Ask any risk manager or sportsbook director and they can probably tell you the last time they needed the New England Patriots prior to this past Sunday. It’s so rare that it is one of those landmark events. The books got what they wanted with a Patriots win and cover over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Opinions were split a little bit more on the game between the Colts and the Chiefs, but it was clear from the jump which team was the better one on Saturday. That was Kansas City and now Andy Reid’s team is one win away from representing the AFC in Super Bowl LIII.
Let’s take a look at the AFC Championship Game, with the Chiefs a -3 favorite and a total of 57 as of Sunday night.
TB12 Becomes TB13
How insane is this? Tom Brady will be playing in his 13th AFC Championship Game. Let me spell that out. It will be the THIRTEENTH AFC Championship Game for Tom Brady. That’s absurd. It’s also the eighth straight for the Patriots. Brady took over as the full-time starting quarterback for the Patriots in 2001.
Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 against the New York Jets during that 2001 season. The date was September 23. Patrick Mahomes turned six years old just six days before that. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that year.
Mahomes didn’t show many rookie jitters against the Colts in his first career playoff action, but the things that Brady has accomplished are unparalleled at this point in time.
Brady entered this year’s postseason 27-10 in 37 games with a 71/31 TD/INT ratio, 10,226 passing yards, and a 62.8 percent completion rate. He was 34-of-44 for 343 yards with one touchdown and zero picks or sacks in the win over the Chargers.
The Chiefs are in the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1993 and have not been to the Super Bowl since winning Super Bowl IV back in 1969.
How to Catch a Cheetah
Bill Belichick and his coaching staff have always had this remarkable ability to shut down the opposition’s best player. Is that player Tyreek Hill this week? If it is, how do you shut him down? The biggest weakness for the Patriots on defense is team speed. They scheme as good or better than anybody in the NFL, but don’t have a whole lot of burners.
Hill had 1,630 total yards during the regular season and the Colts, who are rather quick on defense, allowed a 36-yard touchdown run. They did bottle up Hill in the passing game, as his longest reception was just 17 yards and he only had eight catches for 72 yards. Was that something of a blueprint for Belichick and the Patriots?
Maybe Travis Kelce is the guy to watch. After all, if any team knows what it’s like to have a matchup nightmare at tight end, it’s the Patriots. Kelce had seven grabs for 108 yards on the worst defense in the NFL against tight ends. The Patriots were in the middle of the pack defending tight ends.
This is the most important development to watch on Sunday. Damien Williams had a big day running the football, but the Colts defense was clearly tired in last weekend’s game. Can Mahomes go through his progressions and make the right reads if one of his primary weapons is taken away? Will the youngster have the poise?
Protecting the Passer
The Chiefs are very aggressive on defense. They tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 52 during the regular season and got Andrew Luck three times in the Divisional Round. Dee Ford and Justin Houston both had more jump after the all-important bye week. The Patriots are going to have to keep Brady upright in this game. He wasn’t sacked at all by the Chargers and their two exceptional edge rushers because James White was targeted 17 times and Sony Michel ran the rock effectively.
The Chiefs allowed the fifth-most receiving yards to running backs this season, though none of the Colts’ running backs caught a pass. White should factor heavily into the equation again and so should Michel. The Chiefs were 31st in the regular season in yards per carry allowed.
If Brady has time to throw and the running game can slow down the pass rush, the Patriots will get theirs.
As far as Mahomes, the Patriots were tied for 30th in sacks during the regular season. They are not an aggressive defense. They’ll sit back and look to limit big gains. That means that Mahomes will have time in the pocket. He shouldn’t be rattled by oncoming rushers and he’s clearly mobile enough to get away when one does show up in his grill. If Deatrich Wise is able to go this week, it will help the Patriots. He was second to Trey Flowers with 4.5 of New England’s 30 sacks.
There probably won’t be a lot of negative plays in this game, which should interest totals bettors.
Running Down a Dream
Mahomes and Brady will get all of the buzz, but maybe this game ends up being decided by the rushing attacks. It didn’t take long for Sony Michel to become the feature back for Josh McDaniels and he wound up with 4.5 yards per carry in the regular season. Michel scampered for 129 yards and three touchdowns against the Chargers last weekend.
The Colts didn’t run much against the Chiefs, but had plenty of success when they did. The Colts averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 14 rushing attempts, but the early 14-0 hole and 24-7 halftime deficit prevented Indianapolis from taking full advantage of the ground game. Whether the Patriots do it between the tackles with Michel or utilize White with short throws, the running game will be a big part of the equation.
Can the Chiefs have success doing the same? Damien Williams ran 25 times for 129 yards against the Colts, but that was a Colts front seven completely gassed with the playoff chase and last week’s road win in Houston. Then again, for as much talk as we’ll hear and see about the leaky Chiefs run defense, the Patriots were 29th with 4.9 yards per carry allowed.
Red Zone Report
The Patriots didn’t live up to their usual standards in the red zone. They were 15th in TD% on offense and just 16th in TD% on defense inside the 20. They scored five TDs on seven red zone tries against the Chargers, but also allowed Los Angeles to score touchdowns on all three red zone trips.
The Chiefs were second in the league in TD% on offense at better than 71 percent. Unfortunately, they gave a lot of those touchdowns back by being the second-worst defense in TD%. Opponents scored a touchdown on 42 of 58 red zone trips. The Colts, ironically, were 0-for-2 in last weekend’s game.
As mentioned in the Opening Line Report, the four best scoring offenses are in the Conference Championship round. These are also the best teams at staying ahead of the chains with success on early downs. One big difference, per Warren Sharp, is that the Chiefs ranked 28th on defense in early down success rate. The Patriots were 13th.
Mahomes and the Chiefs are plenty capable of completing third-and-longs, but the bigger concern here would be getting the Patriots offense off of the field. I’m not sure how often that happens. The weather is a concern. The very early forecasts show temperatures in the teens and wind chills even colder than that. That may enhance the importance of the running games and keep the clock moving.
Still, I would lean towards the over in this spot. As far as a side play goes, the Chiefs are the more explosive team, but we can probably look at the Patriots with a higher degree of certainty.
The better bet in both of these games would be to find some player props and/or derivatives. Both teams got off to fast starts in the Divisional Round, so maybe looking at the first quarter over is the way to go. Those scripted drives are usually pretty successful with offensive talent like this. I would also expect Sony Michel to go over his rushing yards total.
If you have to play the full-game side, the Chiefs are probably the better team at present and we didn’t see Brady really get tested in the Chargers game because of the huge lead. He didn’t throw many balls downfield, which was a problem throughout the year. With the bitter cold, the Chiefs would be wise to bunch the line of scrimmage and force Brady to beat them deep. I would have the razor thinnest of leans to Kansas City.