Hannable: Why I’ve changed my mind and believe Patriots will beat Chiefs in AFC title game

Ryan Hannable
January 19, 2019 - 9:22 am

Even with the Patriots’ dominant performance over the Chargers last week in the AFC divisional round, it seemed hard to imagine them winning at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC title game.

Led by Andy Reid, Kansas City is loaded on offense with Patrick Mahomes having a spectacular season and then Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in the passing game. Heck, as the No. 1 ranked offense in the league, they averaged more points in their losses (37.5) than overall (35.3).

Then there’s the road factor for the Patriots. All five of their losses occurred on the road and they were a completely different team. In nine home games, the Patriots averaged 33.7 points a game, but then in eight road games, they averaged only 21.6 points a game.

All that is true, and it can be seen why the Chiefs are favored by three points, but as I looked deeper into the matchup and the things at play, I started to lean towards the Patriots. Then came Tom Brady’s Friday press conference where he was extremely laid back, loose and joking around, so I walked away fully on board.

The Patriots are going to beat the Chiefs, and here’s why I changed my mind from the beginning of the week.

1. Patriots run game will play huge factor

It’s been no secret this year, the Patriots are better when they are running the ball. When rushing for over 100 yards as a team they are a perfect 10-0 and when Sony Michel has over 60 yards, the Patriots are 7-0.

Running the ball will also help against the Chiefs as it will set up long, sustained drives and keep the powerful Chiefs offense off the field. It will also help the passing game by setting up play-action for Brady.

Looking at the Chiefs defense, the Patriots should be able to run the football. It ranked 27th in the NFL in run defense during the regular season, and allowed over 100 yards rushing in 12 of its 17 games, including five straight to close regular season. 

Furthermore, the Patriots have a huge advantage when utilizing the 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers). Kansas City has the NFL’s worst defense against the 21 personnel, while New England runs that grouping the second-most in all of football. Michel has excelled in that grouping too, totaling 590 yards (5.13 yards per carry). That is 300 yards more than out of any other grouping.

2. Homefield advantage overrated

If the Patriots can start like they did last week against the Chargers and get ahead early, they can then take the home crowd out of it and have it be less of a factor than if it got off to a slow start and fell behind. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots take the ball first if they win the toss, like last week against the Chargers.

Many have also pointed to how different the Chiefs defense is at home. Yes, they allowed an average of 17.4 points per game, which was significantly better than the 25.5 points overall, but some context should be provided. Kansas City played four top-10 offenses this year and all of them came on the road. It played four bottom 15 offenses and all of them came at home. Also, as Warren Sharp noted, quarterbacks generally play better in Kansas City than in other road cities. 

For instance, in the last three seasons Ben Roethelisberger has averaged 7.4 yards per attempt in road games, but 8.7 yards per attempt in Kansas City. Kirk Cousins has averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, but then 9.2 yards per attempt when he gets to Arrowhead. It isn’t just those two, either. It’s a league-wide trend. See for yourself

3. J.C. Jackson impact

The Patriots beat the Chiefs, 43-40, in Week 6 at Gillette Stadium, but Hill had a monster game, catching seven passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that tied the game at 40. In his last two games against the Patriots, the speedy receiver has 14 receptions for 275 yards and four touchdowns. But, in those games the Patriots didn’t have cornerback J.C. Jackson. 

The undrafted rookie didn’t play in the first meeting as he was a healthy scratch and he obviously wasn’t on the team in 2017. It would not be a surprise to see Jackson get matched up with Hill quite a bit with help over the top. Jackson’s ball skills and fierce mentality should go well against a receiver like Hill. The Maryland product has jumped into the No. 2 cornerback spot on the depth chart and done a great job against some of the best receivers the league has to offer.

Having Jackson could allow Stephon Gilmore to draw Sammy Watkins and completely take him out of the game. Then Patrick Chung and help would get Kelce, which would allow the rest of the defense to do some creative things to try and throw Mahomes off his game.

In the earlier meeting, the Patriots tried a number of different players against Hill such as Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe. It has the potential to go much better this time around with Jackson in the mix, not only against Hill, but for the defense overall.

4. Tom Brady-Bill Belichick > Patrick Mahomes-Andy Reid

There’s a high probability of the game coming down to the wire in the fourth quarter and it’s very hard to go against the Patriots in that scenario. While Mahomes has had a tremendous season, he’s still in his first year as a starter and hasn’t exactly had much experience on the big stage. For what it’s worth, the Chiefs were 2-4 in primetime games. And everyone knows how Brady performs in the clutch.

In addition to Mahomes’ inexperience, there’s also Andy Reid’s history in title games. The long-time coach is 1-4 in championship games and three of those four losses came at home. Also, the No. 1 thing that comes to mind when Reid’s name gets brought up his his clock management mistakes over the years. What’s the No. 1 thing that comes to mind with Bill Belichick? His five Super Bowls.

Lastly, a lot has been made of Brady’s play this season, but he may actually be entering the game better than Mahomes. Since Kansas City’s bye week (Week 12, six games), Mahomes is 146-for-230 (63 percent) with 1,747 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions for a QB rating of 101.85. Since the Patriots’ bye week (Week 11, seven games), Brady is 167-for-243 (69 percent) with 1,950 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions for a QB rating of 103.76. That’s a slight advantage for Brady.

So, come Sunday around 10:00 p.m. I could be saying I told you so. Or I could be pretending I never wrote this and stuck with what I thought early in the week.

It should be fun.

Related: AFC championship injury report: Patriots and Chiefs very healthy going into title game