The good news in New England is that the Patriots got on the road again toward another possible Super Bowl trip with last Sunday afternoon's dominating win over the overmatched Chargers at Gillette Stadium.
The impressive victory pushed Bill Belichick's team to the AFC Championship Game for the eighth straight season, extending its own NFL record while finishing the year with a perfect 9-0 record in Foxborough.
But unlike so many past years, this title game with a trip to Super Bowl LIII on the line will be a road game in the tough environment that is Arrowhead Stadium against the Chiefs.
The road has not been kind to the Patriots this season, New England going just 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium. Nor has it been kind to the team in the AFC Championship game, where the Patriots have lost three straight in road environments – all to Peyton Manning – in two trips to Denver (2013, 2015) and one in Indy (2006).
The harsh reality is that it's hard to win on the road in the NFL, especially in the postseason, even for the greatest dynasty in NFL history buoyed by Belichick and Tom Brady.
The Chiefs earned the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage as the AFC's top team pretty much all season, driven by the massive production (5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns) of first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Their only loss at Arrowhead was a 29-28 defeat to the division rival Chargers in December.
The Patriots roll into the title game with plenty of momentum built up over three straight impressive wins at home, two over the Bills and Jets to close out the regular season and then the beatdown of L.A.
But it was only a month ago that New England lost consecutive road games in Miami and Pittsburgh in December that magnified the year-long struggles away from Gillette and, in reality, led to this Sunday's battle being in Kansas City.
"It's always an honor to play in this game and compete for an AFC Championship. I'm really proud of what our staff and team have done to get to this point," Belichick said this week. "Obviously, it's a very strenuous competition. So, to be here and to be one of the final four teams playing this weekend is a great privilege. We embrace it and we're willing to jump in here with our best competitive effort, week of preparation and be ready to go against a great football team. Andy [Reid], who I have tremendous respect and admiration for, has as usual done a great job with his football team. It's a well-balanced team. They've pretty much led from wire to wire in the AFC, had a great year, great record, outstanding team, do a lot of things well, obviously, and so it will be a big challenge for us and we're looking forward to the opportunity to compete, and we'll see what happens on Sunday night."
"I think we're expecting, really, what they've done all season. They're the No. 1 seed. They've played really well against a lot of good teams," Brady said of K.C. "They're hard-nosed, they play in the Midwest, used to the cold weather. You saw in the game against Indy, they were obviously ready to handle it and Indy wasn't, and it ended up being kind of a blowout. They play hard, they're well-coached, good on offense, good on defense, explosive returners, veteran coaches, nothing's going to surprise them. We're both trying to get to the same place. That's what the playoffs are all about. It's going to be an exciting game."
"I expect their best. They're the No. 1 seed for a reason," Julian Edelman concluded. "They've got an offense that can light up the scoreboard. They've got a defense that can take away the ball and they've got a special teams that can complement both that are very dangerous as well. You expect to play the number one seed's best game and that's what you're preparing for."
As the Patriots finalize their preparations to go on the road to Kansas City in the last stop on the road to the Super Bowl, here are some of the keys to New England's biggest game of the season.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots AFC Championship matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, January 20, 2019.
It really is all on the line – New England's offensive line is coming off arguably its best performance of the season. Brady threw the ball 44 times against the Chargers and was not sacked once, barely even touched by Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and the rest. It paved the way for Sony Michel to have three touchdowns and 100 yards … before halftime. But the front, like the team, hasn't been nearly as good on the road this season. Brady was sacked two-plus times in five of eight games on the road. New England's six worst performances in terms of rushing yards were away from Gillette. Now, the line faces a K.C. front that's far better at home. It includes a trio of impact pass rushers in Chris Jones (15.5 sacks), Dee Ford (13) and Justin Houston (9), who didn't play in the regular season game in Foxborough. The Chiefs don't have a great defense, but they do have talented, impact players they like to move around the defensive front. Past Patriots postseason losses, including on the road, have included the offensive line losing the battle of the trenches. That can't happen in this one if Brady and Co. are going to have a chance to keep pace with K.C.'s high-scoring attack.
Start fast – The Chiefs outscored their opponents a combined 147 to 56 in the first quarter this season, often starting fast and playing games from ahead. Belichick generally emphasizes that his team always tries to start fast, as it did last week against the Chargers when it went against its norm and took the ball after winning the coin toss. Belichick acknowledged that the Chiefs start as well as any team in football. The start is even more important for New England considering its struggles on the road this season included falling behind early in those losses. Oh, and the Chiefs crowd, as loud as any in the game, will only be emboldened by a fast start from the home squad. As the old football adage goes, the Patriots probably can't win the game in the first quarter but they could very well lose it. New England isn't really built – on either side of the ball -- to play catch-up against Mahomes and his weapons.
A Hill of a plan – Tyreek Hill is arguably the most dangerous receiver in the game today. In his last two matchups with the Patriots the speedy target has a combined 14 catches for 275 yards and four touchdowns. He notched a 75-yard touchdown in each game. Somehow, the Patriots need to find a way to keep Hill hemmed in. That's obviously easier said than done for a guy who had 87 catches for 1,479 yards (17.0 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. In past battles with K.C. it's seemed that the Patriots focused on stopping tight end Travis Kelce. This week the defensive plan has to start with Hill. There is no obvious matchup or even duo for the job. But it will likely involve a cornerback – J. C. Jackson, who didn't play in the first meeting with the Chiefs this season, is a candidate – and safety help. Hill moves all over the formation and can beat you in so many ways. The Patriots can't allow that to happen if they want to get to Atlanta in two weeks.
Full coverage – Stopping Hill is the priority, but the Chiefs cast of weapons goes well beyond one player. Kelce caught 103 passes during the regular season for 1,336 yards and 10 TDs. He's a big-play threat. Sammy Watkins and Chris Conley are more than capable complementary weapons who can make big plays. Damien Williams has come on to fill the void left when Kareem Hunt was cut and has produced with a couple 100-yard games as well as some catches out of the backfield. The entirety of New England's defense will be tested, especially when you take into account Mahomes' ability to extend plays and throw the ball literally all over the field from anywhere on the field. He put up 40 points in the first game in Foxborough despite missing a couple easy early TDs and a couple ugly interceptions in the first half. The Patriots defense has by far its biggest challenge of the season in Kansas City. It will take its best effort, including run defense, controlled pass rush and wide-spread coverage, to get the job done.
Old school vs. new school – There is no question that this is a battle of marquee QBs. It's last season's MVP against this year's presumed winner. It's a Hall of Fame G.O.A.T. against a new-age youngster with all the athletic ability in the world. Brady is coming off his best game of the season and has the experience factor by light years, including a 72-0 advantage in postseason touchdown passes. But Mahomes doesn't seem to wilt under pressure and could be the youthful swagger factor that Reid and the Chiefs need to get to the big game. Mahomes wasn't exactly perfect in last week's win over Indy and like any young quarterback can make mistakes. The Patriots probably need to find a way to confuse him a bit or throw things at him that he's not expecting – as was the case with Dont'a Hightower's interception in the regular season battle – in order to take Mahomes out of his comfort zone. Will the old veteran get back to the biggest game in sports for the ninth time or will the young kid lead his team to the doorstep of a title in his first season as a starter? There's little question that the quarterback who plays better has a great chance to lead his team to victory.
Junk drawer – There could be a million factors that could factor in the outcome of what has the potential to be a great game. Each team has impact returners who could swing the field, momentum and the outcome. Some think going for it on fourth down could be a factor for both teams. The conditions for kicking are worth watching, especially given that the field got some new sod this week. The weather factor has been derailed a bit, but who knows exactly what the conditions will be on Sunday night. There will be so many players making their title game debuts on both sides of the field that experience may or may not factor in. Third down, red zone, turnovers…all are areas worth keeping an eye on. Game changing plays and players could come into play at any time in almost any area. It's why this matchup is so darn intriguing. As it should be with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Prediction: There is little question that in many ways history and big game experience are on the Patriots side, led by Belichick and Brady. But when history is made on Sunday night the past probably won't have a lot to do with it. It will be about the matchups and the execution at Arrowhead in this singular battle. The Patriots have struggled all year on the road. The Chiefs were a really good team at home, even if the competition wasn't exactly the NFL's best. K.C. has athletic playmakers on both sides of the ball and a scary corps of offensive weapons. The Patriots, though, have gotten back to their roots of balanced offense, short passing and overall complementary football. But can they play their best game of the season, near perfect football, for the second week in a row and this time on the road? Given the totality of the season, that's hard to imagine. This should be a fun, competitive football game. The Patriots need to establish the run and stay on the field. They must finish the drives they get with touchdowns against the NFL's second-worst red zone defense. They must find a way to keep the NFL's second-best red zone offense from scoring seven on its drives. In the end, the task may simply be too much for this Patriots team that's playing with a chip on its shoulder and has embraced its underdog role. Mahomes and the Chiefs may just present too many weapons -- Reid's offense has scored 40-plus in three of its last four meetings with the Patriots -- and put up too many points as the league's highest-scoring offense. Unfortunately, the view here is a 34-27 Chiefs win, the advantage of playing at home propelling Kansas City to Super Bowl LIII.
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