It’s dog-eared dogma of professional football that defense wins championships. That trite but true tenet certainly applies to the 2019 Patriots. Philosophical and spiritual heirs to the Run Prevention Red Sox of 2010, the Point Prevention Patriots will travel as far as their defense takes them, especially with an offense more conducive to finger-pointing than point production. However, before this defense can win a championship it has to win a game against an upper-echelon quarterback.
For all the jaw-dropping numbers the Patriots’ defense has generated this season, their performance and their dominance has dropped off to mere mortal levels in the team’s two losses at the hands of MVP-caliber quarterbacks, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Houston’s Deshaun Watson. Sunday’s game against Kansas City and 2018 league MVP Patrick Mahomes is the Patriots’ last shot before the playoffs to prove that they can beat an elite quarterback conducting a high-powered offense. It’s the ultimate litmus test against the defense’s ultimate nemesis, an Andy Reid-conceived KC offense.
The 10-2 Patriots are nearing the end of a five-game gauntlet that stood as the meatiest and most revealing part of their regular-season schedule. They’re .500 entering Sunday’s hyped showdown with the Chiefs.
If the Patriots’ defense can’t play at the otherworldly level against upper-crust QBs, then there is a fatal design flaw in Foxborough in 2019 because the Patriots’ offense has ossified before our eyes. The trickle of points from Tom Brady and Co. doesn’t seem likely to change to a faucet flow any time soon. A thought far scarier than Bill Belichick’s Boogeymen is that the Patriots’ defense isn’t capable of trammeling prolific offenses in the same manner it does OK and overmatched ones.
Jackson’s Ravens put 30 offensive points on the Patriots in a 37-20 Baltimore victory. Last Sunday, Watson threw for three touchdowns and caught another scoring pass as Houston rolled up 28 points on the impenetrable Patriots defense. The Patriots have allowed 13 touchdowns on defense, eight of them to the Ravens and Texans, who just happen to feature the two best quarterbacks they’ve faced this year.
The Patriots must prove that they can take down a talented offense with all its weapons and without having Mother Nature as an extra defender, as she was for the quagmire against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 24. You can make a case for the Patriots’ season-opening 33-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers falling into that category. But Ben Roethlisberger had a bum elbow that ended his season, and one real threat, JuJu Smith-Schuster.
To secure their spot in the pantheon of all-time great NFL defenses, the Patriots have to stymie an offense with the artillery and play-calling artistry of Kansas City. The defense elicited the death rattle from the offenses of the Eagles and the Cowboys, but this is another level.
The Chiefs sport multiple receiving threats and the magic of Mahomes, the NFL’s premier improv performer. “He makes plays very few other players in the league can make at his position,” said Belichick.
This past week in Foxborough had the feel of Indianapolis Colts prep in the 2000s. This is the new “it” rivalry for the Patriots. It’s the game you circle on the calendar when the NFL schedule is released, just like you used to circle the Patriots vs. Peyton Manning matchups, first the Colts and then the Denver Broncos. The Patriots are always an attention-to-detail team, but this past week both the reverence for the opponent and the focus were ratcheted up a notch for this AFC title game rematch.
Reid and the Chiefs represent a stress test for the Patriots’ defense. Belichick called his friend Reid “as good a play caller and game planner as anybody I’ve coached against.” You can see why the Don of Defense would feel that way.
In the last five meetings with the Chiefs, dating to the Monday Night Massacre in 2014 at Arrowhead Stadium, the Patriots have allowed an average of 34.8 points and 418.8 yards per game to KC. The Chiefs have topped 30 points the last three times they’ve played New England. Former KC QB Alex Smith and Mahomes completed 65.2 percent of their passes with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions for a quarterback rating of 115.1 in those five contests. Last year, Mahomes threw for 647 yards and seven touchdowns with two interceptions in two games against the Patriots, despite being barred from the end zone in the first halves of both games.
The Chiefs aren’t as explosive as they were last year when they led the NFL in points per game (35.3) and yards per game (425.6), powered by 50 TD tosses by Mahomes. But they’re still second in the league in yards per play (6.3) and third in points per game (29) this year. That’s with Mahomes missing two games because of a knee injury and speedster Tyreek Hill sitting out four games after injuring his clavicle.
KC has more speed at wideout than an Olympic 4 x 400-meter relay team, and tight end Travis Kelce quietly leads the AFC in receiving yards (923).
The game is going to be strength against strength. The Patriots’ steel-trap defense against Kansas City’s high-octane offense.
“Exactly. It’s like best on best,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “Somebody has to win this game. We obviously know they’re talented and we know we’re talented. We’ve got to go out there and we’ve got to play to our strengths, though. We know what we’re good at, and we’ve got to make sure that when we leave the field on Sunday that we did everything we could to give ourself the best chance to win. That’s what it’s all about — winning.
“We know they’re going to make some plays. We’re going to make some plays. Whatever we can do to win and have more points than them at the end of the game, that’s what it’s all about. That’s all that matters, a win is a win . . . As a defense, you want to always try to limit the offense’s productivity, but at the end of the day we’re based off wins and losses. This game is all about winning and losing, and if we can win, 55-54, or win, 3-0, all that matters is getting that win.”
True, but winning, 55-54, seems far-fetched with quarterback Brady searching for open receivers and the offense searching for answers in vain. This game is going to be on the defense. They might even have to pad the Patriots’ point total with a fifth defensive touchdown of the season. The Patriots’ defense can’t rely on the offense to play keepaway like it did in the AFC title game or to put 43 points on the board as it did against KC last October at Gillette.
The Kansas City defense remains susceptible, but the Patriots’ mandate is to keep Mahomes and Co. in the 20s.
It’s worth pointing out that the road to the Super Bowl likely goes through at least one of Jackson, Watson, and Mahomes. Not even the Patriots are fortunate enough to avoid facing any high-end talent on the road to a seventh Super Bowl championship.
The Patriots have majored in shutting down and shutting up offenses this season, but they need a statement win Sunday — one that says their brand of defense can make the end zone off-limits for even the most dynamic quarterbacks.