By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This weekend’s AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs has all the makings to be a classic. It’ll feature the top two teams in the conference, with a young stud QB going up against the GOAT. Both lead an offense that can score in bunches, and their respective defenses actually showed up in the divisional round as well.
We’ll also see a pair of head coaching greats battling wits, with the great defensive mind of Bill Belichick against the great offensive mind of Andy Reid. One is known for making a slew of boneheaded gaffes on the sideline, while the other is looking to make up for a boneheaded gaffe in the biggest game of last season.
It’s not going to be as frigid as initially forecast, so maybe these two great offenses will be able to light up the scoreboard after all.
With the Patriots, the biggest question is which team will show up. Will it be the team that dismantled the L.A. Chargers last weekend in Foxboro, or the team that went 3-5 on the road during the regular season. The Chiefs lost just one home game this season: Week 16 against the Chargers.
We were treated to an early season preview of this game back in Week 6, when the Patriots won a good ole fashioned shootout, 43-40, at Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes combined for 694 passing yards in a game that featured a grand total of one punt. It was the most exciting game of the season at that point, and held that title until the Chiefs and L.A. Rams put up 105 points a month later. Boy, those Chiefs can really score.
The Patriots are looking to head to their third straight Super Bowl and fourth in the last five years, but they’ll have to win a conference championship on the road, something they haven’t done since 2004 in Pittsburgh. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots and Chiefs kick off Sunday evening in Missouri.
Running The Rock
A similar approach to last weekend’s divisional round win, when the Patriots ran the ball 34 times and threw to running backs another 19 times, wouldn’t be a bad thing come Sunday. The Chargers were one of the worst teams against the run (and against pass-catching running backs), and the Chiefs aren’t much better. They allowed five yards per carry during the regular season (worst in the league, though the Patriots were just a smidgen better at 4.9 yards per carry) and 132 rushing yards per game, good for 27th in the NFL.
Kansas City’s struggles with the run are highlighted here. To sum it up, they’re extremely crummy against running backs.
But not many teams had the luxury of running against the Chiefs, in that they usually found themselves in a giant hole on the scoreboard rather early. That was not the case for the Patriots in Week 6, as Sony Michel ripped off 106 rushing yards and two touchdowns, his first and only multi-score game in the regular season. And now he’s coming off an epic performance against the Chargers where he ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns.
There will be a healthy serving of short passes to James White, but give Sony the rock and let him run wild on Sunday. (Also, please let James Develin gets some carries. The world needs more fullback highlights.)
Make Mahomes Make Mistakes
The soon-to-be NFL MVP can make any throw with his cannon of an arm. He can buy time with his legs, or he can scamper for a first down all on his own. He can make throws to receivers he’s not even looking at. He can do it all; he’s awesome.
But perfect he is not. No one is. So the Patriots can force him into making mistakes, which they did with a bevy of different looks back in October. Mahomes threw a pair of interceptions in the first half that night, both on passes intended for tight end Travis Kelce. The Patriots completely fooled him on the second one, with Dont’a Hightower making it look like he’d be bursting through the middle, only to drop back into coverage and pluck Mahomes’ feeble attempt out of the Foxboro sky.
Those early miscues were huge, considering all but three of KC’s 11 possessions that game ended with them putting points on the board. Those turnovers allowed New England to jump out to a 24-9 lead at the half, before Air Patrick really got going and burned them for 188 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the second half.
New England will need to force a few more Mahomes mistakes Sunday. How they do it will be the interesting part. The Patriots sent loads of pressure at Philip Rivers last weekend, but that won’t be the case Sunday night with Mahomes. Unlike Rivers, Mahomes loves when blitzers come at him, using his athleticism to buy time and his brain to find openings in the D. Sending a ton of pressure at Rivers worked because he runs as though he’s giving Mahomes a piggyback. It will not work with Mahomes, who is pretty good at taking advantage of those situations.
Hill’s Big Play Potential
Belichick is going to try to take away KC’s biggest threat, and that man goes by the name of Tyreek Hill. Patriots fans are plenty familiar with him, having treated him to a free beer during his monster game at Gillette back in October. That evening, he had seven receptions for 142 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard touchdown late in he game. It was a pretty incredible performance.
And he’s had a big performance every game he’s faced the Patriots. All two of them. Back in Week 1 last season, Hill hauled in eight receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown, including (you guessed it) a 75-yard touchdown. That was with Alex Smith as his quarterback, which is fairly impressive.
Hill is a threat to break off a big, game-changing play whenever the ball is in his area code. He led the NFL with 27 receptions of 20 or more yards. Eight of those went for 40 or more yards, which was also tops in the league. The Patriots somehow lost him with just over three minutes to go back in Week 6, and he burned them for that 75-yard touchdown to tie the game at 40-40.
So what is Bill and the Patriots defense going to do about it? This is the kind of matchup Stephon Gilmore gets the big bucks for, and one he usually does pretty well in. But if Hill is able to break off a few big ones early, we could easily Gilmore on Sammy Watkins (which is kind of a waste) with Hill seeing plenty of double-teams from J.C. Jackson and Duron Harmon.
Pretty incredible that the Patriots could be asking an undrafted rookie to cover one of the most dynamic big-play receivers in the game on the biggest stage. But the 23-year-old Jackson has proven recently that he’s up to the challenge.
The Chiefs have had a knack for hitting the Patriots for big plays, as we saw throughout the last two matchups. Keeping those out of this contest is imperative for the Patriots if they want to secure a rare road win this season.
Hopefully Rob Gronkowski has plenty of Tide pods for all of his teammates.
We can forget about all that “Arctic Blast” talk from earlier this week. It’s going to be cold, but not record-setting cold, so that topic has become kinda boring. Now we can shift focus to the natural grass field at Arrowhead, which didn’t look too great during the divisional round.
Look at those divots!
The grounds crew in KC installed new sod late in the week, and it looks pretty good compared to what we saw last Saturday night. But how long will that last on Sunday? All of 10 minutes?
While the Patriots play on artificial turf at Gillette, their practice field is natural grass. The surface really shouldn’t matter. But the Patriots went 1-4 on grass fields during the regular season, and are 31-21 on grass since they switched to the turf in Foxboro in 2007. So maybe the surface does matter.
It’ll matter most to running backs Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead, along with receiver Julian Edelman and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. We’ll see how slippery the field is when the game kicks off, and how long it takes for it to get all choppy like last weekend. The Pats will be out well ahead of kickoff to test the conditions, so it really shouldn’t be too big of a factor.
But the Patriots’ road woes were real this season, and are the reason this game is being played in Kansas City and not Foxboro. If the Pats win on Sunday, they’ll become just the third team to ever reach the Super Bowl after posting a losing road record during the regular season.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Chiefs AFC Championship Game on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with a special 90-minute edition of Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 6:40 p.m., and after the game stay tuned for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!