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Five things to watch in the Chiefs-Patriots AFC Championship Game

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Kansas City plays New England for a chance to take a trip to Atlanta in February

It seems so unreal, but it’s really happening. On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs are hosting the New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC Championship Game. One team is going home, and the other is going to the Super Bowl in Atlanta.

Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. The chess game, part II

HBO Documentary Screening Of ‘Bobby Fischer Against The World’ Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

Some things never change. As I said when these two teams met in October...

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 knows 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.

In October, it turned into a shootout that was decided in the final minutes of the game. Regardless of their respective game plans, that could easily happen again as these two teams meet to collect all of the AFC marbles.

But I suspect that neither coach is interested in leaving it to chance this time — that is, to just play score-for-score until the last team with the ball wins. What will these two coaches do to try and catch the other off-guard? How will each of them seek to nullify the other team’s very dangerous quarterback?

If you like chess matches between NFL coaches, it doesn’t get much better than this. These two are grandmasters.

2. Charvarius and Jordan

Divisional Round - Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Raise your hand if all of these apply to you:

  • On August 30 — the day the Chiefs acquired cornerback Charvarius Ward in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys — you thought that Ward would play a significant role for the Chiefs in 2018.
  • On August 31 — the day the Chiefs acquired safety Jordan Lucas in a trade with the Miami Dolphins — you thought that Lucas would play a significant role for the Chiefs in 2018.
  • On September 9 — the day the Chiefs were preparing to play their first game of the season — you thought that in January, you’d be reading an article about the Chiefs playing in the AFC Championship game.
  • On Christmas Eve — after the Chiefs had lost their second straight game, falling to the Seattle Seahawks 38-31 with Ward and Lucas on the field — you thought Ward and Lucas would play significant roles in a 32-point beatdown of the Oakland Raiders in Week 17, and an 18-point spanking of the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round.

Yeah... me, either.

Neither Charvarius Ward or Jordan Lucas — who were unexpectedly thrust into significant roles against the Seahawks when veteran players Orlando Scandrick and Ron Parker were benched — were particularly impressive in that Week 16 game. But a week later, they looked like they belonged. And two weeks after that, they were playing like they’d been there all season.

Three weeks ago, people were asking, “Why put unproven players on the field with the AFC West title and the number one seed in the playoffs on the line?” Now, people are asking, “Why didn’t the Chiefs do it sooner?”

The answer to the first question is pretty easy: because things weren’t working as they should have been. The Chiefs needed to try something — anything — that might help. Perhaps young, fresh legs — even if they lacked experience — would make the difference.

The answer to the second question is simply unknown. It’s reasonable to think that both of these players might not have made a significant difference if they’d been thrown into the fire earlier in the season. It’s also possible that the Chiefs just figured Scandrick and Parker would get it turned around; no one can deny their experience, and Scandrick in particular had shown flashes at various points in the season. But it didn’t happen. It wasn’t happening. Time was running out.

All of which leaves us with this set of facts:

It did happen. It worked. And it has to keep working.

So keep your eye on these young players against the Patriots. If they continue to play well — which will take pressure off the run defense, and create more opportunities for the pass rush — this Chiefs defense is clearly capable to playing on another level... at the precise time that it matters most.

3. The pass rush

Divisional Round - Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Just as in the divisional round against the Indianapolis Colts, the Chiefs are facing a team that is among the league leaders in protecting their quarterback. What I said before the October game against the Patriots in Foxboro will probably hold true for this game as well:

As The AP 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.

That turned out to be pretty much on target. Dee Ford didn’t record a sack against Brady. Jones had a single sack. Reggie Ragland and Breeland Speaks — playing in place of the injured Justin Houston — shared one.

But a lot of things have changed since October. Houston is back, and he’s playing more like the Houston of old. And this time, the Chiefs will be playing at home. Both of those factors should help the Chiefs this time around.

But there’s another thing that’s changed since October.

Back in Week 6, NFL players and coaches were still trying to figure out how to deal with the new NFL rules about roughing the passer. As you’ll recall, the Patriots game was when rookie Chiefs linebacker Breeland Speaks let Tom Brady out of his grasp, allowing Brady to run for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

At the time, Speaks said he let go of Brady because he was concerned about being flagged. While some didn’t believe Speaks’ explanation, there’s little doubt that in the early weeks of the season, this was something with which pass rushers (and their coaches) were struggling.

Just a few weeks ago, we told you how Chiefs outside linebackers coach Mike Smith doesn’t care about sacks. Smith’s emphasis on pressure rather than sacks — that is, to do anything that can disrupt a passing play — didn’t sit well with some fans after the losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Seattle Seahawks.

But the benefits were on display in the next two games, as the Chiefs had dominating wins against two teams — the Oakland Raiders and the Colts — that both feature offenses based on short, quick passes intended to blunt the opposing pass rush.

The Patriots are another such team.

Either by accident or design, the Chiefs have come up with an effective way to get sacks without being penalized: strip the ball from the quarterback. Over the season, the Chiefs forced a fumble on 29 percent of their league-leading 52 quarterback sacks. That’s tops in the league, with the Buffalo Bills a close second. Stripping the ball from the quarterback is better not only because you have a chance at a turnover, but also because there is usually only a very small risk of a penalty. In a playoff game, this could be a huge factor.

Which brings us to...

4. Turnovers

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

In a team sport where very few statistics have strong predictive value, turnover margin is one of those that is reasonably predictive. In the 2018 season, 256 NFL games were played. Two of them ended in ties. Ignoring all other factors, in 59 percent of the remaining games, the winning team had a turnover margin — takeaways minus giveaways — of one or more.

In playoff games over the last 10 seasons, the figure is even higher. In the 110 playoff games played from 2008 through 2017, the winning team had a positive turnover margin in 64 percent of the games. The reason is simple: teams in the playoffs tend to be more evenly matched, so turnovers become even more important.

That might not seem like a huge difference, but a 59 percent chance to win the game translates to a three-point spread. A 64 percent chance works out to a 3.5 point spread. In the playoffs — between teams that are so evenly matched — that’s a lot.

This is precisely the argument that was being put forth by some pundits in the first half of the season: traditional NFL defenses no longer mattered. If you had a top-tier offense — and a defense that could get some stops, plus some turnovers from the pass rush — you could win a lot of games. Later in the season, as teams like the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans made the playoffs, this narrative died down a bit. These teams were giving up the fewest points and yards, which made them strong defensive teams in the traditional sense,.

But now, all those teams have all been eliminated. The top four offenses are contending for the Super Bowl. Only one of them — the Patriots — has a traditional defense. Yet both the Patriots and Chiefs have nearly identical numbers in defensive takeaways.

In this game, turnovers — getting them, and preventing them — are going to matter. A lot.

5. The GOAT vs. the GOAT-ee

Kansas City Chiefs v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Patriots know it. The Chiefs know it. You know it. I know it. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is absolutely in the discussion as the greatest quarterback of all time. Until he is no longer playing, you have to respect that.

And yet... this season, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes matched — and exceeded — the incredible 17-game stretch that started St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner’s career in 1998-99, which is arguably the greatest start in any NFL quarterback’s career. Warner was the NFL MVP in the 1999 season and went on to win the Super Bowl.

While the MVP award voting has already taken place — the votes were cast before the postseason began — the award winner won’t be announced until the NFL Honors ceremony the night before the Super Bowl. From all appearances, Mahomes is the front-runner for the award. Could he match the remaining achievements of Warner’s 1999 season?

It won’t be easy.

Since 1999, eight other quarterbacks have been named the NFL MVP and then appeared in the Super Bowl. All eight of them lost. Could Mahomes break the string? Could he join Warner, Brett Favre, Joe Montana and Joe Theismann as the only quarterbacks to ever do it?

Only one thing is certain: none of it happens without a win on Sunday. Will Mahomes take another step toward history, or will Brady lay claim to another year on top — knowing that next year, Mahomes will be taking another shot at dethroning him?

Whatever takes place, this is going to be a game people are going to be talking about for a long, long time. Take it from an old guy who has been here once before: be sure to enjoy every moment, and take in every detail. You’ll want to etch everything that happens into your memory, so you can tell your grandkids what it was like to watch it all happen.