Enjoy the moment. The Patriots are going to an NFL-record eighth straight AFC championship. That extends the existing seven conference championship record that they set last year. This should not be possible. They don’t have a mobile quarterback with incredible arm talent like Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. They haven’t drafted well in five years and have constantly picked at the basement of the draft. The only difference between the Patriots being favored for a ninth Super Bowl appearance is an act football so improbable it’s referred to as a miracle. Divine intervention is the only thing that seems capable of stopping the Patriots. In spite of all the predictions Tom Brady walked off the field and in defiance whispered to the heavens, “not today.”
And no matter what happens at Arrowhead that is freaking incredible.
Let’s get started.
When I use the word “key pivot” I mean the performances I believe will have the greatest chance of having a major impact. The key here is the phrase “greatest chance”. For example, the Chiefs skill players having a bad game across the board would absolutely have a major impact on the game. I just don’t believe a team with multiple first team All-Pro skill players are likely to have bad games across the board.
Patriots: Dominant Run Blocking
Want some good news? I know you did. Kansas City’s defense is ranked 27th against the run. The one fact that everyone glosses over in the Chiefs’ divisional victory is that their run defense remained poor and the Colts were efficient on the ground. The Chiefs’ ability to shut down the pass and score at will prevented Indianapolis from taking advantage of that efficiency but it remains a serious issue. This is the Achilles heel of the conference’s number one seed.
The Patriots absolutely have the capacity to make the Chiefs pay for this defect and they MUST make the Chiefs pay for this weakness if they want to have any chance of winning the game. New England has dominated Kansas City’s defense once before, but the return of Justin Houston will make this more difficult today. Houston may be overpaid but he is a talented pass rusher and run defender.
I believe the Patriots will probably run away from Houston as he is the best defender on the defensive line. But one thing seems certain: New England cannot get by with a “good enough” offensive line performance. The rushing attack is arguably the only area the Patriots have proven they have a dominant match up advantage over the Chiefs. They have to be a reason the team wins or else it will not win.
Patriots: Man Coverage
Why is superior man coverage the only thing to slow down Patrick Mahomes? Because superior man coverage will slow down any quarterback in the NFL. You cannot throw the ball if there is no one to throw too. At a certain point, your skill players have to beat the man they are lined up against. Man coverage should always be the solution to beating an offense if your coverage guys are better than the opposing team receivers. For most of the teams the Patriots have dueled this has been true. That’s why the Patriots have played more man coverage than any other team in the NFL this year.
This is also why Rob Gronkowski has been indispensable in the past. With the exception of Eric Berry in the season opener of 2017, there haven’t be any defensive players that could consistently guard Gronk in man coverage. The Broncos’ 2015 “No Fly Zone” got as close as any team at successfully playing man coverage but that broke down at the end of the game. The 2017 Steelers were a classic example of this inevitable breakdown. The Steelers played more man coverage against the Patriots than in any previous confrontation. It almost worked, but like the 2015 AFCC the floods gates broke in the final drive and Tom Brady to Gronk became unstoppable.
Unfortunately, the Chiefs are an extremely difficult team to play man coverage against. They possess not one but two first team All-Pros at tight end and wide receiver, respectively. That alone would an enormous challenge but the rest of the Chief skill players are difficult match ups as well. The 2015 Broncos would have their hands full with this offense. The Patriots secondary? It’s good but rest assured it will break occasionally. The key for the defense is not dominance. It’s survival. They need to weather the initial blizzard and pray that as the game wears on they can get the two or three stops necessary to win the game. I think they have the talent to get that done.
Chiefs: Tyreek Hill
I strongly encourage everyone to go back and watch Bill Belichick’s post game presser after the Patriots-Chiefs showdown earlier this season. Belichick was asked about Patrick Mahomes. He was asked about Travis Kelce. He was asked about Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins. None of these players elicited a special reaction despite all of them being special players. The only player who received anything more than coach speak was Tyreek Hill.
In fact, Belichick went so far as to interrupt a reporter’s question to specifically cite Tyreek Hill’s speed. Plenty of teams have productive tight ends. Talented running backs. A few even have MVP-caliber quarterbacks. Nobody in the NFL has a receiver with Hill’s combination of speed and talent. It’s easy to see why Darth Hoodie was impressed. Hill absolutely decimated the Patriots in their last match up. Another big game from the receiver could easily push the Chiefs into the Super Bowl.
Chiefs: The Armory
The Chiefs would like a big game out of Tyreek Hill but they don’t need one. NFL offenses are about versatility. Can you remain efficient with whatever the defense doesn’t take away? All three of the Chiefs’ starting wide receivers are legitimate weapons. Their tight end is the best tight end in the NFL this season. Their primary back is a talented runner. Their secondary back is great out of the backfield. Their quarterback can run the ball with his legs or pass in and outside the pocket. Heck even their fullback Anthony Sherman has been known to catch the occasional touchdown. Not to mention these receivers will have the benefit of the best quarterback and offensive coordinator in the NFL this season. Kansas City’s offensive ceiling is ridiculous.
Patrick Mahomes is vulnerable to some creative blitzing. You will notice he was sacked twice on slot corner blitzes in the divisional round, even though it’s rare to see a slot corner excel as a blitzer. Mahomes really had no idea when it was coming which is why he got taken down both times. In the game against the Chiefs earlier this year, the zero blitz proved to be a key weapon for the Patriots in unsettling Mahomes. Yes, he missed a wide open shot to Kareem Hunt one time but he also missed several open throws due to a defender getting into his face at the last possible second to make him throw inaccurate passes.
The Patriots simply don’t have the players to get pressure on Mahomes by rushing four, so they will need to rely on the blitz just like they have all season. Getting after Mahomes with creative blitzing will be absolutely essential.
Chiefs: Defensive Line
The Chiefs have two, arguably three, players on the defensive line that are worthy of doubling. Chris Jones is an absolute monster and has double digits sacks as a defensive tackle. The team leads the NFL in sacks and strips sacks, it makes life hell for quarterbacks. You do not need a good secondary with a pass rush this fierce, you just need an okay one. The Chiefs are going to get after Brady in a way they could not before because of Justin Houston. They are also going to defend the run better because of Houston. I think it’s more probable the Patriots win in the trenches but the Chiefs’ defensive line is capable of winning that battle and that would spell doom for New England.
Chiefs and Patriots: Quarterbacks
Mahomes is the league MVP and one of the most talented players I have ever seen. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback who has ever lived. Each one of those players has the ability to take over a game on any given Sunday. A dominant performance by either could easily win their team the game and both players have a high probability of putting up such an outing.
Patriots: Road Defense
Fun fact. The Patriots have one of the NFL’s worst road defenses this year. At home they have been one of the NFL’s best. This is a negative pivot. It’s not the Patriot defense having a high probability of dominating the Chiefs — it won’t. But it MUST not play poorly. Unfortunately, the record indicates there is no guarantee that will not happen.
I think Brady and the offensive line have a good game. I think they chew clock and the Patriots running backs have highly efficient games. I think the Patriots get lucky on a couple of blitzes and the boys in the secondary make some good plays. The Patriots will get at least three stops, one turnover, and score over twenty five points. Tom Brady outplays Patrick Mahomes by a little.
It won’t be enough.
The Patriots will not benefit from an early two-score lead and the Chiefs will be able to chew New England up on the ground as Andy Reid’s offenses have historically done against Patriot defenses. This will open up the passing offense and put points on the board. The Patriots secondary will put up a better fight than any other secondary the Chiefs have faced this season but it won’t be enough because the defensive line will be incapable of taking advantage of the secondary’s heroics.
The Chiefs will double Trey Flowers almost every snap and no one else on the defensive line will make them pay for it. That will not be the case for the Chiefs, whose monstrous defensive line will sack Brady multiple times and force at least one turnover. The Chiefs secondary will be passed on with relative success but its improved play, monster defensive line, and the loss of Josh Gordon will allow them to slow Tom Brady down as the thundering roar of the stadium causes miscommunication prior to the snap multiple times for the Patriots.
The Chiefs special teams, meanwhile, one of the best units in the NFL, makes at least one crucial play to tip the game in its favor. Overall, the Kansas City defense will do enough. The Chiefs’ overwhelming offensive weapons when combined with the clever scheming and quality throwing of Patrick Mahomes, will do more than enough to win the game.
Final Score: Patriots 27, Chiefs: 34
I haven’t picked the Patriots to lose a playoff game since the 2013 AFC Championship. I am picking against them this time for the exact same reason I did then. They are playing on the road against a team that is objectively better. I am sure this prediction will cause a lot hate and shade to be thrown my way. So be it. Yes, the Patriots have beaten a lot of teams that are more talented. The difference is that this time the quarterback disparity is minimal and Andy Reid’s offenses have historically had their way with Belichick since coming to Kansas City.
If the Patriots might be at a coaching disadvantage, the quarterbacks are a push, and the other team is definitely more talented, AND they are playing on their home turf than it’s impossible for me to objectively pick the Pats. I think there is a path to a Patriots victory. It’s the freaking Patriots. Of course they can win. I just think the Chiefs pathways are more likely and more numerous.
P.S. Anyone who says a loss here is the end of the dynasty, and you bet your bottom they will, is pants on their head stupid.