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Which AFC team presents the toughest obstacle between the Patriots and Super Bowl LI?

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The Chiefs and Steelers are often cited as the top two threats to the Patriots winning the AFC. However, I don’t see it that way.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve probably seen more than our fair share of article about the team best equipped to take on the Patriots. The Patriots only loss in the conference came to the Buffalo Bills, who went 7-9 and fired their head coach last week. The reality is the Patriots are the last team anyone wants to see in the postseason due to a Top 10 unit on Offense, Defense, and Special Teams. The Patriots also have Home Field Advantage, which means they have an extra day to game plan since they don’t have to travel unless they make it to Super Bowl LI in Houston. The Patriots dominance has very little attraction outside of the fan base, which is why national writers have to do the mental gymnastics to figure out who is best equipped to beat the Patriots in Foxboro where weather is a big factor.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are cited the most for having a complete team. I do find the Chiefs offense and defense to be overrated relative to the hype they have. The team does have a trio of game-changers in PR Tyreek Hill, TE Travis Kelce, and LCB Marcus Peters. The one area where the Chiefs may have an edge is on their punt return unit, although punt coverage is arguably the Patriots best unit. The Patriots can neutralize Hill on punt returns with excellent directional kicking. On defense, the Patriots will be focusing in on Kelce, where we’ll see Patrick Chung and/or Devin McCourty on him all game. The Chiefs do a good job of getting him the ball and is a tough tackle for any defensive player. The last game-changer, Peters, is a shutdown CB and Brady would be advised to look away from him. The good news is Peters plays mainly on the offense’s right, leaving potential match-ups to the offense’s left where Michael Floyd, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola could carry the offense in the air.

The Chiefs defense gives up a lot of yards between the 20s, but manages to get turnovers or stops in the Red Zone. The Chiefs have the 4th best red zone defense in TD%, giving up only 4.34 points per Red Zone trip (league average is 4.85, Patriots are 4.55). Their defense has given up 6.24 plays for 33.67 yards on a per drive basis, opponents converting 43% of 3rd down opportunities against the Chiefs. The Patriots offense is 8th in Red Zone TD% (63.3%) and 7th in points per Red Zone trip (5.23). With an offense that’s designed for force the opponent to tip their coverage before the snap and generate the best match-up against said coverage, the chess match between Tom Brady and the Chiefs defense will decide the game. I think this area does favor the Patriots because they don’t turn the ball over.

So what’s the game plan for beating the Chiefs? Number 1 is not turning the ball over. The Chiefs live and die off turnovers, picking up a turnover on every sixth possession on defense. The Patriots have the lowest turnover rate on offense at a measly 4.6%. The second part of the game plan is continue to force long fields for the Chiefs offense. That offense is very reliant on staying in schedule where a bad play on 1st or 2nd down will most likely end the drive barring a breakdown on 3rd down. The Chiefs will throw a lot of formations out of their West Coast style offense.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have the 2nd best starting QB in the AFC playoffs in Ben Roethlisberger. In addition, they have the best RB and WR in the conference in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Their offensive line is very good and when that unit is hot they can keep up with almost any offense. However, at the same time Roethlisberger is putting up one of his worst seasons in a while. The Steelers QBs are turning the ball over on 8.6% of their drives via interceptions, which is 21st in the NFL. Despite having a Top 5 QB, RB, and WR, the Steelers offense did not finish in the Top 10 of my Power Rankings spreadsheet with a score of 56 (Patriots were 3rd at 68, Steelers rank 11th). Those numbers do include two games from backup Landry Jones, who lost by 11 to New England and won by 3 against Cleveland in overtime, so we’ll call them a borderline Top 10 offense.

It’s been a very common theme this year, but the Steelers are notoriously slow-starters. Those slow starts haven’t been a big issue in the standings as the Steelers have been able to overcome them many times, but in the playoffs that has the makings for an early exit. At the same time, there isn’t anyone on that defense that scares the Patriots offense or requires extra gameplanning to deal with. The Steelers are primarily a zone team and none of their corners are bad match-ups against the Patriots receivers. The Steelers are very similar to the Chiefs, where teams can move the ball against them, but struggle to score TDs in the Red Zone. The Steelers don’t bend and break as well as the Chiefs, but they’re under league average in PPD at 1.81. However, like the Chiefs an efficient Red Zone offense would be their undoing.

A similar game plan against the Steelers like against the Chiefs would be the idea. Minimize turnovers, capitalize when Roethlisberger goes Stinkyberger, and limit the effectiveness of Bell when he touches the ball (less than 5 yards per touch). Bell will get his 150 yards, but the Patriots should make the Steelers have to give him the ball 30+ times to reach that number like in Week 7. The Steelers of late have been screwing around for 3 quarters while teams struggle to put them away before the Steelers come alive in the 4th quarter and steal victory from the jaws of defeat. In order to prevent that, the Patriots need to bury the Steelers before they can spark their offense. That usually hasn’t been a problem in the Patriot wins over the Steelers.

The Patriots toughest opponent in the AFC Playoffs? The Patriots

Honestly, the only team I see beating the Patriots at home is the Patriots. The Patriots went 11-1 with Tom Brady, with their only lost coming to Seattle in Week 10. The Patriots blew multiple coverage assignments, turned the ball over 3 times, fumbled the ball 5 times, and let the Seahawks offense march up and down the field all night. With that, they were only 2 yards away from forcing overtime as a fade to Rob Gronkowski went incomplete. In order to lose in Foxboro, where weather is going to be a factor and some teams being paranoid because of the Patriots mostly undeserved reputation of rule-bending.

So what would it take for the Patriots to beat themselves? The offense turning the ball over, missed opportunities to score or force a turnover, and bad special teams play. Those three things are very common to any Patriots loss, especially in the playoffs. The Patriots haven’t lost a game at home in a shootout style with Tom Brady under center in a very long time. The Chiefs don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Patriots offense and the Steelers propensity for ill-timed mistakes along with slow starts are two fatal flaws of the Patriots top two opponents. It’s not impossible for either team to walk away from Foxboro with a victory. If the Patriots don’t beat themselves on the field, I don’t think it happens.