Ho hum the Patriots are back in the AFC Championship game for the eighth straight year after thrashing the Los Angeles Chargers in a game where the final score does not even do justice to the dominating effort delivered by the Patriots. The Patriots defense stepped up and held the Chargers offense in check all day and delivered constant pressure, frustrating Philip Rivers all day.
However, one thing that should not be overlooked is what atruly amazing accomplishment it is that the Patriots have been to eight straight AFC Championships. If Brady and Belichick are lucky enough to reach the Super Bowl, which would be the third straight year and fourth time in five years, they will have to do something they have not done since 2006: Win a road playoff game.
With all that being said here are some key factors coming up as the Patriots attempt to continue their AFC dominance with yet another Super Bowl berth.
1.) Arctic Blast Sunday?
After the Patriots won on Sunday the forecast for the AFC Championship game was one that would have a wind chill below zero at kickoff making it one that could have made it the coldest ever at Arrowhead Stadium. However the forecast has changed and the low temperature is now in the 20s making it a good bet that even with wind chill it will be likely in the teens rather than negatives or single digits. Even with the change though the temperature will still be below freezing and that has to be music to Tom Brady’s ears. Brady has won a number of big games in both snow or freezing weather and holds a remarkable 24-4 record in games that are below freezing.
2.) Can Patriots pressure Mahomes like they did Rivers?
Last week the Patriots had 27 disruptions of the quarterback as Jeff Howe charted of The Athletic, which was a season-high beating the previous record of 21 disruptions in week 16 versus Buffalo. The best rusher was surprisingly not Trey Flowers, although Flowers played extremely well in his own right, but rather Dont’a Hightower who had an astonishing nine pressures.
If the Patriots have a hope of holding the Chiefs’ offense in check they will need an effort from their pass rush pretty close to what they delivered against the Chargers, especially from the interior of the defensive line. The one caveat to all this is exactly how they pressure Mahomes. I know it sounds crazy, but there is a very specific way the Patriots will need to rush Mahomes if they want to be successful. They need a big push from the interior, something Adam Butler delivered last Sunday, but they also need to be disciplined and stay in their rush lanes. If the Patriots go all out and are undisciplined they will give Mahomes openings to flee the pocket and deliver his now famous on the run, off angle throws that lead to huge plays.
One thing they have been doing a lot more is a lot stunts on their rushes and using the amoeba defense to confuse the quarterback as well as the offensive line. As long as the rushers stay in their lanes and are disciplined they will force Mahomes to throw from the pocket. Now Mahomes can obviously make plays from the pocket, but it certainly makes it harder if he cannot escape and extend plays.
3.) Who covers Tyreek Hill?
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Last game these two teams met was a story of two halves, especially for Tyreek Hill. In the first half the Patriots held Hill in check allowing him just one catch on four targets for two yards in the first half. However in the second half Hill broke out catching six passes on eight targets for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Now it is safe to assume that if the game is anything like the first half for Hill then the Patriots will be in very good shape, but if it is closer to the second half then one would think the Patriots would have a tough time winning the game.
Last game the Patriots had a rotating cast of characters on Hill, but none of them were Stephon Gilmore the Patriots All-Pro corner. This time around I think it is safe to say that will change. Gilmore last game was tasked with covering Sammy Watkins who is not a huge threat at this stage and the way J.C. Jackson has played recently, one would think he could handle Watkins one on one. In this game look for Gilmore to have some help over the top to prevent the deep ball, but Gilmore is the Patriots best corner and if you are going to lose or win, you want to make sure you gave it your best shot. Gilmore is their best shot and gives Mahomes fewer options.
4.) Patriots must get running game going
The Patriots looked like a well-oiled machine on Sunday, but the Chargers defense is different. They played primarily zone defense which is why Edelman was able to carve them up so easily. This week the Chiefs are much more of a man to man coverage team, which means the Patriots are going to need everyone to step up not just Edelman in order to give Brady options on every play.
However even though the passing game is important, the run game is absolutely vital to their success this week. The Patriots must get the run game going immediately as it establishes a multitude of things and options for Josh McDaniels. If the Patriots get the run game going they will be able to control the ball and limit the amount of possessions Pat Mahomes has to score. Furthermore, if they can come out and run the ball it will quiet down the crowd and get the offensive line into the game with their physicality. Look for Sony Michel to see at least 20 carries, Rex Burkhead to have a bigger role as a receiver this week and James White to see at least 10 targets in the passing game. Either way everything starts with the run game.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Chiefs 27
The Chiefs have been everyone’s team all year especially with Patrick Mahomes being the odds on favorite to win MVP. On the other side the Patriots have struggled all year on the road going just 3-5, and scoring just 22 points per game on the road while allowing 26 compared to scoring 33 points per game at home and allowing just 17 at home. Those 26 points allowed per game are startling considering they faced three of the bottom seven offenses and four of the bottom ten offenses. Their defense has really shown up well recently and their secondary and pass rush are working well together, while the linebackers have supported the run extremely well. Look for the Patriots to be disciplined in their rushes and the secondary to come away with at least one interception giving the Patriots the turnover battle and a very close win.
-David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani