CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
matthew j. lee/globe staff file
Bring on the Foxborough fodder. Book the Patriots for their annual AFC Championship game appearance. They’re regulars at the NFL’s Final Four establishment. Armed with home-field advantage, that shouldn’t change this postseason. It should be Saturday night lights out for whatever unlucky team ventures to Gillette Stadium on Jan. 13 for the AFC divisional playoffs.
There is no jinx that a mere writer can put on the Patriots that will be responsible for their demise prior to the AFC title game, a Foxborough birthright. If the Patriots fail to advance to a seventh straight AFC Championship, it won’t be because of a premature declaration.
It will be because a star is born in Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. It will be because the Buffalo Bills, playoff participants for the first time since 1999, get a playoff miracle of their own this millennium. It will be because Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs have replaced Eli Manning and the New York Giants as the Patriots’ Kryptonite. All seem unlikely.
The formula to take down Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the postseason is proven. It requires high-level quarterback play and an indefatigable and unintimidated defense that won’t cower before Brady and is willing to test just how pliable he is — mentally and physically. If you don’t have a quarterback who can stand up to the mental pressure from Belichick’s schemes and Brady’s brilliance, you have no shot.
The three potential opponents have not proven they have that type of steely-eyed signal-caller. (Smith still lacks that elite QB elan.) They shouldn’t feel bad. That type of quarterbacking cachet is in rare supply this postseason.
Assessing the playoff invite list, it worked out so favorably for the Patriots that you would think NFL senior vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron was reviewing and setting the playoff field for them. No Baltimore Ravens with Joe Flacco to worry about. No Los Angeles Chargers and Philip Rivers to contend with. Instead, the final two spots belong to Mariota, who threw 15 interceptions and 13 touchdown passes this season, and Tyrod Taylor, who is like the threadbare sock the Bills keep trying to throw out only to have it reappear in the dryer.
In the AFC, half the field boasts a quarterback who has never started a playoff game, never mind won one. Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles joins Mariota and Taylor in the postseason christening club.
Smith sports a 2-4 career playoff record, but he has won one playoff game in four tries in Kansas City. That victory came two seasons ago against the Houston Texans. His counterpart that day was current Patriots backup Brian Hoyer, who committed five turnovers.
If history is a guide, it takes a certain passing pedigree to oust the Patriots. Outside of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, where are those guys in this AFC field?
Since the 2006 season, the quarterbacks who have knocked New England out of the playoffs have been good enough to win Super Bowl rings. Eli Manning, Flacco, and Peyton Manning have combined to hand the Patriots seven of their eight playoff losses in that time.
The Rex Ryan-sized exception was Off the Mark Sanchez beating the top-seeded Patriots during the 2010 season playoffs at Gillette Stadium, one of the most shocking losses of the Brady-Belichick Era. Yet, Sanchez piloted the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010.
Is Smith, known throughout his career as a cerebral and cautious caretaker, not a gunslinger, ready to take the leap to championship-caliber QB? Kansas City certainly didn’t think so before the season when it traded into the top 10 to draft quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Smith has a tidy 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his postseason career. In three career games against the Patriots, he has completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. In KC’s season-opening 42-27 victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Sept. 7, the night they unveiled their fifth Super Bowl banner, Smith was surgical, finishing 28 of 35 for 368 yards and 4 touchdowns.
But that was when the Patriots were finding themselves — and beating themselves — defensively, struggling to cover and communicate in their secondary. And we’re talking about the playoffs now. Both times Smith has beaten the Patriots it has been during the first four games of a season, or as it’s known around here the Extended Preseason. Winning in September and winning at Gillette in January are completely different tasks.
The Chiefs are the only team to fear before the AFC championship. They have the NFL’s rushing champion in rookie Kareem Hunt, talented tight end Travis Kelce, and fleet wide receiver Tyreek Hill. But they’ve been as streaky as a road salt-caked windshield. KC won its first five games of the season. Then it dropped six of seven, including four straight. Then KC closed the season with four straight wins.
Will the real Chiefs please stand up?
The Patriots’ good fortune in what Bill Parcells called The Tournament extends to the NFC, if you dare look ahead to Super Bowl LII. (This is anathema to Belichick, who believes myopia isn’t a condition, it’s a virtue.)
The odds are ever in the Patriots’ favor. The NFC’s top two seeds, Philadelphia and Minnesota, are rolling out Nick Foles and Case Keenum at quarterback.
There are three quarterbacks on the NFC side who have reached the Super Bowl. Two of them will face off in the wild-card round as Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints host Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. The other is Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who faces the Los Angeles Rams and playoff neophyte Jared Goff. This is the Matt Ryan who was a co-conspirator in the Patriots’ epic comeback in Super Bowl LI, immortalizing “28-3” in local sports lore.
The Patriots’ pursuit of a sixth Super Bowl title likely hinges on a rematch with the Steelers and Roethlisberger. FYI, Roethlisberger has yet to defeat Brady in Foxborough. Big Ben’s lone win at Gillette came in 2008, when Brady was sidelined with a torn ACL.
When it comes to dethroning the Patriots, it’s no quality quarterback, no shot.
If you come at the NFL’s kings in the playoffs, you best bring a quarterback who doesn’t miss.
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