With the 49ers and Chiefs prevailing in their respective conference championship games, the first non-Patriots Super Bowl since February 2016 is set. There's little question that these are the two most balanced teams in the NFL and that will make Super Bowl 54 an intriguing matchup that could go either way.
What can the Patriots take from how the playoffs have unfolded this season? It was a strange feeling not having them playing in the conference championship for the first time since January of 2011. New England has their work cut out for them to get back to championship-level football in 2020.
Here are five Patriots-centric takeaways from what we've witnessed in the playoffs this season.
If there was one aspect of the two games that stood out the most, it was the explosiveness of the two winners, one through the air, the other on the ground. The Chiefs were once again throwing the ball up and down the field, while the 49ers rushed for 285 yards on the ground and the speed of their defense caused problems for Aaron Rodgers all night long.
The 2019 Patriots didn't have that speed from their weapons nor their front seven. In the secondary, the Patriots had the pieces to match up with the Chiefs, but what was apparent in their loss to Kansas City in Week 14, it's one thing to limit the Chiefs to just 23 points, but you have to be able to keep pace on the scoreboard.
The Titans got off to a good start on Sunday, getting help from some mistakes and sloppy play from the Chiefs, but once Kansas City found their stride the game was no longer competitive. That was the difference for the 2018 Patriots in last year's AFC Championship - after a similarly good start they were able to weather the storm and hit back in the second half. Even then it still came down to overtime.
Improving team speed at linebacker, tight end and wide receiver, should be a priority. The Chiefs aren't going away and dealing with them should be on every AFC team's mind this offseason.
Stop the Run
The run game had a huge impact on both victories as the Chiefs ability to slow down Derrick Henry in the second half and the 49ers ability to run the ball at will against the Packers were huge factors why both teams advanced.
Obviously, the Patriots had their own season-ending problems trying to stop Derrick Henry, but their run defense was up and down all season and that issue must be addressed, because like the Chiefs, the Ravens will also be back next season.
Those are two very different but explosive and often unstoppable offenses that the Patriots will face in 2020. The good news is that the answer is still the same, improving the front seven by adding better depth along the defensive line and improving the speed at the second level.
Maintaining the depth and speed of the secondary would also seem to be a critical part of the plan, as it was last offseason.
The ways that the Ravens and Titans finally bowed out this post season is a good reminder that running the ball can be really effective, but if you get in a hole, lose your ground dominance late in the game and it's really hard to win against teams that can put up 30 points-per-game.
It's a strange balancing act in the NFL right now. Some teams have won a lot of big games lately because they've attacked smaller defenses that were built to stop the pass with power run schemes. It's effective when you couple effective running with efficient passing and limited mistakes. But start giving up quick, explosive scores and the game plan for running teams can quickly unravel.
The Patriots have a lot of run-stopping decisions with many of their defensive linemen and linebackers set to hit free agency, while the team will welcome back Sony Michel and James White, while potentially seeing Damien Harris swapped in for Rex Burkhead. But perhaps the return of James Develin would be the most welcomed and impactful development this offseason.
There will be plenty of Garoppolo-Patriots talk these next two weeks but a silver lining must be that the Patriots identified and developed another really good quarterback in-house, who now has a chance to win a Super Bowl as a starter. That doesn't mean it will be easy to do again and it definitely doesn't guarantee it, but Patriots fans should take some pride and confidence away from Garoppolo's appearance in the Super Bowl.
Some might lament letting Garoppolo leave, but the Patriots AFC Championship win against the Chiefs last season, along with the sixth Super Bowl title against the Rams loom even larger now. Those are two signature wins of the Patriots dynasty that wouldn't have happened had the Patriots turned every thing over in the 2017 offseason.
These are the two most balanced teams in the league and that should make Super Bowl 54 an excellent matchup. San Francisco's defense might actually be able to slow down the Chiefs potent attack. It's a good bet the Patriots approach to KC will be something defensive coordinator Robert Saleh studies closely.
But what truly makes this a fascinating game is the 49ers offense that leaned heavily on the run against the Packers but still has the speed and explosiveness in the passing game to compete however the game unfolds. That's what Tennessee lacked and why the Chiefs were able to pull away on Sunday. Garoppolo will have to make plays in Miami and he has the kind of weaponry to keep pace with the Chiefs.
The 2019 Patriots almost had enough defense alone to get it done against the Chiefs, but that game ended in a loss for the same reason their season ended against the Titans, the inability of the offense to finish and get critical crunch-time yards. Injuries hampered a Patriots team that had that important balance in 2018 and they'll be aiming to get it back in 2020.
Ups and Downs
Both Super Bowl teams this season had their flaws and down moments. The Chiefs lost Mahomes for two games and had a 2-4 stretch, while the 49ers went 3-3 from mid-November to mid-December, supposedly the times when teams are supposed to be peaking.
Always bubbling under the surface of those struggles were that these were two of the best teams in the league and both were able to fight through the adversity. There is no set formula for championship-level success and very few teams can make it through a season without their chances being questioned.
It's an annual rite of passage in New England, one that comes because of monumental expectations that have built up over the last 20 seasons.
What sets the Chiefs and 49ers apart is that they are simply playing their best football in January and that's all that truly matters. Few teams know better than the Patriots that this is the way it usually goes, and the best teams learn to embrace the journey and fight through the tough losses. We'll see which of the two gets to the final peak of the mountain.