The recent past is not prelude.
The Patriots, fortified by a bye week and home-field advantage, demolished a well-rounded Chargers team that was nonetheless unexceptional in any facet in the divisional round of the playoffs. Now, everything confronting the team in the AFC Championship game has changed.
New England will head on the road to face the Chiefs, who enjoyed an extra day of rest by playing Saturday. Whereas the strength of Los Angeles was its balance, Kansas City is propelled by one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, a unit so good that it rendered irrelevant the frequent absence of a defensive challenge.
The Chiefs averaged 35.3 points per game, third-highest in NFL history behind the 2013 Broncos (37.9) and 2007 Patriots (36.8). Kansas City became the first team to score at least 25 points in every game. Teams beat them not by shutting down their offense but by outscoring them, as Kansas City averaged a startling 37.5 points in its four losses. (Context: Eight teams didn’t score 37 points in a single game this season.)
The challenge isn’t unfamiliar to New England. Several of the most memorable victories of the Patriots dynasty have come against elite offenses, whether it be the Super Bowl shutdown of the Greatest Show on Turf for the team’s first championship against the Rams or the furious comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Since the 2001 season that marked the beginning of this era of Patriots excellence, New England has played the team that led the NFL in scoring offense 12 times. (That number is suppressed by the fact that the Patriots have led the NFL in scoring numerous times). They are 8-4 in those games, including 4-1 in the playoffs.
It’s also worth noting that, like this Sunday’s game, three of those playoff games were rematches of regular-season contests; in each of those three games, the Patriots allowed fewer points in the playoff rematch than they did in the regular season.
Even so, the task that confronts the Patriots is daunting. New England, which rarely visits AFC opponents in the postseason, hasn’t won a playoff road game since the upset of the Chargers in 2007. Since then, the team is 0-3 in AFC Championship games on the road, with the 2013 Broncos offering something of a parallel to this matchup with Kansas City.
That Denver team set a record for most points scored in the regular season. The Patriots claimed a rabbit-from-the-hat 34-31 overtime win over those Broncos in Gillette Stadium during the regular season, but got handled in a 26-16 loss in the AFC Championship.
As the Patriots prepare to hit the road, here’s a look at the Chiefs’ home-field advantage and other factors that will help determine who advances to the Super Bowl:
KANSAS CITY, HERE I COME: The Patriots, of course, won a shootout at Gillette in October, but the Chiefs were a different team at Arrowhead than they were on the road. While Kansas City saw a slight scoring dip at home, from an otherworldly 38.3 points per game as visitors, they still had a potent offense, racking up 32.4 points per game at Arrowhead (fourth in the NFL by a home team).
Meanwhile, the Chiefs defense transformed from vulnerable to stout. Kansas City gave up just 18 points per game in home contests, sixth-best in the NFL — a considerable improvement from the 34.6 points per game (second-worst in the NFL) that they gave up on the road.
That said, the extreme home/road defensive splits may reflect less on the venue than on the quality of opponent. Kansas City’s defense got shredded in six games against playoff teams, permitting an average of 36 points and allowing at least 24 in each game. Against non-playoff teams, Kansas City allowed just 20.5 points per game.
Meanwhile, just two of the Chiefs’ six games against playoff teams were at home, with Kansas City allowing 29 points to the Chargers (1 more than they permitted Los Angeles to score in a road game) and 24 to a middling Ravens offense. In other words, aside from the Colts in the divisional round (who scored 13), good teams put up points on the Chiefs and bad teams didn’t. Quality of opponent seemed to matter more than home vs. road.
The Patriots’ 3-5 road record, on the other hand, accurately reflected a team that played poorly outside of New England. They scored a very pedestrian 21.6 points per game on the road (19th in the NFL), while permitting 24 per contest (19th).
Given the explosiveness of the Chiefs, the Patriots offense will have to prove that it can show up on the road — or else hope for divine (or climatic) intervention . . . something that may, in fact, happen.
THE FROZEN TUNDRA: News flash — it will be cold. With an arctic blast poised to hammer the Midwest, single-digit temperatures could be in the cards at kickoff. If that is indeed the case, an offensive shootout becomes less likely.
In the Super Bowl era, there have been 11 playoff games with a game-time temperature of 10 degrees or less. In those frigid conditions, no team has ever put more than 30 points on the board (the Packers’ 30-13 win over the Panthers in January 1997 on the way to beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI is the standard-setter), so there’s a chance that the New England defense gets an assist from the weather in its quest to slow Patrick Mahomes.
The Patriots have played just once in that sort of postseason chill, when they beat Tennessee, 17-14, at Foxborough in the divisional round on the way to winning their second championship in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
They’ve played three other games that have been 20 degrees or lower at kickoff: a 35-31 win over the Ravens en route to Super Bowl XLIX, a 41-27 win on the road over the Steelers in the AFC Championship on the way to Super Bowl XXXIX, and a 33-14 loss to the Ravens in the playoffs following the 2009 season.
Tom Brady played exceptionally against the Steelers (130.5 rating), very well in the win over the Ravens (99.3), managed the game well against Tennessee (73.3), and had a horrible game in the loss to Baltimore (49.1).
|Points per game||27.3 (4)||35.3 (1)|
|Percent of drives ending in a score||40.8 (7)||52.6 (1)|
|Yards per play||5.9 (8)||6.8 (1)|
|Passing yards per game||266.1 (8)||309.7 (1)|
|Passer rating||97.8 (11)||113.8 (1)|
|Rushing yards per game||127.3 (5)||115.9 (16)|
|Yards per carry||4.3 (17)||4.8 (6)|
|Turnovers||18 (T-23)||18 (T-23)|
|Percent of drives ending in turnover||9.2 (29)||10.5 (21)|
|Points per game||20.3 (7)||26.3 (24)|
|Percent of drives ending in a score||32.6 (4)||40.8 (28)|
|Yards per play||5.7 (22)||5.9 (24)|
|Passing yards per game||246.4 (22)||273.4 (31)|
|Passer rating||85.4 (7)||92.7 (12)|
|Rushing yards per game||112.7 (11)||132.1 (27)|
|Yards per carry||4.9 (30)||5.0 (31)|
|Turnovers||28 (T-5)||27 (T-8)|
|Percent of drives ending in turnover||15.0 (4)||14.9 (5)|
SHOCKINGLY, TURNOVERS ARE IMPORTANT: Since 2000, teams that win the turnover battle are 134-37 (.784) in playoff games. The Chiefs had multiple turnovers in just four games this year. Those four contests included three of their losses: a five-turnover yield against the Rams in which the Chiefs somehow managed to score 51 points, and two turnovers each in a 38-31 loss to the Seahawks and the 43-40 Week 6 loss to the Patriots.
Clearly, getting Kansas City to cough up the ball while not losing possession themselves will be critical for the Patriots as they try to hang onto a frozen boulder. That said, it’s worth noting that the Patriots proved far more adept at forcing turnovers at Gillette during the regular season (18 in eight games) than they were on the road (10 in eight games).
DOES FAMILIARITY BREED ANYTHING?: Since 2001, New England has a staggering 16-1 record in the playoffs against teams it didn’t face in the regular season. The loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl was the first time under the guidance of Bill Belichick and Brady that the Patriots lost to a playoff team it hadn’t played in the first 16 games.
New England has been far less dominant against teams it did play in the regular season, posting a 12-9 record. Yet its performance breaks down into three distinct groupings:
■ The Patriots twice faced the Jets in the postseason after splitting the regular-season series. They went 1-1 in those playoff games.
■ In the seven times the Patriots played a team that beat them in the only regular-season matchup, they are just 2-5. They haven’t had a playoff win against a team that beat them in the only regular-season matchup since their AFC Championship victory over the Steelers in January 2005.
■ On 12 occasions, the Patriots have played a team in the playoffs that they beat in their only regular-season matchup. They are 9-3 in those games. They’ll hope to improve that mark to 10-3 Sunday.