The 2018 season is a tale of two New England Patriots teams — one that went 9-0 at Gillette Stadium and outscored its opponents by an average margin of 15.9 points, and one that lost three of its five away games and has a -2.4 average point differential when playing outside of Massachusetts. With the AFC Championship Game coming up on Sunday, now would be a good time for the Patriots to turn their road fortunes around.
Historically, the dynasty-era Patriots have been relatively successful when traveling. Since 2001, the team has won 68% of its regular season and postseason road games — going 102-48 in the process — and finished with losing records away from Foxboro just two times. In 2009, New England went 2-6; this year, the team sits at a 3-5 record heading into its biggest challenge of the season: an explosive Kansas City Chiefs team.
The Chiefs are not the first playoff team to host the Patriots this season, though. New England also played the Chicago Bears, the NFC’s eventual number three seed, and came away with a 38-31 victory. And while the team also beat the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, most of the times it had to fly back to Providence with the foul taste of defeat in its mouth: the Patriots dropped road games in Jacksonville, Detroit, Tennessee, Miami and Pittsburgh.
“All of these games are all a little bit different,” Tom Brady said after December’s loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He himself is slightly better at home than on the road: Brady is completing a higher percentage of passes (69.8 to 63.1) and throwing for more yards per game (284.0 to 267.8) at Gillette Stadium. However, his touchdown-to-interception splits (18:8 at home, 12:3 on the road) are actually better on the road.
But despite his numbers not differing too much, Brady knows that the Patriots as a team did not live up to their standards on the road this season. “We obviously haven’t played very well on the road,” Brady after New England’s 17-10 loss against Pittsburgh. “What we are doing isn’t good enough. It’s just a cumulative thing. We’re out here as a team trying to compete — when you’re on the road, you have to play well.”
“Some things are a little bit more challenging on the road, we have to embrace those things, and we just haven’t done a great job on that,” the 41-year old continued. One month removed from their fifth road loss, the Patriots are singing a slightly different tune: they are not looking back at what went wrong but instead are focused on the challenge ahead and performing well no matter the environment.
“We play half our games on the road, half at home,” head coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week when asked about his team having to travel to the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, one of the toughest road venues in the entire NFL. “We’ve been in those situations, both ways, plenty of times as have all of our opponents. It is what it is. We’ll deal with the conditions as they come up just like we always do.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a similar opinion when it comes to traveling and the upcoming game in Kansas City. “It doesn’t matter where we play, whether we play here or somewhere else in that regard,” he told reporters on Monday. “Playing well is more important than the venue, so if we can go out there and execute what we’re doing and get out in front, then that’s always a positive regardless of the site of the game.”
“Look, we’ve played on the road half our games and there’s noise in all the other stadiums. There’s going to be noise in this one,” McDaniels continued. “We know that, we’ve experienced it before. But we know how to handle that, and again, it comes down to how well we play this week. It doesn’t matter any other week that we’ve played, the last game we played them or there or some other place on the road. What matters is how our team this week can prepare and then go out and perform and execute on Sunday night.”
For Brady, the keys to playing well to doing that are simple ones. “It’s just making critical plays and it’s great complementary football,” he said leading up to the Patriots’ week 15 game in Pittsburgh. “Being on the road, the momentum can change very quickly. One play changes the whole game. We’ve seen that a lot playing at home, when you use the crowd to your advantage and everyone’s kind of into it and waiting for something to happen.”
“As soon as something good happens for us, it just snowballs quickly,” Brady continued. “You’ve got to keep it from happening on the road. You’ve got to play well offensively. You’ve got to do a good job of possessing the ball, third down and so forth. Defensively, big plays and those really get the crowd into it and the kicking game, just playing solid. There’s no secret: it’s just playing a great complementary game.”
New England is coming off a very good contest in this area, dominating a strong Los Angeles Chargers team 41-28 in the divisional round. And as Brady said, therein lies the secret to success both at home and on the road. “Just execute for four quarters, start fast, just play Patriot football,” said running back James White about the upcoming game. “We’ve just got to put our best foot forward and play Patriot football. That’s all we have to do.”