When the Patriots have the ball: The Patriots ground out 31 first downs in the first meeting, as Tom Brady only made a handful of mistakes (including a fumble) in mostly carving up the Chiefs’ secondary. He won’t have as deep a pass-catching unit this time, with Josh Gordon (5-42-0 receiving on nine targets) out of the picture. But Brady still has firepower if Sunday’s win over the Chargers is any indication.
Sony Michel was a workhorse in the first Chiefs matchup and in the Chargers game, and James White was a go-to receiver last week. Both figure to play big roles in this game, too. So should Julian Edelman, who reminded us last week he can still deliver a dominant performance. Even if Rob Gronkowski’s receiving role is limited by his physical condition, one look at the Chargers tape showed he still moves people in the run game.
The biggest test for the Chiefs will come in the secondary, where their young corners (Charvarius Ward, Kendall Fuller, Steven Nelson, Jordan Lucas) and safeties (Daniel Sorensen, Eric Murray) have hung tough through a few rough patches.
Of course, the Chiefs’ strength defensively helps them, too. Dee Ford has been terrific off the edge. Justin Houston remains an impact defender. Chris Jones is going to be a tough assignment, even for a good Patriots offensive line. This battle might be won or lost up front.
When the Chiefs have the ball: As tough as Patrick Mahomes is to defend, we need to talk about Tyreek Hill for a moment. In Mahomes’ four worst games by passer rating this season, Hill was held to an average of 9.0 yards per target and totaled zero receiving TDs. In the other 13 games this season, Hill averaged 10.8 yards per target and had 12 TD catches.
The Patriots know this all too well. They had few answers for Hill’s speed in Week 6, as he caught seven passes (on 12 targets) for 142 yards and touchdowns of 14, 1 and 67 yards — all in the second half. As great as Mahomes has been inside and outside the pocket, turning in an MVP-caliber season, he’s not been at his finest when Hill has been slowed down.
This has to be the defensive focus for the Patriots, who don’t mind giving up yards but can’t allow deep shots to connect consistently. Bill Belichick-coached defenses almost never let the opposition do the same thing in the second meeting. Do they risk putting rookie J.C. Jackson on Hill (with safety help)?
TE Travis Kelce could be in line for a big game again, but there’s only so much you can do; you can’t double multiple players. The Chiefs’ O-line has been terrific, and the Patriots have only so many difference makers up front, chiefly DE Trey Flowers. Can they disrupt Mahomes’ timing at all?
Special teams: The Chiefs might have the best overall special teams in the game, although they did have a punt blocked for a TD last week and nearly coughed up a fumble on a return. The Patriots have solid special teams overall, and Cordarrelle Patterson is a home-run threat. Both teams’ kickers are battle-tested, although the weather could wreak havoc on the kicking game.
Coaching: If you had to name the two best and most accomplished coaches of this generation, you might start with Bill Belichick and Andy Reid. Their records are nearly unimpeachable, although Belichick’s postseason success is on a different level. Still, what Reid has done to help transform this team — and let Mahomes shred defenses with little holding back — cannot go overlooked. Embattled Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton turned in a masterpiece last week, but now he must slow down the creative, game-specific plan of Josh McDaniels.
Prediction: These teams go about their business in different ways, and sometimes it’s not as easy to see how New England is so successful in what it does. The Patriots are well-coached, re-energized and motivated to continue their season with another Super Bowl run. But I can’t pick against the Chiefs at Arrowhead, even as great as Belichick and Brady are in big games. Mahomes throws one too many daggers and out-duels the masters to reach the Chiefs’ first Super Bowl in 49 years.
Chiefs 33, Patriots 27