Welcome to Season 7, Episode 19 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
This is how it was supposed to be all along. Oh, NFL seasons don’t always go according to design, and the clues from the early weeks don’t always lead to direct answers. But this one did, and that’s a wonderful development for football fans, because this has a chance to be the most entertaining conference championship weekend in years.
The top four seeds entering the playoffs — and the four most compelling teams from the regular season — are the final four teams left standing. The Chiefs host the Patriots, with the winner facing the victor in the NFC’s sure-to-be-a-shootout matchup between the Saints and Rams in the Super Bowl. Yeah, this is how it was supposed to be.
Of course, two teams will prolong their season this weekend, and two will head into the offseason with a stack of fresh what-ifs. In order to be among the former rather than the latter, the Patriots must overcome their most daunting challenge of the season: beating second-year sensation Patrick Mahomes and the top-seeded Chiefs in front of an Arrowhead Stadium crowd that knows how to turn noise into an X-factor. They’ll need every decibel they can muster with Tom Brady playing as well as he has all season and James White and Julian Edelman in full super-charged postseason mode.
The teams played a classic in Week 6 at Gillette Stadium, with the Patriots prevailing, 43-40. The sequel may not be as high-scoring, but it should be a thriller, and one with much higher stakes. This game can’t get here fast enough.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
■ Trey Flowers: I tend to believe that statistics, especially the advanced kind, tell pretty close to a complete story. I don’t think that’s the case with Flowers, though.
Consider: He finished the regular season with 7½ sacks, then added another in the divisional-round victory over the Chargers. That’s a respectable total, and the most of his four-year career. He also has 22 quarterback hits, including two from the Chargers game.
Should you look at those totals, without having seen the player, I suspect you’d probably think, “Decent pass rusher, but not someone who is a game-changer.”
Which is why you need to see the player; statistics aren’t doing justice to the impact Flowers has been having on the game lately. He is relentless in pursuit of the quarterback, and a couple of times against the Chargers he blasted through blocks (once taking down Philip Rivers at the legs) as if his legs had been replaced by pistons.
He’s not the biggest player (6 feet 2 inches, 265 pounds) but his physicality sometimes reminds me of Andre Tippett, the greatest defensive player in Patriots history. The Patriots will need Flowers to be on a seek-and-destroy mission for anything in his path Sunday while also being disciplined enough to contain Mahomes. He’ll be up to the task. He almost always is, even if it isn’t always reflected in the numbers.
J.C. Jackson: When the Patriots beat the Chiefs in Week 6, Mahomes threw for 352 yards and four touchdowns, with Tyreek Hill catching 7 passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots’ starting cornerbacks that night were Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty. Gilmore went on to have a superb season, making the All-Pro team and performing like Darrelle Revis during his single season in New England in 2014. McCourty has been a dependable presence.
But perhaps the major difference on the Patriots defense now is the emergence of Jackson, a rookie free agent cornerback who has performed in recent weeks as if he should have been a high draft pick.
Jackson has allowed a remarkable passer rating of 42 on passes thrown in his direction. He has three interceptions and five passes defensed in his 13 games (five starts). So how did he fare against the potent Chiefs? Actually, it was one of the three games he missed; Jackson was inactive that night, having played just five snaps the week before against the Colts. His emergence began in Week 7, when he played 31 snaps against the Bears.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid didn’t seem to know who Jackson was when he was asked about him during a conference call this week. He’s going to know his name and his game soon. For now, it might be best to think of him as the new Malcolm Butler.
Chris Jones: If you’re one of those Patriots pessimists that pass the hours you spend on hold calling sports radio shows by pondering all the ways things can go wrong, you’ve probably thought a lot about Jones this week.
The Chiefs’ third-year defensive lineman has been a menace to opposing quarterbacks, racking up 15½ sacks and 29 quarterback hits (though curiously he doesn’t have a sack or even a tackle in the past two games). More alarmingly, he’s especially adept at getting after the quarterback up the middle, which has been one of the few tried-and-true ways to disrupt Brady through the years. (Think Justin Tuck.)
The Patriots offensive line dominated the Chargers pass rush last week, limiting star ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to three tackles and no sacks. This week’s task is far more difficult, in part because of the venue; Brady will have to use a silent snap count.
If the Patriots fall behind, Jones and friends could turn this into a recurring meeting at Brady’s torso, similar to what Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, and DeMarcus Ware did in the 2015 AFC Championship game. But you pessimists already knew that.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
I’m not one to get too worked up about officiating assignments. But it is curious that Walt Coleman, whose correct interpretation of the idiotic Tuck Rule in the Patriots’ franchise-altering victory over the Raiders in the 2001 AFC divisional round game (forever known as the Snow Bowl), never officiated another Raiders game for the remaining 17 years of his career. Meanwhile, bumbling Clete Blakeman, who had an important supporting role in the Wells Report as the referee during the Colts-Patriots playoff game in 2014 that spurred Deflategate, still gets primo assignments such as this one.
Blakeman has made dubious calls against the Patriots before; he held his flag as Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly bear-hugged Rob Gronkowski on a game-ending play in the end zone during a Panthers win in 2013, and the Patriots are just 3-5 in games he’s refereed. Why do I suspect Roger Goodell and his minions are well aware of this?
PREDICTION, OR WE’RE ON TO ATLANTA
Brady and the Patriots have been playing up the no-one-believed-in-us angle since the immediate moments after their victory over the Chargers. It’s a tried-and-true motivational tactic for them going back to the beginning of their dynasty, back when people actually didn’t believe in them.
Brady clearly is aware of the he’s-old-and-he’s-slipping narrative that followed him through what was a very good but not close to MVP-level season at age 41. Even if he did slip a little — and I still believe he missed more open receivers this year than he has in a long, long time — he’s playing at an exceptional level lately. And always, the skepticism motivates him. He’s never ceased being the overlooked sixth-round pick in his own mind.
But the whole truth is closer to this: Football fans nationally, as sick of Brady’s face as Red Sox fans were of Derek Jeter’s circa 1999, don’t want to believe in them. They want to wish the dynasty dead and buried beneath the Arrowhead sod. But they’ll never truly believe it’s over until Brady and Bill Belichick have moved on. They’re wish-casting. They believe in the resilience and power of the Patriots more than they could ever admit.
Any expectation Sunday that the Patriots will win is based on a thorough and unyielding belief in Brady, and Belichick, too. The Chiefs have a more talented roster, a quarterback who threw 21 more touchdowns and just one more interception than Brady, and a flawed but fast defense that will benefit from the backing of a raucous crowd. The Chiefs should win. This should be their time.
I’ve doubted Brady at times this season. I’m not doubting him now. I don’t know if this is the Patriots’ last hurrah. But Patriots will be the ones cheering at the end. Patriots 35, Chiefs 30.