A year ago the Chiefs rolled through the regular season to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture as just about everything went right for the K.C. offense and MVP first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Heck, the Chiefs averaged nearly 38 points per game in their four losses last fall, including a 43-40 defeat at Gillette Stadium.
They earned the right to host the Patriots in the AFC title game and many believe were a mere coin flip away from a trip to the Super Bowl.
As is so often the case in sports, though, one smooth-sailing season is followed by rougher seas. This fall injuries to Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, as well as uncharacteristic struggles at home at Arrowhead Stadium, have Kansas City heading to Foxborough for this Sunday evening’s AFC Championship Game rematch with an 8-4 record, matching its loss total from a year ago.
But, there is certainly still plenty of firepower with Mahomes and Hill seemingly getting healthy and tight end Travis Kelce, as Bill Belichick would tell it, one of most productive overall pass catchers in the NFL.
“You can call Kelce whatever you want. He’s one of the best receivers in the league,” Belichick emphasized. “He’s their leading receiver. You can put him up against any receiver in the league and statistically he’ll match up with anybody you want to put him against, basically, over the last five years. So, you can call him whatever you want to call him.”
Kelce leads the Chiefs with 68 receptions for 923 yards with four touchdowns on the season.
“He’s good at everything,” Belichick continued. “He’s big, he’s fast, he’s good after the catch, does a really good job of gaining leverage on defenders. He also creates space for other players as well. He’s a smart player, very smart. So, good at all of it. He’s a hard guy to tackle when he gets the ball.
“He’s got every tight end route, he’s got every receiver route. I mean, there’s not a route he doesn’t run. So, does everything but run routes out of the backfield – probably does some of that, but maybe they’re saving that. I don’t know. But yeah, he’s got all of receiving – they put him out. He’s a receiver, so he runs all of the receiver routes, and he’s a tight end, he runs all the tight end routes.”
Belichick also acknowledged that Hill is clearly the fastest player in the NFL, even if his injuries have limited him to 38 catches on the season.
And Mahomes, despite that dislocated kneecap suffered on a QB sneak, is chugging along with 20 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions with a 107.7 passer rating for the NFL’s No. 3 scoring attack.
It may not be coming quite as effortlessly as it did a year ago when Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes, but the now-healthy Chiefs have the potential to be as dangerous as ever in this late-season meeting with a Patriots defense that’s sputtered a bit at times over the last month.
“Like, you turn on the film, it’s almost like they don’t win the same way each week. They just have so much talent,” Devin McCourty concluded. “I think it’s like a chess match. We have to be able to match what they do early in the game, what they do in the middle of the game and what they do late in the game. It’s not really going to stay the same. Whatever we’re doing to them, if it’s working well for us, they’re going to come and do something else.
“I think we know it, but with this team, the hardest thing is going out there and executing and playing to it. So, that’s what we’ve got to be ready to do for 60 minutes.”
Considering that the two teams played one contest decided by a field goal and another that went to overtime a year ago, it could take even more than 60 minutes.
Heading into Sunday evening’s long anticipated AFCG rematch between the Patriots and Chiefs – Brady vs. Mahomes III if you will – here are a half dozen key factors to focus on in this critical AFC battle.
Get your Michel running! – The Chiefs do not have a very good run defense, allowing opponents to average 5.1 yards per carry and more than 141 yards per game. A year ago Sony Michel topped the 100-yard mark in both meetings with Kansas City while scoring a pair of touchdowns in each of those Patriots’ wins. While much of the season has been a struggle, Michel has averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry in three of the last four weeks, including the two games since Isaiah Wynn has returned to the lineup. Given the way the passing game has been sputtering, this matchup with the NFL’s No. 30 rushing defense seems like a perfect week to get Michel his first game of the season with more than 25 carries and more than 100 yards. Let the running game do its job and, just maybe, open up the passing game.
Slow the early roll – One of the real keys to the Patriots sweeping the Chiefs last season was getting off to a good start on offense and keeping Kansas City from rolling too early with its own attack. The Patriots got out to leads of 10-3 and 17-6 in Foxborough last October before clawing out the close win. New England then led 14-0 and 17-7 at Arrowhead in the AFC title game before having to go to overtime to secure victory. The Chiefs have the ability to pounce early and play from ahead, which is what all teams want to do. Conversely, New England just isn’t really built to come back from early deficits. It would certainly behoove Belichick’s team to score early and keep K.C. off the scoreboard for as long as possible, especially considering the kind of show Mahomes put on the second half of both meetings a year ago.
Edelman, White and…? – Even if the Patriots can get the running game going, it’s still likely Tom Brady will have to make a decent number of plays in the passing game in this matchup. The Chiefs have scored less than 24 points just once all season. New England hasn’t topped 24 points since before Halloween. The passing attack for Brady of late has been a whole lot of Julian Edelman and James White and not a whole hell of a lot else. The rookies – Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry – have been inefficient and frustrating at times. Mohamed Sanu just hasn’t been able to make much of an impact. The tight end position remains an afterthought. A week ago Houston doubled Edelman early and used cornerbacks on White, limiting the passing game. Brady and Josh McDaniels have to find other ways to inject life in the passing game to ease the burden on Edelman and White while giving the overall offense a boost. Will the real third option please stand up? Time is running out.
Matching game – As has been the case often in recent weeks the strength vs. strength matchup in this game is New England’s defense against Kansas City’s offense. It will be interesting to see how Belichick and his defensive staff deploy their coverage bodies against the Chiefs’ dangerous weapons. It would seemingly make sense to put Stephon Gilmore on Kelce and then use Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty to double Hill. That scheme worked to some degree a year ago. If New England can win those battles, that will force Mahomes to utilize his secondary options and the Patriots complementary defenders to prove themselves. Between the on-field matchups and the off-field battle of wits between Andy Reid and Belichick, it should be fun to watch how this meeting of a star-driven, high-end offense and a deep, versatile, playmaking defense.
Cliché football – Turnovers, third down and red zone. Those are the three areas that coaches and analysts most often point to when breaking down a football game. Maybe they are overused. Or, maybe, they really do decide most football games, including this one. The Patriots have fed off turnovers all season, but K.C. is a plus-8 in its own right. Both teams have average less than one giveaway a game this season. Overall, though, it would seem the Patriots need to take the ball away from the Chiefs to give themselves a chance to win. The Patriots have the NFL’s best third-down defense, although it was less dominant last week in Houston. K.C. has the third-best third-down defense. On the flip side the New England offense and Chiefs defense are very much mediocre on third down. That could make for some very interesting money-down battles depending on possession. Finally, football math always wins. Meaning? Well, that means scoring seven points in the red zone rather than settling for field goals – especially for a Patriots team that reached the end of the week without a kicker on the roster – could very well be the difference between winning and losing. If Brady’s season-long red zone frustrations continue it could be a long night. Win the clichés – turnovers, third down and red zone – and you’ll almost certainly win the game. You can get that kind of analysis just about everywhere!
Prediction – The Patriots haven’t lost at home in more than two years. Haven’t lost a home game against an AFC foe with Brady and Edelman playing together in far longer than that. But those numbers don’t tell the story of the Patriots current situation. Kansas City hits town getting healthier and feeling better about a late-season uptick on both sides of the ball. The Patriots will almost certainly try to run the ball early and probably often. If they can do that it will limit the scoring and keep Mahomes, Hill, Kelce and the rest on the sideline. It will be interesting if Michel and the Patriots’ line – with James Ferentz now in the middle of the action at center – are ready to get the job done. It’s hard to have much faith in the Patriots passing attack right now, even against a suspect Chiefs pass defense. It’s on the running game in this one. Defensively, it’s not very realistic to expect the Patriots to dominate Mahomes and the Chiefs talent the way the unit did against the likes of the Dolphins, Jets or Giants earlier in the year. They should be competitive, but they are going to give up plays and points. Maybe this is alarmist, reactionary picking here, but in the end this feels like it has the potential for a 27-17 win for the Chiefs.