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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Patriots will have to advance the hard way

Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin appeared to suffer a serious knee injury Saturday, but the team announced it is an ankle injury.
Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin appeared to suffer a serious knee injury Saturday, but the team announced it is an ankle injury. Tony Gutierrez/Asociated Press

It’s a shame the Cincinnati Bengals couldn’t overcome their self-destructive nature or the Pittsburgh Steelers and avoid a meltdown to face the Patriots in the AFC Divisional playoffs Saturday.

The Patriots could have simply eased back into Super Bowl form after six weeks of hibernation and gotten a double bye into the AFC Championship game. The Bungles were never going to win in Foxborough. Their playoff self-immolation was imminent.

A team that majors in lack of self-discipline and self-inflicted wounds, Cincinnati was an ideal opponent for the Patriots. Instead, Bill Belichick’s club is going to have to earn their way into a fifth straight AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that embarrassed them on national television last season and the football equivalent of a pedestrian who looks both ways, twice, before crossing the street.

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Winners of 11 straight games, the Chiefs are talented, well-coached, and careful. That makes them dangerous. They don’t beat themselves — the Patriots committed the fewest turnovers in the NFL with 14 and Kansas City was next with 15. The Chiefs think they can beat the Patriots and won’t mind the mystique. They lack a deep pool of offensive weapons, but they might actually give a replenished Belichick FC a game at Gillette Stadium.

This playoff matchup is poetic. It was the Patriots’ 41-14 loss to the Chiefs last season that left them facing searing criticism and serious doubt about the state of their dynasty and the decline of their crown jewel quarterback. It was the game that spawned the rallying cry “We’re on to . . . ” and launched a season that ended with a fourth Lombardi Trophy.

Hampered by an almost unbelievable spate of injuries and forced to prioritize health over home-field advantage, the Patriots once again find themselves somewhat doubted and discounted. They lost four of their final six games in unimpressive and uncharacteristic fashion.

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They’ll need to use Kansas City once again as the catalyst for a Super Bowl run.

The Patriots aren’t going anywhere this postseason if they don’t return missing pieces to important places, chief among them No. 1 wide receiver Julian Edelman. The Patriots offense has scored 30 points just one time since Edelman departed in the first quarter of the team’s Nov. 15 win against the New York Giants with a broken foot.

We’re a town that loves the little guy, from Doug Flutie to Dustin Pedroia to Brad Marchand to Isaiah Thomas, and there is no little guy who is a bigger part of his team’s championship fate than Edelman.

But it’s not just Edelman.

When the Patriots were dominated by the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium last September it was the nadir of their offensive line inadequacy. Behind a porous offensive line, Tom Brady, who would be the Super Bowl MVP, committed three turnovers, including an interception returned for a touchdown. He was pulled in the fourth quarter for Jimmy Garoppolo with the Patriots trailing, 41-7.

In their 30-0 demolition of the Houston Texans in the AFC wild-card round on Saturday, Kansas City forced former Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer into five turnovers.

The presence of right tackle-turned-left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) is sine qua non for New England. The inability to block for Brady and absence of Edelman or a fully healthy Danny Amendola uncovering in the blink of an eye have short-circuited the offense.

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In the final eight games of the season, the Patriots averaged only 23.6 points per game. By comparison, Kansas City and its athletic, cerebral, and circumspect QB Alex Smith averaged 26.3 points per game.

New England completed 59.5 percent of its passes and averaged 247.9 passing yards per game over its final eight contests. Its 328.6 yards per game ranked 18th in the league during that time span, and their 34.2 percent third-down conversion ranked 24th.

If that’s the Patriots offense that shows up against a Kansas City defense that finished third in the league in points allowed per game (17.9) and tied for second best in third-down conversion rate allowed (33 percent), Belichick will rue wasting trick plays in losses to Philadelphia and the Jets.

The good news for the Patriots is that the Chiefs possess the type of offense Belichick is suited to dissect because they’re reliant on two playmakers — wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce.

Maclin and Kelce had 13 of the Chiefs’ 20 touchdown receptions this season. All other Chiefs wide receivers and tight ends combined had five touchdown receptions, with wideout Albert Wilson leading the way with two TD catches.

Belichick is the master of making teams beat him with their complementary players.

Maclin suffered what looked like a right knee injury against the Texans. However, Kansas City announced Sunday it is an ankle injury. Still, it could hamstring a wide receiving corps that is callow without him.

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The Patriots were deprived of a soft opening to the playoffs. They could end up with the hardest possible road to Super Bowl 50. Both Houston and Cincinnati would have been easy marks at Gillette. But they ended up with a team with a coach and a quarterback with playoff pedigree.

If the injury to the right shoulder of Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is as significant as it looked, then the chances of hosting the AFC title game look supermodel slim.

(Smith has thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception in four career postseason games.)

In their bid to become the first Super Bowl champions to repeat since the 2004 Patriots, these Patriots will have to defeat the Chiefs and travel to Denver for the AFC Championship game.

The Patriots are on to . . . defending their title the hard way.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.