Happens every year. Literally every year. (And I hate to see “literally” used liberally so you know I mean it.)
The field narrows from 32 teams to four and all of a sudden, here comes the planet, wanting to talk about the Patriots like they grew up next door.
Being selfish, I bristle at this space invasion. I’ve been dispensing takes at a 62 percent success rate since July and through 21 games, thank you very much.
Not this time. I’m hunkering down in the bunker, ignoring the noise and staying out of the debunking business. Unless it’s really funking moronic. Then I may make an exception.
Time to spin it forward. Here are five things you need to know/have to ignore as the AFCCG week unfolds.
Against KC, Back to Boring D
What the Patriots did to Philip Rivers on Sunday, harassing him with pressure on more than half of his snaps, was possible because the Patriots didn’t fear Rivers’ ability to scramble.
He runs like a 60-something executive crossing the street in a downpour while keeping the rain away with his briefcase and trying not to spill his Starbucks.
He doesn’t buy time in the pocket, he doesn’t throw well on the run. So going “zero coverage” (no deep safety, man-to-man everywhere) was possible because the pressure would get to Rivers before he could set his feet and find a receiver who had separation.
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As much fun as that aggressiveness was to watch, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes revels in the chaos caused by blitzing. If the Patriots tried to bring constant heat up the middle and played zero coverage as they did against Mahomes, he would merely drift right and throw like this.
The Chargers also didn’t have a waterbug wideout like Tyreek Hill. He’s a rare, rare player and cannot be effectively covered 1-on-1 without him leaking through at some point. The Patriots will sacrifice bringing extra rushers at Mahomes by dropping seven or eight in coverage to make it harder for Hill to find space and the 1-on-1 open field matchups he kills teams in.
The Tyreek Hill Problem
Tyreek Hill carried the ball 22 times this year for 151 yards. There were only two games he didn’t have a carry.
He caught 87 balls, averaged 17 yards per reception and scored 12 touchdowns. Six of his eight receptions against the Colts in the Divisional Playoff came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Two came well behind the line of scrimmage on shovel passes. He also carried for 36 yards.
Against the Patriots in Week 6, four of his seven receptions and six of his 12 targets were between 0-10 yards. He has to be accounted for at every level of the defense both as a receiver and ball-carrier. In two games against the Patriots, he’s caught 14 passes for 275 yards and four touchdowns.
Devin McCourty, the Patriots' fastest player, was charged with checking Hill on two of his three touchdowns and on both, once Hill got a step on McCourty it was over. There was no catching up from the trail position. Those were plays where Hill caught the ball in the end zone but not deep (1:28 mark, 1:40 mark). With three minutes left, Hill caught a deep one on a blown coverage and turned Duron Harmon inside out for another touchdown. Everything the Patriots do on Sunday in Kansas City has to begin with stopping Hill.
The Chiefs had five plays from scrimmage longer than 25 yards in Week 6. Mixed in were a 75-yard touchdown and a 67-yard touchdown. They also had a 97-yard kickoff return that set up an easy touchdown. In the 2017 opener, the Chiefs had four plays longer than 25 yards including 58- and 78-yard throws to now-exiled running back Kareem Hunt and a 75-yarder to Hill.
The only reason the Chiefs beat the Patriots in the 2017 opener and nearly beat them in this year’s matchup was busts. This year, Mahomes found Hunt for a 67-yard touchdown in the third quarter because Jason McCourty underestimated Mahomes’ arm strength. That turned a 24-9 game into a 24-16 game. After the Patriots went ahead 30-26 in the fourth, they allowed the ridiculous kickoff return. And then there was the aforementioned bust on the 75-yard Hill touchdown.
Those plays happened. They are part of the body of evidence. But given the Patriots focus on stopping chunk plays at all costs, they are also aberrations. Now, are they aberrations caused by their own error or because the Chiefs are just able to tax New England and beat them even if they are guarding against something? It’s a little bit of both. But no team has undressed the Patriots on big plays like Kansas City has.
A Very Special Sunday
The forecast for Sunday night looks harsh, 15 degrees at best. The field at Arrowhead is natural grass, and the Patriots have lost four times on the real stuff this season while winning just once.
Adam Vinatieri missed two kicks for the Colts on Sunday and came out of the game complaining about the conditions being shoddy. Stephen Gostkowski is 10-for-10 in his career at Arrowhead but was 7-for-10 on grass this year (20 of 22 on turf). In the past five seasons Gostkowski is 38-for-45 on grass. The combination of cold weather and an unfamiliar surface will undeniably impact the kicking game. As will the presence of two of the NFL’s best return men, Hill and Julian Edelman. Forget what Edelman’s numbers looked like during the regular season, his health is back which means his explosiveness and elusiveness are back. It will be a huge challenge for the punters and coverage teams in terms of ballhandling and field position. Not just because it’s big in every game, but because the elements will present a bigger challenge and the missteps made have the potential for disaster.
Why This Isn't Denver 2015
The last time the Patriots were on the road in the AFC Championship Game was after the 2015 season.
The Patriots started 10-0 that year but lost Julian Edelman to a broken foot against the Giants in the 10th game. They then lost in the snow in Denver and Gronk got his knee whacked. Having already lost Dion Lewis and Nate Solder, the offense started to fold in on itself with Keshawn Martin and Stephen Jackson playing prominent roles down the stretch while the Patriots went 2-4 and blew home field.
In the din of Denver – after a Divisional Playoff win over the Chiefs – the Patriots offensive line was overwhelmed, the lack of a running game was exposed, and the Broncos' superiority in the secondary against the Patriots receivers made it a painful game to watch. And a painful game for Brady, who took 25 hits.
Now, it’s going to be loud and the Patriots are going to be on the road on grass this Sunday. But they can run the ball. And they are healthy. And they can neutralize edge rushers if the tackles are sound. The Patriots lost that game because they couldn’t do anything on offense. Against a below-average Kansas City defense that shouldn’t be a problem. The catch will be stopping the Chiefs.
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