On Sunday, it will have been 322 days since the New England Patriots came to Arrowhead Stadium and defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 37-31 in the AFC championship game.
Because the game went to overtime — and turned on a game-of-inches play late in regulation — throughout the offseason, fans and analysts have assumed the two teams would be the top AFC contenders in 2019.
A lot has changed since then. The Chiefs have lost four games — the Patriots, just two. There is not a lot of buzz about the Chiefs representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.
And yet... here we are.
The Chiefs travel to Gillette Stadium on Sunday to face the Patriots again. Both teams need a win — and a little help — to clinch postseason berths. After losses to teams they were expected to beat, the Chiefs need to prove they can handle a championship contender. And oddly enough, after opening the season with a string of victories against underwhelming teams, so do the Patriots.
And then there’s reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes — who wants to get back to his 2018 form — and a three-time NFL MVP, who would like to get his own mojo back in a season that’s among his worst in a decade.
For an in-season game, it just doesn’t get a lot better than that.
On Wednesday, offensive-minded Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said he loves the challenge of facing defensive-minded coach Bill Belichick.
“I’m sure he’d tell you the same thing,” he said. “You enjoy the challenge every week in this thing; that’s what we do. There is nobody better than he is. But he would also probably tell you — like I would — that he and I aren’t playing. Our guys are playing, so we have to make sure that we get them prepared.”
But it’s not as if the Chiefs have been obsessing about the game. Mahomes said that he’s only watched the AFC championship game twice since it took place.
“I watched it right after we played them just to see,” he said. “Even though we didn’t have another game, I wanted to learn from that game and get as much as I could going into the offseason. And I watched it again this year — this week, I mean. Just those two times. Obviously, we have them in cut-ups when we’re looking at certain plays or certain breakdowns. [But] as far as through and through, I think just those two times.”
Mahomes spoke about watching the Patriots’ single overtime drive as it happened.
“I remember being on the sideline and having full confidence the defense was going to make the stop — and they got really close several times on that drive,” he recalled. “You never have that defeated feeling until after the game is over.”
Because the two meetings between them were such close games, the Chiefs know there will be little margin for error.
“I think they know us, and we know them,” Reid said. “You get in and you battle. We’ve played them quite a few times here over the last few years. It just comes down to execution on both sides of the ball — and on special teams. Playing good, solid football. Make sure that we take care of our business here over these few days — and Pat [is] a part of that. He has to focus in and do his thing that he does every week and get himself prepared to play in a game.”
Mahomes said that for the Patriots, part of that is expecting the unexpected.
“It’s a team that they’re going to have stuff that we didn’t necessarily prepare for, because they’re going to do stuff they haven’t done in maybe two or three years. So we’ve watched the tape and looked at everything they can possibly do — but whenever we get these unscouted looks, it’s about me finding the best way to get us into the best play and not take these negative plays while keeping the offense moving.”
His head coach agreed.
“When you play Bill and the Patriots, that’s what you’re going to get,” Reid said about coaching against his longtime friend. “You’re going to get something different every week. That’s where you bank on knowing your scheme and fundamentals — knowing your players and how they play.”
After playing the Patriots twice, Reid said that Mahomes is better for it.
“He obviously has more experience now than he did before. He can bank on some of that, depending on whatever they play. They play a variety of things different weeks. You’re right: it’s different every week.”
Mahomes said that he would be paying particular attention to Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
“The understanding he has of the defense is the biggest thing for me,” he said. “He really understands what the offenses are trying to do, and he tries to take that away. He understands not only what’s going on with his guy, but the pass rusher and the other guys around him.
“I think that’s the biggest thing — having such great seasons this year and last year. He’s obviously physically gifted and able to play man coverage or zone coverage or whatever it is. He understands the whole concept of the defense and what the offense is trying to do to exploit it.”
Reid said that with players like Gilmore, the Chiefs will have to be at their best against the Patriots’ man-to-man pass coverages.
“Yeah, they do a great job of that,” he said. “They’re a good man football team. They do other things too, but they’re really a good man team. They have a nice package there. We’ve had some looks at it. We have a little experience under our belt with it. I feel good about it.”
Then Reid got to the bottom line about a game between such closely matched rivals.
“You have to go win. That’s the one thing about man. It’s man-to-man. You have to win the battle there.”