Tom E. Curran's 5 things to know for Patriots vs. Chiefs in the AFC title game

Tom E. Curran's 5 things to know for Patriots vs. Chiefs in the AFC title game

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.

Possessive. I get very possessive. And argumentative. Next thing I know, I’m battling air and losing a couple of hours I could better spend watching Xavier McDaniels highlights.

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.


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.

Kersplosive Plays

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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Patriots rookie first-rounder N'Keal Harry sees only two snaps vs. Chiefs, leaves with injury

Patriots rookie first-rounder N'Keal Harry sees only two snaps vs. Chiefs, leaves with injury

FOXBORO -- N'Keal Harry's almost-touchdown will receive plenty of attention over the course of the next few days, and maybe more than that as the Patriots try to figure out where they fit in the AFC playoff picture. 

Receiving less attention is the fact that Harry played only two offensive snaps in the game, his fourth regular-season contest since returning to action off of injured reserve last month. Harry played 22 snaps last week in a loss to the Texans -- his lone target going for a game-changing interception -- but clearly was not a significant part of Sunday's game plan against the Chiefs.

Perry: Patriots call blown calls 'a tough pill to swallow'

Harry left the loss to Kansas City with what the Patriots announced as a hip injury. He said after the game, however, that he was "good" health-wise. 

That he only saw two snaps before getting banged up is curious given that the Patriots appear to need all the help they can get at the moment on the offensive side of the football. Harry clearly has a long way to go before he's entrusted by Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady, but he also has physical skills -- skills he flashed on his near touchdown catch-and-run -- that could be useful.

Harry's two snaps Sunday consisted of his in-motion under route that resulted in his 12-yard catch. (That was the first time on 70 routes this season -- we analyzed them all here -- that Harry went in motion.) He also ran a clear-out vertical route on a fourth-down pass play that was intended for Julian Edelman but landed incomplete. 

In Houston, Harry ran five deep overs or dig routes. He ran three go routes, two shallow crossers, a comeback route and a hitch. He split his time almost evenly on the left and right sides of the formation and played one snap in the slot. That represented a reduction in workload for the rookie who played 55 snaps against the Cowboys in Week 11 as one of only three receivers active for the game.

While his snaps have almost disappeared, if he's healthy enough, perhaps the Patriots will try to find more ways to get the football into his hands more quickly. He showed something on his one touch Sunday. He's a large person (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) who has athleticism and is hard to tackle. At Arizona State he was a frequent recipient of short passes like the one he saw Sunday, taking them and making yards after the catch on his own.

His inability to grasp the nuances of the Patriots offense is relatively evident. Whether it was the way his ran the route in Houston that resulted in a pick, or if it was prior to his catch Sunday when he had to ask Brady about his responsibilities just before the ball was snapped, he's not fully up to speed. 

But this Patriots offense needs any and all answers it can find. Maybe Harry's second (and final) snap against the Chiefs told them he deserves more work next week in Cincinnati. If not, then it's fair to wonder if he's even more behind than we can tell.

Controversial calls in Pats-Chiefs signify larger NFL issue>>>

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Patriots on controversial calls in loss to Chiefs: 'A tough pill to swallow'

Patriots on controversial calls in loss to Chiefs: 'A tough pill to swallow'

FOXBORO — Bill Belichick wasn't thrilled. He stood at the podium in the belly of Gillette Stadium, his team coming off of its second consecutive loss, and he was peppered with questions about the officiating. This after he'd said in his opening remarks, "A lot of other circumstances in the game; no point in talking about those."

The officiating queries came anyway.

"You'd have to talk to them about that," he said. "I'm not going to speak for them."

Asked if calls made by Jerome Boger's crew impacted his team's ability to sustain any momentum: "I don't know," he said.

In all, there were 15 penalties called for 161 yards in the game, and penalties were among the calls garnering attention after the fact. But the calls that generated the most buzz in the Patriots locker room weren't penalties. The headliner was the call that took points off the board for Belichick's team early in the fourth quarter.

Tom Brady hit rookie N'Keal Harry with a short pass that he took down to the goal line. Diving into the end zone, it appeared as though Harry had scored a touchdown. He celebrated as though he had. Replays showed he remained in bounds. But one official marked him out of bounds at the three-yard line.

The Patriots weren't able to challenge the play — they were out of challenges after losing a pass-interference challenge earlier in the game — and they kicked a field goal three plays later to make the score 23-16.

"We still had a chance to win," Brady said. "Wish we could have scored there at the end."

A touchdown and an extra point would've made the score 23-20, meaning on the final Patriots drive of the game, where they entered deep into Chiefs territory, they would've been able to kick a chip-shot field goal to tie it.

"I thought it was a touchdown," said Harry, who left the game with a hip injury. "I'm pretty sure everybody else thought it was a touchdown. It's something that's out of our control, out of my control.

"It's definitely frustrating, but at the end of the day I was always told to control what I could control. I felt like I did that. I felt like my effort was good. That's all I can give."

ESPN's Mike Reiss, serving as the pool reporter, spoke to Boger after the game about the call.

"What led to it was the covering official on the wing was blocked out by defenders," Boger said. "The downfield official who was on the goal line and looking back toward the field of play had that he stepped out at the three-yard line. So, they got together and conferred on that. The final ruling was that he was out of bounds at the three-yard line."

Calling the play a touchdown and then using replay to the crew's advantage — since all scores are reviewed — was not discussed as an option, Boger explained.

"Not really. Those two officials who were covering it, they look at it in real time," he said. "This case was unique in that the guy who would have ruled touchdown had him short. So maybe if that ruling official on the goal line had a touchdown, we could have gotten into that, but he thought that that guy stepped out of bounds. The goal line wasn’t in the play."

The reason the Patriots couldn't challenge the Harry play was because they'd had a challenge fail earlier in the contest. Late in the third quarter, Belichick threw his red hanky when on a third-and-4 play Stephon Gilmore got picked by Travis Kelce, allowing a catch to Sammy Watkins. Watkins was tackled right near the line to gain,  and so Belichick was challenging both the pass interference and the spot of the ball.

The challenge failed, which meant they'd have just one more challenge for the game, even if that next challenge succeeded.

Later in the third quarter, on a third-down pass to Kelce, Devin McCourty punched out the football and Gilmore recovered it quickly with a good deal of open space in front of him. The play was whistled dead.

The Patriots challenged and won. It was a momentum-shifter, but the fact that they had to use their challenge at all — on a play that was clearly fumbled upon review, no guesswork there — bothered the Patriots after the fact.

"It sucks because at the end of the day, we felt like those were plays that were gonna help us change the momentum of the game and put us in a good spot to eventually win the football game," safety Duron Harmon said. "It was taken away from us. I know the refs, they have a hard job. I'm not going to sit here and say obviously  their job is easy. 'Just make a better call, and do this better.' At the end of the day, we all have a job. We all get paid money to do the job and do it well."

Harmon added: "I just feel empty. We played a good team and had a chance to win. We didn't win. Like I said, I'm not going to just sit here and blame the refs. The Chiefs probably feel some calls could've gone their way, didn't go their way, but at the end of the day when you got two touchdowns taken away from you, that's always a tough pill to swallow."

The Patriots finished the game going 1-for-3 in the red zone. They were 3-for-15 on third and fourth down. They averaged — including three sacks — just 4.6 yards per pass. They averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the first half against a defense that was allowing over 5.0 for the season.

There was plenty they could have done to help themselves. But it's not hyperbole to say that final drive — which resulted in a fourth-down pass breakup on a Brady attempt to Julian Edelman — should have been an opportunity for them to tie the game with an easy field goal.

"You don't wanna blame officiating," Harmon said, "because at the end of the day, we still had an opportunity to win."

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