By Norm Elrod
(CBS Boston/CBS Local) — One of these days everyone will pick against the New England Patriots, and they’ll be right. Certainly last Sunday wasn’t that day. The Patriots blasted the Los Angeles Chargers, who many had predicted could run the table as a wild card. On their first four possessions, Tom Brady methodically moved his offense down the field for touchdowns. The score was 35-7 at halftime. The game was essentially already over.
The Kansas City Chiefs are not the Chargers. And while it’s hard to claim the Chiefs were really any better in the regular season — the AFC West foes had 12-4 records and split head-to-head matchups — they certainly looked better in the divisional round. The Chiefs stifled the red-hot Indianapolis Colts 30-13, and they did it with help from the defense. Patrick Mahomes was his usual productive self, spreading the ball around to his many weapons. But the Chiefs’ bemoaned defense, which contained Andrew Luck, was the real story.
The AFC’s two top seeds will meet each other in Kansas City to determine which team moves on to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII. This is a rematch from Week 6, when the Patriots beat the Chiefs in a shootout in Foxboro. Brady went 24-35 passing for 340 yards and touchdown in that game; Mahomes went 23-36 passing for 352 yards and four touchdowns. The AFC Championship could very well play out the same way.
Brady showed last week that at 41 years old, without his usual arsenal of weapons, he can still get it done. The Patriots offense relies on between-the-tackles runs and short, quick passes, and the strategy worked well against the Chargers. Rookie Sony Michel picked up 129 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. James White had 15 catches out of the backfield, and slot receiver Julian Edelman added nine more. Rob Gronkowski, who had one catch for 25 yards in his latest disappearing act, wasn’t a factor. Still, the Patriots seemed to move the ball at will, especially in the first half.
Brady meets Mahomes this week, in what may seem like a sort of passing of the torch. Kansas City’s second-year quarterback is a natural passer and a natural athlete, who seems to create highlight-worthy clips on a weekly basis. He had his fair share against the Colts, en route to another win, including a sidearm pass under pressure to Travis Kelce. What will he do this week to electrify fans?
Surrounded by outstanding playmakers, Mahomes will certainly have options. Damien Williams racked up 129 yards on 25 carries last week, and provides enough of a threat to force defenses to respect the run. Kelce has become the new Gronk, pulling in seven catches for 108 yards. Tyreek Hill, who had eight catches for 72 yards, and Sammy Watkins, who added six more for 62 yards, can get behind defenses seemingly at will.
What can these defenses do to slow down these offenses, if anything? That will very likely be the difference.
The Patriots defense did a better job against the Chargers than the score indicates. Most of the Chargers’ yardage and points came in the second half, with Philip Rivers in comeback mode. New England also controlled the line of scrimmage early, limiting Melvin Gordon and forcing Los Angeles to abandon the run in favor the pass. The Patriots were much better against the run than the pass in the regular season. They still pressured the immobile Rivers enough to force mistakes. Mahomes, however, is often at his best when forced from the pocket.
The Chiefs defense this season was almost as bad as the offense was good, ranking near the bottom of the League against the run and the pass. But these much talked-about deficiencies are actually a little misleading. Part of the problem was that their offense jumped out to leads, forcing opposing offenses to play catch-up. The Chiefs actually tied for the NFL lead in sacks during the regular season. The unit has improved of late, and looked downright dominant against the Colts, setting the tone with three-and-outs on the Colts’ first four possessions. The Chiefs defense is much weaker than the offense, but it is capable of making a difference.
What does all of this mean?
This will be another high-scoring game, though probably less so than their previous matchup. The Over/Under is currently 56, and that seems a little low. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will pick apart the Chiefs defense. Their pass rush won’t be a factor for a couple reasons. The effective Sony Michel forces the defense to respect the run, meaning they can’t just attack the quarterback. And with all the short passing plays, Brady won’t have the ball long enough for defense to touch him; he knows where to go with ball before he has it. Mahomes will light up the Patriots defense as well. The Chiefs just have too much firepower for the Patriots to counter.
The Patriots were 3-5 on the road during the regular season, and Tom Brady hasn’t won a road playoff game in 12 years. The Chiefs, on the other hand, are 8-1 at home this season. The cold weather won’t be a huge factor. But this is Mahomes’ first postseason, while Brady has won five Super Bowls in his many trips to the playoffs. The pressure of moment will matter.
The Patriots come in as three-point underdogs this week and have a big chip on their shoulder. Belichick will find a way to limit Mahomes just enough to get the win.
SportsLine analyst Adam Thompson also sees the Patriots having the advantage where it matters most…
Patrick Mahomes is a superstar and the game is in Kansas City. But if this game, in frigid conditions, comes down to the run game, the Patriots have a considerable edge. If it comes down to needing a big play on defense, the Patriots have more playmakers to get it done, and a much-better overall unit. If it comes down to experience, then Tom Brady is unrivaled. KC looked great last week against the Colts, but it still had the worst pass defense in the regular season. It’s not impossible to think a torch will be passed Sunday, but Bill Belichick will have his team ready — just like last week.