Admit it. Based on the vibe currently emanating from Foxborough, and the way it feels as though the Patriots are trending, when Las Vegas released its betting lines earlier this week you were surprised to see the Pats favored in their matchup with the Chiefs.
Kansas City has its quarterback back from injury, and just solidified itself atop the AFC West with a whooping of the Raiders. But they were rolling last year, too, when the Pats beat them twice — including at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC title game.
So looking back to that contest, and a 43-40 regular-season victory at Gillette Stadium, there are reasons for the Pats to be optimistic. Here are six areas that worked then, and could potentially be keys again come Sunday afternoon:
They should be able to run.
Maybe the most significant facet of the AFC championship in any phase of the game was the Patriots’ ability — and willingness — to run the ball. By halftime of that contest they’d already toted it 25 times, and though the results weren’t spectacular, with a total of 99 yards and a long of 11, it was effective enough to set everything else in motion.
Last season, the Patriots averaged 175 rushing yards against the Chiefs, compared to 124 per tilt in their other 15 regular-season affairs. And while the Pats’ ground attack has taken a clear step back this season, the numbers suggest Kansas City is still susceptible. The Chiefs rank 30th in both yards and yards per carry (5.1), and although the defensive coordinator has changed since last season, Steve Spagnuolo doesn’t have a great track record in that realm. He’s helmed eight defenses since 2009, and only one has ranked better than 20th in yards per rushing attempt. This could be a week for Sony Michel to build on some of the momentum he’s stirred up in the past couple contests.
They can be effective on third down.
In the AFC title clash, the Patriots were insanely clutch on third down, going 13 for 19 overall (68 percent), and converting three third-and-10 predicaments with the game on the line late. They were excellent in the regular-season matchup, too, succeeding on seven of 13 tries (54 percent).
Remember, last year’s Pats were rather pedestrian on third down. They finished the regular season at 40.8 percent, and in the middle of the pack across the league (13th). The Chiefs’ defense was worse (25th), and percentage-wise they’ve improved only slightly this season, from a 38.6 percent to a 36.9 percent conversion rate.
Again, Spagnuolo’s scheme is different, and there are a host of guys who are elsewhere now after being key players in January (Rob Gronkowski and Eric Berry among them). But Josh McDaniels and Brady seemed last year to have a knack for how to attack Kansas City in those crucial spots.
They’ll likely control the ball.
Running the ball so often and so effectively, and regularly resetting the down markers, enabled New England to control the clock in both of last year’s contests. In January, the Pats’ advantage was 43:59-20:53. In October, it was 36:09-23:51. Total it up, and of a few ticks less than 125 minutes played, the Patriots had the ball for more than 80 of it.
That’s a fantastic recipe for limiting the damage Patrick Mahomes can do, because his MVP talent can’t help contribute much from the sidelines. And the Pats may be able to do it again. Entering Week 14, New England is the NFL’s second-best club in terms of time of possession. The Chiefs, meanwhile, rank 24th. That’s roughly where each side finished last season, as well.
The Patriots punt the ball more often than any team with a winning record, so if they’re to control the clock it’ll be because of their defense — but with a unit that allows the league’s shortest drives, and ranks among the top three in both punt frequency and three-and-out series, that’s a strategy Bill Belichick is probably comfortable with counting on.
They’re used to playing from ahead.
This year’s Patriots haven’t spent a lot of time playing from behind, but in each of their losses they’ve had trouble climbing out of a first-half hole. Last season, no team scored more first-half points than the Chiefs’ 17.8 per game — yet the Pats went to halftime of the AFC championship leading 14-0, and in the regular season were up 24-9 through two quarters.
KC remains one of the NFL’s best first-half attacks this season (especially in the second quarter), though last year’s results speak to an advantage the Patriots may have in coaching. Andy Reid is revered, and his game-opening scripts are often outstanding. But last year it was Belichick’s team that entered better prepared for what the opponent might present, and this year no team is allowing fewer points in the first quarter (2.2 per game) or first half (6.5) than the Pats.
If that continues, and the Patriots can control the scoreboard — and the tempo, and the flow of the game, and all while playing at home — they have to like their chances.
The Chiefs backs aren’t much of a threat.
If there’s a shortcoming of the current Patriots’ defense, it’s probably found in combating the run. However, the Chiefs’ ground game is somewhat of a mess.
LeSean McCoy is their leader in yards and yards per carry, but he hasn’t been great, and was a healthy scratch recently. Damien Williams scored three touchdowns against the Pats in the AFC title game, but he’s been out the past couple of weeks with an injury, and neither he nor third-stringer Darrel Williams practiced on Wednesday.
The Chiefs’ run game ranks in the 20s across the board, and in January it posed no threat to New England’s defense. KC tried to run it just 12 times, accumulating 41 yards, and two of Williams’ three touchdowns were as a receiver.
It might take all available personnel to slow Mahomes — which is OK, because the big fellas up front won’t likely need refortification to limit the Chiefs’ backs.
There’s a plan for Kelce and Hill.
It wasn’t the case in previous meetings, though the AFC title game suggests the Patriots might have a plan for quelling Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, who are clearly Mahomes’s two most dangerous weapons.
Those two totaled just four catches for 65 yards in the January matchup, and — not coincidentally — Mahomes completed only 16 of 31 passes. After burning the Pats for three scores in the regular season, Hill was held to one catch by a defense that spent most of the night playing man-to-man, with safety Devin McCourty essentially doubling the speedy wideout.
To pull that off, and still keep Kelce to three catches for 23 yards while dealing with Sammy Watkins and a whole bunch of speed, a team needs to have a deep secondary full of players who can handle themselves in solo coverage, and can tackle. The Pats are qualified on all three fronts.
And if they can hold Hill and Kelce in check again this time, they’ll be well along the path to a third straight win over Mahomes.