“I think it’s getting warmer,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said earlier this week. “It literally is, by a couple degrees, so I’m not not telling you the truth here. But it’s still probably going to be a little brisk.”
Special teams are impacted by the cold, as the ball does not travel quite as far. This could be something to monitor if Stephen Gostkowski or Harrison Butker need to kick a crunch time field goal.
It’s hard to know if the cold will impact Patrick Mahomes’ ability to throw the ball 65 yards in the air.
Even if the advantage is minimal, the weather seems to favor the Patriots, who rely heavily on the ground attack and short passing game.
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