And then there were four.
The conference championship games are set. On Sunday, the Saints will host the Rams on the NFC’s side of the playoff bracket while the Chiefs will host the Patriots on the AFC’s side of the equation. A trip to the Super Bowl will be at stake. The final four has been set and it’s a doozy, featuring the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Andy Reid, Sean McVay, Aaron Donald, and so on. The best four teams in football are the four teams still alive this late in the process, which resulted in too many lackluster games during the divisional round, but should lead to two fantastic conference championship games.
As we prepare for Sunday, we’ll be making the Super Bowl case for each remaining team. Starting off our series? The Kansas City Chiefs (stream the Pats-Chiefs AFC Championship game on CBS All Access.)
To get to this point, the Chiefs — Chargers in the AFC West to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They proceeded to blitz the Colts in the divisional round, racing out to a huge lead and protecting that lead in the wintry conditions to send Captain Andrew Luck packing.— posted a 12-4 record in the regular season, barely holding off the
Next up? The Galactic Empire better known as the New England Patriots, who arelike the plucky nobodies they most definitely and totally have been this entire season that’s seen them win 12 out of 17 games en route to their 10th-straight division crown and eighth-straight AFC title game appearance.
If the Chiefs manage to blow up the Death Star, they’ll head to Atlanta where they’ll face either the Rams (in a rematch offrom earlier this season) or the top-seeded Saints. Regardless of which team wins, two tough games (at the most) await the Chiefs.
Here’s how they can win their first Super Bowl since 1970.
Mahomes remains the best QB on the planet
This might be overly simplistic, but that doesn’t make it wrong. For the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl, they’ll need Mahomes to continue playing at the historically great level he’s been operating at since Week 1. They’ll need him to be the best quarterback on the planet.
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The good news is that he’s been the best quarterback on the planet the entire season. It’s insane this is Mahomes’ first season as a starter, because he already submitted arguably the second-best single season by a quarterback in NFL history. In a full 16-game season, he completed 66 percent of his passes for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, 12 picks, and a 113.8 passer rating. He became the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a single season. And while Peyton Manning posted higher totals than Mahomes back in 2013, Mahomes averaged more yards per attempt and a touchdown on a higher percentage of his passes.
All 50 touchdowns and all 5,097 yards were needed. The Chiefs went 12-4 even though their defense allowed 26.3 points per game and finished 26th in DVOA.
And really, that’s why the Chiefs will need Mahomes to be at his absolute best on Sunday and possibly beyond. The Chiefs simply aren’t good enough to win without Mahomes playing his best football. They’ll need Mahomes to be the best quarterback on the field when he’s up against Brady on Sunday and if he gets the chance to face either Brees or Jared Goff in a couple of weeks. If he isn’t, they almost have no shot of winning. The Chiefs aren’t good enough to win with less than stellar quarterback play. The other three teams can survive mediocre outings from their quarterbacks. The Chiefs almost definitely can’t.
Here’s the good news: Mahomes hasn’t really struggled this season. Even in their four losses, Mahomes averaged 336.5 passing yards per game, and threw 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. If you extrapolate his stats in those losses to a full season, Mahomes would’ve thrown for 5,384 yards and 60 touchdowns. The Chiefs lost to the Patriots, Rams, Chargers, and Seahawks, but they did not lose to those playoff teams because of Mahomes. They lost despite Mahomes playing some of his best football. Mahomes doesn’t have a big game problem.
Take Saturday’s win over the Colts. In his first ever playoff start — after first-time playoff starting quarterbacks went 0-3 on Wild Card Weekend — Mahomes came out sizzling. When it was all over, Mahomes had actually posted one of his worst stat lines of the season with 278 yards, no touchdown passes, and an 85.2 passer rating (his second lowest rating of the season), but the stat line doesn’t do his performance justice.
For one, Mahomes did score a touchdown, but he did it on the ground.
After watching him create magic outside the pocket all season long, everyone is already well aware of Mahomes’ athleticism. But we often forget about his ability to pick up yards with his legs, because for the most part, Mahomes is so good at keeping his eyes up as he abandons the pocket, he’s usually able to find an open receiver downfield before he reaches the point of no return.
Two, Mahomes doesn’t get extra points for the throw below, but in a just world, he would. It’s the kind of throw that separates him from the rest of the playoff quarterbacks. It’s a throw that’s impossible to defend and renders coaching and perfect defense useless. It’s a throw that represents how Mahomes can will his team to a championship. It’s a throw that should be impossible. But Mahomes makes it possible.
And three, it’s not Mahomes’ fault that both of the Chiefs’ first two scoring drives ended with touchdown runs by Damien Williams and Tyreek Hill. If those two drives had ended in those little push passes that swept over the NFL this season, Mahomes’ stat line would’ve improved exponentially.
Don’t let his lackluster stats fool you. Mahomes played well in his first playoff game. It might not have been his flashiest, most spectacular performance ever, but he guided his team to a 17-point halftime lead and then played turnover-free football the rest of the way as the Colts struggled to piece together anything resembling a drive.
The Chiefs can win the Super Bowl because they have the best quarterback on the planet. Again, that might sound overly simplistic. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. But that doesn’t make untrue. The NFL remains a quarterback-driven league. And if Mahomes continues to play like the best quarterback on the planet, it’ll be difficult for the Chiefs to lose, even though they have the worst of the remaining defenses. Mahomes cancels out the terrible defense. That’s how good Mahomes has been. That’s how good he’ll have to be if the Chiefs have any shot of beating the Patriots and the NFC’s Super Bowl representative a couple weeks from now.
Of course, it also helps that Mahomes is partnered with one of the best coaches in football.
The Andy Reid factor
Andy Reid catches a ton of flak for the absence of a Super Bowl ring on his resume and his history of bungling the clock in high-leverage situations. But the fact remains that Reid is a genius schemer and play-caller whose weakness (clock management) might be negated by the fact that the Chiefs have an offense so good they might not ever find themselves in the situations that have doomed previous Reid-coached teams. In other words, it’s easier for clock management to become an issue when you’re trying to overcome a two-score deficit with Alex Smith taking check down after check down against prevent defenses. It’s far unlikelier clock management will become an issue when your quarterback is Mahomes and you’re not trailing by multiple scores.
If there’s one thing Reid knows how to do, it’s script the beginning of a game. We saw it in the first half on Saturday, when the Chiefs scored 24 points on their first five series to ensure they wouldn’t be playing from behind.
Reid has so many toys to play with, and he almost always places those players — whether it’s Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce or Sammy Watkins — in the best possible positions to succeed. Put it this way: Twice this season has Mahomes failed to throw a touchdown pass in a game. In both games, the Chiefs still scored at least 30 points. Mahomes is the most important player on the Chiefs and he’s the best quarterback on the planet, but he’s operating within a very quarterback friendly offense.
Reid did something else on Saturday that could make his late-game flaws matter less (if he sticks with it). He was aggressive on fourth downs.
Throughout most of his coaching career, Reid has been a genius play-caller and schemer, but a very conservative decision maker. But when he was faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Colts’ 47-yard line on the Chiefs’ second series, Reid went for it. He got the first down. One play later, the Chiefs scored a touchdown. On their third series, they faced another fourth-and-1, this time from the Colts’ 35. They picked it up again, but settled for a field goal a few plays later.
Announcers keep talking about “of course Andy Reid goes for it on fourth.” Let me say again. Until this year Andy Reid was one of the most conservative fourth down coaches of the last 30 years. Even this year he’s not one of the most aggressive. Just more than before.
— Aaron Schatz 🏈 (@FO_ASchatz) January 12, 2019
Andy Reid on inspiration for going for it on fourth down three times vs. Indy: “I’ve been willing to do that for a few years, depending on the situation, what cards you’re holding there, the play sheet, play-wise… I try to evaluate the situation and go with it.”
— Tom Martin (@TomKCTV5) January 14, 2019
Reid needs to maintain his aggressiveness against the Patriots. He can’t be afraid of handing the Patriots’ good field position. Odds are, it won’t really matter where the Patriots start with the ball. They’ll probably find a way to move the ball against the Chiefs’ defense.
In their first meeting, which the Patriots won 43-40 in New England, the Patriots rushed for 173 yards and controlled the ball for over 36 minutes. The Patriots just rumbled for 155 yards against the Chargers’ actually good defense. They’ll probably be able to run the ball against the Chiefs, who allowed 5.0 yards per carry in the regular season (only one team allowed more) and 6.2 yards per carry against the Colts.
The Chiefs can take away the Patriots’ running game by immediately forcing the Patriots into catch-up mode. They shouldn’t be punting on any fourth-and-shorts. The Chiefs need to ride the strength of their team and trust their offense to convert on fourth down. Punting, when you have a defense as bad as theirs, which will be going up against a very good Patriots offense that is designed to attack their weaknesses, won’t help.
It remains to be seen how Reid will approach this game. He has a long history of being overly conservative, but a much more recent history of being aggressive. It’s entirely fair to question if Reid will stick with his aggressive mindset with a Super Bowl at stake. But he needs to. That much is already clear.
If the Chiefs do manage to defeat the Patriots, they’ll get a week off before the Super Bowl, which can only mean one thing: ANDY REID OFF THE BYE.
He’s now 21-3 after a bye. If the Chiefs beat the Patriots, Reid will become the Chiefs’ biggest asset ahead of the Super Bowl with an extra week to game-plan for either the Rams or Saints.
They can attack the QB
The Chiefs’ defense does have one redeeming quality: They can rush the passer. In the regular season, they racked up 52 sacks, tied for the highest total in football, and 210 pressures, the third-most in football, according to Sports Info Solutions. Against a Colts team that allowed an NFL-low 18 sacks in the regular season and none against the Texans on Wild Card Weekend, the Chiefs brought down Andrew Luck three times.
The Chiefs’ defense might be awful against the run. But if their offense can jump out to an early lead and force their opponent to adopt a pass-heavy offense, the Chiefs’ pass rushers — most notably, Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and Chris Jones — can make an impact.
We’ve seen Brady struggle in the playoffs before. It usually happens when the opposing team can hit him and when the Patriots are playing on the road. On that note …
The home field, weather advantage is real
The AFC Championship Game will be played in Kansas City. It’s not entirely fair to say one play in a 17-week season determined the playoff order, but then again, here’s where it’s worth noting that if the Patriots had found a way to stop the Miami Miracle, the game would’ve been held in Foxborough.
Alas, the Patriots did not stop the Miami Miracle.
That might matter. Brady’s record in the playoffs is an incredible 28-10, but seven of those 10 losses have either come on the road or at a neutral site.
Furthermore, the Chiefs’ defense has been an entirely different unit at home.
And winter is coming.Brady and the Patriots are well accustomed to playing in the snow, but ask yourself this: In inclement weather, would you rather have the quarterback with a generational arm or the 41-year-old with a declining arm? The setting on Sunday should favor the Chiefs.
The Super Bowl setting won’t favor them, but I say again: ANDY REID OFF THE BYE.
Begins and ends with Mahomes
Ultimately, it’ll come down to Mahomes. If he isn’t at his best on Sunday and possibly beyond, the Chiefs will have a difficult time winning against teams that are much more complete than them. That’s the thing about the Chiefs: Out of the remaining four teams, they’re very clearly the most flawed. But at the same time, they also have the biggest advantage at the most important position in sports. And Mahomes has proven all year long that he’s good enough to overcome a bad defense.
Maybe the Chiefs’ defense is peaking at the right time and they’ll submit another impressive outing after shutting down Luck and the Colts. Maybe Williams will run wild. Maybe Hill will break a few punt returns. Even if none of the above come to fruition, the Chiefs will still have a chance to win the Super Bowl. So long as Mahomes is healthy, they’ll always have a chance.
The Patriots have Tom Brady, a dominant ground game, a well-coached defense, and Bill Belichick. The Saints have Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and a near top-10 defense. The Rams have Sean McVay, Todd Gurley, and Aaron Donald. The Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes. And he alone might be enough to drag the Chiefs to the top of the table.