For only just the fourth time this decade, the AFC Championship will not be held at Gillette Stadium. And, for the very first time ever, the game will be held at legendary Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City – long said to be one of the loudest, craziest, and toughest venues to play in throughout the entire NFL.
Some are also saying it could be a symbolic changing of the guard were the Chiefs to win, as 41-year-old Tom Brady – the man, the myth, the legend, the G.O.A.T. – is set to square off against 23-year-old NFL phenom Patrick Mahomes – the young hotshot (and likely MVP) who posted 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. Perhaps not since a young Tom Brady has a signal-caller burst onto the scene so quickly and with such force, and now they’re set to face each other for a chance to win a title. How poetic.
The game will also feature two top-five offenses, which both averaged well over 3.5 touchdowns per game in 2018 and are loaded at pretty much every position on that side of the ball.
On defense, it’s a bit of a different story. Both teams finished in the bottom third of the league in total defense this season, even though the Pats have given up six less points per game. This, coupled with the explosive offenses on both sides, might lead many to believe we’re in for a shootout; however, most reports are predicting single-digit temperatures at kickoff, which is obviously going to affect both teams’ ability to move the ball.
This one is gonna be fun.
Before we get into the preview, here’s a look at when, where, and how to watch the game along with the latest lines:
- Location: Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, MO)
- Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 20, 6:40 p.m. ET
- TV: CBS
- Odds (via Odds Shark): Patriots: +3 (spread) / Patriots: +145 (moneyline) / 55.5 (total)
For the first time this season, the Patriots actually have a plus sign in front of the spread on their side of the line; that’s because this is the first time, in 17 games this season, that the Pats are the underdog. It is not the first time they’ve ever been a dog in the postseason; in fact, it has happened seven times during the Brady/Belichick era. But most of those games came early on in the run, during TB12’s younger days, as the Pats have been the favorite all but ONCE in their other playoff games since 2006. It’s important to note, though, that the team is 1-4 in their last five road playoff games.
But rather than continue to get caught up in numbers and past history, let’s instead take a look at who these two teams are this season.
Again, while I did say last week that Los Angeles might have the most talented roster from top to bottom in the AFC, there’s no doubt that Kansas City’s offense is simply unmatched. Anyone who’s paid attention at all to the NFL this year knows just how prolific Mahomes has been, but the Chiefs also feature three other First Team All-Pros on offense (four in total, including Mahomes) and averaged a silly 35.3 points per game in 2018, good for third all-time.
Those other three players are wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce, and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Hill and Kelce form perhaps the most lethal WR/TE combo in the game right now, as they both combined to total 190 catches, 2,815 yards, and 22 touchdowns on the year. (WHAT???!!!) Those numbers are truly unbelievable, in every sense of the word.
Hill also torched the Pats the last time these two teams played, in Week 6, to the tune of 142 yards and three scores. His pure speed is almost superhero-esque, as he has routinely been clocked at speeds of 20-23 miles per hour (as a human being), and no matter whether the Pats choose to bracket him or not, this man can do some damage. No matter what.
Fortunately, the Pats have been great against tight ends this season, finishing eighth in DVOA against the position. They also held Kelce to just five catches and 51 yards back in October. Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon will be tasked with keeping him at bay once again, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t with how strong they’ve played all season.
And while many would expect the Chiefs running game to have crumbled after losing Kareem Hunt, they’ve actually been just fine without him. While partly due to injury, which has kept him out the past four games, Spencer Ware has not been as effective as the team hoped in Hunt’s stead. But, Damien Williams – a former Dolphins disappointment – has been reborn in Kansas City; since Week 13, when he was finally given the chance to play meaningful minutes, the 26-year-old has averaged 5.3 yards a carry and four catches per game. He’s also coming off a 154-yard, five-catch, one-score performance against the Colts last week. So, yeah, the Chiefs can still run the ball, too.
As pointed out in last night’s podcast, the Pats have actually put up more yards of total offense over the past six games (2,523) than the Chiefs (2,466), so there should be no doubt that they can keep up, especially against Kansas City’s lackluster defense. The only thing that can stop either side is the weather, which I do believe will be a factor.
Now, let’s get into some storylines and matchups to watch out for:
(Neutralize the Pass-Rush): For as much flak as Kansas City’s defense gets, they have a pretty good trio of pass-rushers in Justin Houston, Dee Ford, and Chris Jones. Ford (13 sacks in 2018) and Houston (a former All-Pro with nine sacks in just 12 games this year) are known commodities, but Jones exploded onto the scene this year with 15.5 QB takedowns of his own. We’ve talked at length about how good the Pats O-line has been this year, and they completely shut down Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa last week. They’ll have their hands full again in this one, though.
(Another Prime Spot for Sony): I said that Sony Michel would need to have a big game last week for the Pats to win, and he did just that with 129 rushing yards and three scores. He’s a big reason why the Pats were able to dominate time of possession, and he’ll need to do that again this week to keep the ball away from Mahomes and the rest of the Chiefs attack. Before last week, the Chiefs were giving up an average of 164.2 yards on the ground to opponents in the five games prior, and the rookie did have 106 yards and two scores against Kansas City in Week 6. Hopefully the kid steps up big once again on Sunday night.
(OH, and The Other Backs, Too): “Big Game James” White came to play when it mattered most once again, with 15 catches last week, tying an NFL postseason record for running backs. He’ll likely be relied upon once again to move the chains on short passes out of the backfield against a team that struggles mightily against the short-to-intermediate passing game. Rex Burkhead could also be called upon to share the load as well to keep the Chiefs guessing. Theoretically, the Patriots offense could actually run entirely through the running back corps on Sunday night, with a heavy dose of Julian Edelman sprinkled in as well – pretty much exactly the offense they ran to beat L.A. last week. (The Chiefs are also terrible against tight ends, so maybe we see good old Gronk helping out a bit as well. This is as good as spot as any for him to do so.)
It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be a battle, and it’s going to result in the Patriots going to yet another Super Bowl. Maybe it’s recency bias; maybe it’s because we got a guy named Tom Brady; or maybe it’s because I really just want it to happen. Regardless, I say the game remains close until late in the second half, when the Chiefs start to fade and Belichick out-coaches Andy Reid in the big moments with the game on the line. The Pats will take it 27-20 and head to Atlanta to try and secure ring No. 6.