AFC Championship Game preview: Patriots-Chiefs

The Backstory


They meet again. The 2019 AFC Championship Game is a rematch between two teams who lit "Sunday Night Football" ablaze in Week 6 with 83 combined points; between the two winningest active coaches in football, who have met on bigger stages than this one; and between two quarterbacks who despite their historic difference in age, experience and accolades, are bound together by excellence as two of just three QBs ever to throw for at least 50 scores in a season. Add in the historic venue, Arrowhead Stadium, which is hosting its first-ever title game in 46 years of municipal use, and it doesn't get any cooler -- and on Sunday, colder -- than this.

The Patriots are flying into Kansas City on a high, having obliterated the Chargers, the Chiefs' AFC West rival and the one team to defeat K.C. at Arrowhead this season. By its standards, New England hasn't had a spectacular season. The Pats lost five games, Rob Gronkowski has at times looked like a shell of his former self and New England's deep-threat savior, Josh Gordon, is no longer with the team. All this has motivated the Pats, who despite all this "hardship" have reached their eighth consecutive championship game (read that again, but this time with a straight face), to feel like the underdogs entering Sunday's penultimate clash. The desert people agree.

Kansas City, led by an old sage and a young gun, is rightfully the favorite. The Chiefs' offensive metrics are tops nearly across the board, and their speed is unmatched. Their Achilles' heel, a soggy defense, held the blazing Colts to just 13 points and zero third-down conversions in the Divisional Round. The only things not on their side are history and experience, fickle intangibles that on any given day have nothing to do with anything, but against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick could mean everything.

A passing of the guard or a changing of the torch or whatever is in order, if you believe in such things. But football doesn't often succumb to the easy narrative, and nature could have other plans on Sunday night.

An arctic blast -- the meteorologists' term, not mine -- is bearing down on western Missouri, potentially causing temperatures to dip into the single digits. It's a cold front that will either usher the Patriots into a 20-year ice age or freeze Kansas City's flaming-hot season on the spot. A ticket to Atlanta is on the line. Who will weather the storm?

Under Pressure


J.C. Jackson, DB, Patriots: The rookie defensive back, undrafted out of Maryland, has been a standout in Foxborough ever since truly breaking into the lineup in Week 13. The fifth member of New England's secondary, Jackson has taken the place of Jonathan Jones in the rotation and finds himself in the slot more often than the veterans Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty. Jackson was not on the field in Week 6 when Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs' skill players lit up New England's secondary to the tune of 352 receiving yards. Hill, the greatest offender on that evening, moves all around the offensive formation, but is most dangerous out of the slot. The big-play WR leads the league with 3.5 yards per slot route since 2016 and paced all players with 29.4 yards of distance per slot route and nine TDs from the slot in 2018. If New England allows K.C. to score 40 points against them for the third straight time, it will be because Hill will have run rampant in the Pats secondary, probably at the expense of Jackson.

Damien Williams, RB, Chiefs: When Kareem Hunt was released in November, Kansas City hardly missed him. The reigning NFL rushing leader's production was replaced and even improved upon by Spencer Ware and most recently Williams. But K.C. might miss Hunt against New England, against whom the jettisoned running back had 431 scrimmage yards in just two appearances. Williams was a shifty revelation last week when he logged career-highs against the Colts, but he doesn't have the receiving ability that Hunt had, the field-stretching prowess that gave the Pats all types of problems over the last two years. Williams has averaged about five targets, 36 receiving yards and 101.2 scrimmage yards since taking over but with no targets traveling at least 10 air yards this season, he will not be perceived by New England as a Hunt-esque threat. That could make things easier for Brian Flores' defense, unless Reid has yet another trick up his puffy sleeve.

Matchup(s) to Watch


Father Time vs. Mother Nature: Will Tommy get frostbite?!

Patriots running backs vs. Chiefs defense: K.C.'s strength lies in its pass rush; Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Chris Jones turned the inimitable Indy offensive line into a flailing flock of turnstiles last week. But Tom Brady rarely feels such pressure due to his quick decision-making and release. The beneficiary of that has been all season and was last week James White, the receiving back. White, the real Super Bowl LI MVP, hauled in a postseason-record 15 receptions against Los Angeles and now owns two of the top three receiving games in playoff history in terms of receptions. His backfield mate, Sony Michel, is much more of a ground threat and a fierce one at that; he too is coming off a career game, a three-TD showcase against the Chargers. With Gronk gimpy and residing to blocking and the receiving corps thin, the Pats' backs should be their saving grace against a speedy K.C. pass rush. But New England has a tell, and if the Chiefs exploit it, perhaps K.C. can force enough stops to pull away. When White is in the backfield, the Pats run it 21.4 percent of snaps. When Michel and fullback James Develin are both on the field, New England runs the ball 83.4 percent of the time.

Prediction


I picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl before the season started. I know, it doesn't sound like a bold stance considering New England has rolled to the big game two years in a row and is a Death Star dynasty unlike anything we've seen in professional football, but I was the only NFL.com writer to go out on that treacherous limb. There is mystique, unflappability and now even an underdog narrative on the Patriots' side. And yet...

All five of the Patriots' losses have come on the road by deficits of 11, 16, 24, 1 and 7 points, one arriving via miracle. New England averages 12.2 PPG fewer and allows 6.1 PPG more on the road. The Pats have lost each of their last three championship games on the road and have not won one since 2004.

Oh, and that arctic blast? That's not the only natural phenomenon set to strike on Sunday evening. A lunar eclipse is slated to commence at around 8:36 pm CT, roughly three hours after the start of the AFC title game. Maximum eclipse will be reached at 11:12 pm CT, at which point the constant moon will look unlike itself, rendered a completely different shade of...

Blood-red.

Kansas City Chiefs 34, New England Patriots 30