With Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes currently leading greatest-of-all-time, All-Galaxy quarterback Tom Brady in almost all NFL passing statistics — and with the Chiefs at 5-0 and the New England Patriots at 3-2 — the national media is all over this game.
They’d like you to believe that this game will determine if Mahomes is taking “the torch” from Brady’s hands. But it won’t.
Just as the win against the Denver Broncos gave the Chiefs a firm grip on the steering wheel of the AFC West, this game is about whether the Chiefs can get control of the wheel for the entire conference.
As for that torch thingy... it will just have to wait its turn. Mahomes already has his hand on it, but actually wrestling it away from Brady is going to take more than a regular-season win against the Patriots — even in Foxboro. And it’s going to take more than a Chiefs loss to break Mahomes’ grip, too.
So let’s all settle down, and keep an eye on five things to watch during the game:
1. The chess game
Watching Andy Reid and Bill Belichick coach these games is like watching two old guys who have sat across from each other at the same chess board in the park every afternoon for the last 20 years. Each intimately know the other guy’s strategies and how to defend against them; more often than not, they fight a battle of attrition that results in a narrow win for one of them.
But once or twice a week, one of them manages to mask an unexpected parry with what seems like a dumb pawn-grab — or manages to execute a successful flanking attack with his knights or bishops — leading to a sudden collapse by his opponent.
The 2015 playoff game between these two teams represented the norm between these two coaches: a narrow win for the Patriots determined by small battles won and lost. But the two other games between these teams since Reid arrived in Kansas City were the other kind — where Reid completely flummoxed his longtime adversary with unexpected moves that left him flat-footed.
This game should be more like the norm. Belichick has already admitted that the Chiefs may have too many weapons for his usual go-to strategy — that is, to simply take away the other team’s best weapon — to work. And Reid may have exhausted his inventory of plays and approaches the Patriots won’t expect.
All that may be left for each coach is to declare outright war — to have their defenses pin back their ears and go after the other king with everything they have... to fight for every square on the board.
The trouble is that Belichick’s aging, traditional king can only move one space at a time when it is under attack. Reid’s is the late-model king that can move more like a queen when under attack — and even mount a counterattack of its own.
2. The depth game
Coming out of the Jacksonville Jaguars game with multiple injuries to their starters, the Chiefs are about to find out what kind of depth they have at crucial positions; it’s hard to imagine a tougher test. Some Chiefs fans believe they already know the answer to this question; I’ve seen Twitter posts about the “bums” the Chiefs have added to the roster to play against New England.
But that’s missing the point. Those guys aren’t meant to play against New England — although some of them may see the field. Those guys are meant to back up the guys who will play against New England. Some of these backups who will be thrust into starting roles have seen significant playing time on special teams. Somebody has to take those snaps. And if they get hurt — or simply need a couple of snaps off — someone has to be there to step in.
This is pretty simple math, my Chiefs brothers and sisters. When the backup becomes the starter, you have to have another backup.
Still... players like Jordan Lucas, Breeland Speaks and Jordan Devey will have their work cut out for them on Sunday night. Lucas was a very pleasant surprise against Jacksonville, Speaks was better than many would have expected, but Devey didn’t really have enough snaps to give us a clear picture. Should he struggle, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Andrew Wylie go in for him.
3. The interior game
As The Nerd Squad’s Craig Stout noted, history shows us that Chiefs edge rushers have had little success in getting pressure on Brady. Brady simply gets the ball away too quickly for edge rushers to get to him.
If Brady is going to see pressure, it’s going to have to come from the interior of the Chiefs defensive front.
And we all know that getting pressure on Brady is one of the keys to beating Brady.
Yes... Allen Bailey, Xavier Williams and Chris Jones, we’re looking at you.
Just a few weeks ago, few of us might have thought this was even possible. But in recent weeks — especially against the Jaguars — all three seemed to have stepped up their games. That needs to continue on Sunday for the Chiefs to have a chance of stopping the Patriots offense.
If the Chiefs defensive interior can play with the intensity and swagger they displayed against the Jaguars and Broncos, that will go a long way to getting the Chiefs to 6-0 Sunday night.
4. The running game
The Interwebs are crawling with pundits giving the Patriots advice on now to beat the Chiefs.
This is a real through-the-looking-glass moment for Chiefs fans; it’s been a long time since national pundits regularly concerned themselves with helping Chiefs opponents figure out how to beat the Kansas City juggernaut. But I digress.
These pundits are suggesting the Patriots try and keep the Chiefs off the field as much as possible by establishing its running game against the Chiefs. If the pundits were advising the Chiefs, the advice might be the same; the Patriots offense was slow to start this season but has scored 38 points in the last two games.
Neither team has so far demonstrated a strong rushing attack — but neither team is particularly good at stopping the run, either. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect both teams to try and slow down the offensive tempo of this game by emphasizing the ground game on offense, and try to depend on late drives to win. In fact, the teams combined for more than 300 rushing yards in last year’s game — with the Chiefs taking a much bigger piece of the pie — and still scored almost 70 points between them.
5. The record game
You may recall that last season, much was made of the Patriots’ home record when the Chiefs came to town to open the season. It didn’t faze the Chiefs at all, shocking the Patriots with a 42-27 defeat.
But now that last season’s Chiefs victory is in the books, there’s a record on the line. No team has defeated Belichick’s Patriots at home in successive seasons since 2002, when the New York Jets beat the Patriots 10-3 in September of 2001 and 30-17 in December of 2002.
But even if the Chiefs can break this streak, Andy Reid won’t spend much time thinking about it.
He’ll be on to Cincinnati.