It will be dark and cold, perhaps absurdly cold, Sunday night in Kansas City. Arrowhead Stadium will be lit up, though, and the winner of the Patriots-Chiefs game will head to Atlanta for the Super Bowl.
Here’s how they match up:
WHEN NEW ENGLAND HAS THE BALL
As they have much of the season, the Patriots will attempt to strike a balance of run and pass. In rookie Sony Michel (26), they have a ground force, and in fellow RB James White (28), they have perhaps the best receiver out of the backfield in the league.
Don’t think Tom Brady (12) won’t make use of them often — and more often. Against the Chargers, White tied an NFL postseason mark with 15 catches, totaling 97 yards. The one thing Kansas City can do exceptionally well on defense is rush the passer with DT Chris Jones (95), LBs Justin Houston (50) and Dee Ford (55), so Brady will throw those quick shots to his backs and WR Julian Edelman (11) and TE Rob Gronkowski (87). Should the offensive line led by LT Trent Brown (77), C David Andrews (60) and RG Shaq Mason (69) provide ample time, Brady can then look deep, where he could have significant matchup edges with Edelman, Chris Hogan (15), Phillip Dorsett (13) and even Cordarrelle Patterson (84).
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will need to be aggressive all game; we saw what happens when an opponent isn’t when Brady and Michel ripped up the Chargers last week. Sutton’s secondary has no dynamic players — S Eric Berry (29) is the best but has not been healthy this season — and using six DBs could be a necessity Sunday. The Chiefs (52 sacks) must get a strong pass rush on Brady, making him throw off-balance or before he wants to.
One thing in Kansas City’s favor is a plus-9 turnover margin.
WHEN KANSAS CITY HAS THE BALL
Don’t change what you have been doing.
All-Pro Patrick Mahomes (15) is only the third quarterback to throw for at least 50 touchdowns in a season; Brady also did it in 2007. Mahomes never gives up on plays, and he has an uncanny skill at prolonging them until WRs Tyreek Hill (10), Sammy Watkins (14) or Chris Conley (17) and All-Pro TE Travis Kelce (87) get open. Hill was the AP’s All-Pro flex player, showing his versatility.
Considering his mobility, strong arm and resourcefulness, it is surprising Mahomes was sacked 26 times. New England, which had 30 sacks this season, wants to keep him bottled up, so key confrontations could be All-Pro RT Mitchell Schwartz (71) vs. DE Trey Flowers (98), and LT Eric Fisher (72) against an assortment of pass rushers. The Patriots also will get their linebackers into the mix, particularly Dont’a Hightower (54) and Kyle Van Noy (53).
Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore (24) is an All-Pro and will see plenty of Hill. How the other DBs handle Kelce and Mahomes’ other targets could be a deciding factor; the New England secondary has been victimized often in road games.
Given the potential for cold weather, the Chiefs could work hard to run the ball with Damien Williams (26), who has stepped up nicely since Kareem Hunt was released, and Spencer Ware (32), who has battled a hamstring injury. Mahomes doesn’t use his backs often in the passing game but they are solid.
Both sides are reliable and have some dangerous elements in the return game. Kansas City has Hill for punts and rookie Tremon Smith (39) for kickoffs, while New England features Patterson on kickoffs and the always-reliable Edelman on punts. The cold weather could make the football feel like a lead weight for punters Ryan Allen (6) of the Patriots and Dustin Colquitt (2) of the Chiefs, though wind shouldn’t bother either of them; they’re used to it.
Field goals could be another matter. Although New England’s Stephen Gostkowski (3) and Kansas City’s Harrison Butker (7) have strong and accurate legs, don’t be stunned to see both teams go for some fourth downs. Gostkowski is far more seasoned in pressure spots.
Andy Reid is 2-6 against New England. He’s had one of his best coaching years, though, and his handling of Mahomes has been remarkable. As long as he pushes the envelope, and avoids playing not to lose, he will give Kansas City every chance to reach its first Super Bowl since the 1969 season.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels recognizes his team will need to score aplenty, and he never backs off. The Patriots might be losing defensive coordinator Brian Flores to Miami as Dolphins head coach, and he could show why he deserves that spot by finding a way to slow down a Chiefs team that scored 565 points this season.
The Patriots, in their record eighth straight conference title game, are so experienced in this environment. Yet they claim to feel slighted because of the doubts raised about their level of competence after going 3-5 on the road. A ticked-off Brady is never a good thing for the opposition, and the Patriots could become only the third franchise to reach three straight Super Bowls.
Still, Kansas City is so parched for a trip to the big game — the Chiefs went to two of the first four Super Bowls and won in 1970, but none since. And this team has a freshness about it largely thanks to Mahomes, who shattered nearly every franchise passing record this season.
Their meeting in October could have gone either way, with New England getting the ball last and making the final, winning drive. And that was in Foxborough.
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