We're taking a look at the two road teams in the Conference Championship games today. Next up is the New England Patriots, at Kansas City. Unlike the NFC game, which will be played in a dome, weather might be a factor in this one, making the projection trickier.
The Patriots are 3-point underdogs, with the over-under of 58 suggesting a 30-27 type of game. It was higher scoring when these teams faced each other in Week 6 at Foxborough, a 43-40 New England win. This one's in Kansas City, and it’s January, so weather might be problematic. It doesn’t look like wind or precipitation will be factors, but it should be very cold, with temperatures dipping into the single digits. That could work against both passing games, resulting in a lower-scoring game where neither team makes it up to 30 points.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady will be appearing in his eighth straight AFC Championship Game, which is hard to believe. Only two of those games were on the road, at Denver after the 2013 and 2015 seasons, and New England lost both of them. For his career, he’s just 3-4 on the road in the playoffs (and the Patriots went only 3-5 on the road this season). The Patriots lost their last game at Kansas City, although it was a few years ago (41-14 during the 2014 season). They also lost the 2017 meeting, in Foxborough (42-27 in Week 1). Bottom line, Kansas City shouldn’t be intimidated by facing Brady.
Straight off the numbers, the matchup looks great. Kansas City had the league’s bottom-ranked pass defense during the season, allowing 295 yards and nearly 2 TDs per game (30). And Brady was exceedingly sharp against the Chargers, throwing for 343 yards and 1 TD. He threw for 340, with a passing score and a rushing touchdown, in Week 6.
But frigid temperatures could play a factor, perhaps not as much for Brady (he’s played plenty of cold weather games) but his receivers – there could be more dropped passes, and big plays downfield look less likely. Kansas City’s defense was also dramatically better at home (18 points per game, and 14 TDs in eight contests) than on the road (35 points per game, and 31 TDs) during the season. That’s about half as much production, and the Colts managed only 13 points and 1 TD at this venue last week.
Given that, we’re putting a lower projection on Brady than you might expect. Maybe he still throws multiple touchdowns, but yardage should be more modest; some chance he struggles, or the team works the run a little more. The NFC quarterbacks won’t have to worry about weather, and Brady is less likely to do anything as a runner than his opponent.
RUNNING BACK: The Patriots ran for 155 yards and 4 TDs last week, while Kansas City had a bottom-10 run defense during the season. Only two teams allowed more rushing touchdowns (19), and only the Rams allowed a higher yards per carry average (5.0). The Patriots themselves rushed for 173 yards and 3 TDs in the earlier meeting. With the favorable matchup (and chance that conditions dictate more rushing than passing), New England will probably be one of the two best rushing teams this week.
Sony Michel will be the main runner, and he comes off a huge game (129 yards and 3 TDs against the Chargers). His only other game with multiple touchdowns, as it happens, came against this opponent (106 and 2 TDs in Week 6). Things got away from the Colts last week, but Marlon Mack still averaged 5.1 yards per attempt (9 for 46). As long as New England sticks with the ground game, another 80-plus yards and a touchdown from Michel looks likely. Rex Burkhead scored last week, but played only 11 snaps, and that touchdown came with Michel getting a breather after a 40-yard run. Unlikely he gets on the field much.
James White should also be a huge factor, not as a runner but as a receiver. He caught 15 passes for 97 yards last week, though he didn’t carry it at all. He also caught 5 balls for 53 yards in Week 6. Kansas City allowed 6 TD receptions by running backs during the season, tied for most in the league. James Develin might get a carry or two near the goal line (4 TDs during the season) but otherwise won’t do anything (just 2 other carries).
WIDE RECEIVER: New England didn’t miss Josh Gordon against the Chargers; Julian Edelman caught 9 balls for 151 yards, and Phillip Dorsett caught 4 passes and a touchdown. Dorsett has been the main beneficiary of Gordon’s absence; his best games (four of five over 30 yards, and 3 of 4 TDs) came before, or after, Gordon was with the team. Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson are hit-or-miss. Hogan had four games over 60 yards and four others where he didn’t even catch a pass. He hit in the earlier Kansas City game (4 for 78), at least. Patterson had three games over 50 receiving yards, but just 23 in his last three combined. He played only 11 snaps against the Chargers. Edelman (4 for 54, TD) and Gordon (5 for 42) were the best wideouts next to Hogan in Week 6, so probably Edelman and Dorsett this time around. Fewer than half (14) of the 30 touchdowns thrown against this defense went to wide receivers, however.
TIGHT END: Kansas City allowed 10 TDs to tight ends during the season, while Rob Gronkowski had one of his best games all season in the earlier meeting (3 for 97). But it takes a leap of faith to think the veteran will again rise up as a big part of the passing game. The years, injuries and hits seem to have taken a toll, and Gronkowski is primarily operating as a blocker these days. He’s caught more than 3 passes in just one of his last nine games, with 2 TDs in those contests. There are only four teams playing and two don’t use the position much, so the future Hall of Famer still looks like the 2nd-best option. But a pretty big gap between him and Travis Kelce.
KICKER: Kansas City allowed only 6.4 kicking points per game during the season, better than everyone but the Saints of teams still playing. Kickers tend to do better in wins and both home teams are favored, but New England looks like the likelier road winner (and this game seems to be a toss-up). Decent chance Stephen Gostkowski finishes as one of the top 2 kickers.
DEFENSE / SPECIAL TEAMS: The Patriots tied with the Rams for the 3rd-most interceptions (18) during the season, while Patrick Mahomes threw an ordinary 12 – including 2 at New England. But the Patriots had one of the worst pass rushes during the season (just 30 sacks), while Mahomes was sacked just 26 times, and none at all against this defense. He seemed to strain a knee after a hit last week, which maybe factored into him taking 4 sacks, but no indication that will be a problem. The Patriots had 3 defensive touchdowns and 1 on returns during the season; Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the league’s best kickoff returners. But Kansas City hasn’t allowed a kick return score in any of the last six seasons. It gave up 2 defensive touchdowns last year, both in the wild shootout with the Rams.
Player projections are below; at the end of the week, after all four teams have been analyzed, we'll see how the rankings shake out.
|NEW ENGLAND PLAYER PROJECTIONS|