Every dominant athlete has had a weakness in their career. Whether it be a venue or exploitable trait, no athlete is perfect. LeBron James could not win in Boston, until he created two separate super teams in Miami and Cleveland. Roger Federer has a difficult time playing on the clay at the French Open. Clayton Kershaw crumbles during the postseason, especially on the road. For Tom Brady, it’s playing in three specific cities: Denver, Miami, and Kansas City. On Sunday, Brady will attempt to win only his second game ever at Arrowhead Stadium. This time, however, he and the Patriots will be riding an unfamiliar mantra.
The Patriots Are Underdogs
For the past 68 games as a starter, including the postseason, Tom Brady has been favored to win. That is a statistic that will never be broken, and for good reason. It is absurd to be favored to win for basically 4 seasons of football, but they don’t call it a dynasty for nothing. This weekend, however, that streak will be buried.
The Chiefs are 3 point favorites to win the AFC Title game (which virtually means oddsmakers are calling this game a ‘pick ’em’ because the home team is automatically given 3 points). Last weekend in the Divisional round, if you listened to any major sports news outlet, you would have thought the Chargers were 12 point favorites. Every “analyst” was picking the Chargers to win by a landslide, and predicting the New England dynasty to crumble like a sandcastle after a wave rides over it. Of course, like usual, everyone was wrong and the Patriots won in dominating fashion. The experts are at again this week as well, and New England now truly feels like an underdog.
With this newfound underdog mentality, the Patriots ride into a hostile Kansas City. Home to the likely NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and one of the loudest sports venues in the world, this will be no easy task. Brady and the Patriots will need to find a way to stop this high-flying offense in front of their home crowd and in sub-freezing temperatures. How can they do it? By simply being the Patriots.
Defending Against The Chiefs
Bill Belichick is the best coach in the history of the NFL, bar none. There is no debate with Don Shula or Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh, since those were much simpler times with no salary cap. However, this upcoming bout with the Chiefs will test his abilities to the maximum. If New England has a chance of beating KC, Belichick will need to implement a strong plan of attack for the defense. In their first matchup in Week 6, the Patriots made it a priority to not have Travis Kelce beat them. They accomplished this by bumping him at the line of scrimmage, making it more difficult to run his routes. They also double covered with him Patrick Chung and another linebacker, forcing Mahomes to throw it to other receivers. Expect a similar plan to be in play this weekend, but the Patriots have someone else entirely to worry about.
Tyreek Hill is the most versatile receiver in football. His speed cannot be matched and his hands and catching ability are up there with Julio Jones and Antonio Brown. He can single handedly win games with his playmaking, as he almost did in Week 6. The Patriots in their last two meetings with Hill, have allowed a combined 275 yards and 4 touchdowns to the “Cheetah”. Hill cannot have it so easy this time around; Brian Flores and the defense needs to find a way to stop him. Expect the Patriots to use either Jason McCourty or J.C. Jackson on Hill with a double teaming safety over the top on all of his routes. Stephon Gilmore will likely take on the responsibility of shadowing Sammy Watkins.
Patrick Mahomes has been the best player in football this year and it can’t really be argued otherwise. 50 touchdowns and 5,300 yards as a second year player is quite remarkable. The Patriots will do everything in their power to not have a repeat of Week 6, where Mahomes put up a 40 spot. In order to do this, and put less pressure on the offense, the Patriots will need to make the Chiefs run the ball. Patrick Mahomes, if given the opportunity, will throw all day long and that is not a winning recipe.
New England will need to sell out to stop the pass and include some schemes and packages to stop the run up front. Chiefs running back Damien Williams has had a fine shortened season, but is no Kareem Hunt. If the Patriots are able to limit the damage in the running game while making it tough on Mahomes, they will have a shot.
In addition to limiting the ground attack, New England will have to mix in some pressure packages. Getting to Philip Rivers is the main reason the Chargers performed so poorly offensively in the Divisional round. The front seven will need to replicate that performance in some way again this weekend. The Chiefs offensive line is fairly average, so look for Trey Flowers to have another big game.
Brady Being Brady
Like most games, the Patriots will need Tom Brady to be Tom Brady if they have a chance of winning. In years past, Brady has felt some of the pressure lifted off his shoulders. 2011 against Baltimore, he was abysmal but the defense and Billy Cundiff came through. 2014 against the Colts, LeGarrette Blount rolled up and down the field similar to how Jonas Gray did it earlier in the year. However, one key factor of those AFC Championships? They were in Foxboro.
This one is in Arrowhead, a venue Brady has a very hard time winning in. This will be his first time playing here since he was essentially benched in Week 4 of 2014. That game led to Trent Dilfer’s famous rant about the Patriots and sparked a Super Bowl run. The Patriots felt like underdogs after that game and were “On To Cincinnati” with that mantra in mind. This time around in Arrowhead? They feel the same way.
After the Divisional Round win, many Patriot players, including Tom Brady and Devin McCourty, talked about how the media and the world thinks “they suck and can’t win games”. They are truly embracing the underdog role, similarly to how Philadelphia did last year. With this mentality in mind and a solid gameplan behind them, this game could go the Patriots’ way, even in Arrowhead Stadium against the likely NFL MVP.
Keys To The Game
The defense can’t let Mahomes beat them through the air and the offense needs to score rapidly so they don’t get behind early on the road. The sub-freezing temperatures bodes well for Tom Brady, as he is 24-5 in such games. The run game will once again have to play a huge role, helping to set up the play action. The Chiefs cornerbacks are below average at best and Brady should be able to pick them apart with decent offensive line help.
All in all, this game could go either way. The Patriots could very well come out flat like they did in Pittsburgh in Week 15. The Chiefs could score 14 in five minutes and from there the game is likely out of reach. Although, the Patriots could also storm out into the freezing, belligerent environment and remind everyone why they are called the best sports dynasty in history. This one is a toss up, and will come down to which team prepares better and is able to execute their game plan the best.