Tag: AFC Championship
The top two seeds come together for a rematch of their 43-40 thriller earlier this season
It’s hard to look at this year’s AFC Championship between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs as anything other than a potential changing of the guard. Tom Brady, 41, will be eyeing an unprecedented ninth Super Bowl appearance; to do it, he’ll need to rise to the challenge of 23-year-old emerging superstar Patrick Mahomes. Perhaps the greatest ever to play the sport at his position will be pitted against the man who may define it for the next generation.
But the rivalry runs far deeper than just those two men. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is looking to erase his record of playoff futility by finally beating the game’s best on the other sideline in Bill Belichick. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce hopes to displace an aging, injury-prone Rob Gronkowski as the AFC’s best at the position. And despite the Patriots’ undefeated home record this season (9-0) it’s the Chiefs’ fans at Arrowhead who have one last opportunity to prove what home-field advantage in the postseason is all about.
Their last matchup, a 43-40 Patriots victory in Foxborough, was easily one of the best in the NFL this season. Expect Sunday’s game to bring the same amount of offensive firepower and late-game drama with a berth in Super Bowl LIII on the line.
AFC Championship: New England at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 20 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Mahomes keep from making mistakes?
In this type of game, it’s fairly clear what you’ll get from the Patriots’ Tom Brady. A roller-coaster regular season was put to rest last week against the Chargers; 343 passing yards and no turnovers meant the outcome was never in doubt. The Chiefs can’t expect to capitalize on his mistakes although Brady did have a lost fumble in their matchup earlier this season.
The real focus is on whether Patrick Mahomes can keep it together. On paper, he had one of the best statistical seasons in history with 50 touchdowns and nearly 5,100 passing yards. He did nothing to cost his team in a cruise control-type performance against the Colts in Arrowhead last week.
But the Patriots in the playoffs are a different story altogether. The Chiefs were mortally wounded in their regular-season matchup through multiple mistakes by Mahomes early on. Two interceptions led to seven Patriots points and cost the Chiefs seven more at the end of the first half. It’s enough to make the difference in a game where we’ll count the number of punts on one hand.
“We didn’t feel good,” Mahomes said this week about the Patriots’ loss earlier this year. “We didn’t play our best, especially early in the game. And when you play teams of this caliber, with this much history of knowing how to win and capitalizing on people’s mistakes, you can’t come back and win games like that.”
“For us, we have to learn from that, know we can’t make those mistakes. It’s going to be a dogfight for the entire game.”
Can he outduel the Patriots’ secondary this time? Philip Rivers never looked comfortable last week and New England’s defensive unit heads in with momentum. The Patriots know how to create takeaways in the playoffs. It’s imperative Mahomes puts those demons behind them by striking early and often in the first half.
2. Can Sony Michel outduel Damien Williams?
You might be surprised to know all four of the Chiefs’ touchdowns last week came on the ground. After releasing Kareem Hunt last month, many felt their rushing game would struggle but Williams has proven up to the task. The fifth-year player has stepped in admirably, posting a higher yards per carry average than Hunt (5.1 to 4.6) and two 100-yard rushing efforts. (That included 129 yards against the Colts last week). Hunt, by comparison, had just one 100-yard rushing game this year despite his speed and explosiveness.
Is that more because of the Chiefs’ offensive line or is it Williams himself? The answer is a little bit of both. But the Patriots’ defense will offer a stiffer test than the Colts’ front line. New England held Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon to just 15 rushing yards and the Chargers to 19 total. Ranked 11th against the run, allowing 112.3 rushing yards per game over the course of a full season that number drops to 65.0 when you include just the last three weeks.
Kansas City, meanwhile, has a rushing defense that ranked 27th in the NFL. It provides a make-or-break opportunity for rookie Sony Michel to put up some big numbers once again after a masterful 129-yard, three-touchdown performance last week. Michel, who lost part of his season due to injury, has been left in the shadows while other rookies like Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley have taken center stage. But they’re not playing this late into January. Michel might be the most important person on the field for a Patriots offense that finally appeared to loosen up with the chains constantly moving on the ground.
3. All Tyreek, all the time
Tyreek Hill was unhinged the last time these teams played. Seven catches, 142 yards and three touchdowns almost singlehandedly kept the Chiefs in the game. Last week’s postseason contest was a bit more pedestrian (eight catches, 72 yards) but a bounce-back performance should be expected.
Travis Kelce may be the Chiefs’ most reliable receiver but Hill is the one who can score at any given moment. The fastest player on the field can get more yards after the catch than anyone else in this game when given space and he’s already proved he can outrun the Patriots’ secondary.
This 75-yard touchdown play from the first matchup truly highlights the explosiveness of the Chiefs’ offense when both he and Mahomes are on the same page. It’s why the Patriots can’t fall behind in this game but the Chiefs will never feel like they’re out of it.
X-Factor: Kicking Game
Stephen Gostkowski is one of the game’s most reliable kickers. But a 27-for-32 season obscured the fact he was just six-for-11 on kicks over 40 yards in length.
During a year where long field goals have become the norm, not the exception, that may give the edge to another changing-of-the-guard figure: 23-year-old Harrison Butker. Butker was eight-for-11 on kicks 40 yards and longer while nailing a 54-yarder just a few weeks ago against Seattle. He also has the advantage of kicking within his own stadium during a night where the wind will make a difference (forecast to be 10-15 mph).
One miss from either kicker could be all that’s needed to determine the outcome.
Conventional wisdom says the Chiefs should come out on top in this one. It’s a youthful team playing at home and hungry for revenge after their national stub-a-toe moment against the Patriots earlier this year. Andy Reid, 1-4 in championship games is too good a head coach to get shut out of the Super Bowl with this team.
And yet. The Patriots, labeled as rare underdogs have embraced that mentality with a bear hug. Julian Edelman’s Twitter posted a hype video followed by T-Shirts fans could order with the hashtag BETAGAINSTUS. It’s the type of us against the world mentality that plays well within a Bill Belichick locker room and the same type of emotional boost the Eagles used against them in Super Bowl LII (with great success, I might add).
Add in Tom Brady, who seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder amid criticism his play has slipped at 41 and it’s hard to count the Patriots out. They need everything to break right for them to pull this out but we’ve seen that type before from them in the postseason, haven’t we?
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NFL Playoffs AFC Championship Game Preview
Pittsburgh Steelers vs New England Patriots
The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are in familiar territory as they prepare to clash in Sunday night’s AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The winner of the matchup will establish an NFL record by becoming the first team to advance to the Super Bowl for the ninth time (Enter Contest).
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a pair of Super Bowl rings but knows the challenge presented by the Patriots. They’ve beaten Pittsburgh in the AFC title game after both the 2001 and 2004 regular seasons on their way to championships. New England, the first team since the 1970 merger to advance to six consecutive conference championship games, won at Pittsburgh 27-16 in Week 7. It was a game Roethlisberger missed due to injury. But things look to be much different this time around. The Steelers’ are on a roll. They are on a nine-game winning streak.
ABOUT THE STEELERS (13-5)
Roethlisberger owns a 13-6 postseason record heading into his fifth AFC title game. He has one of the league’s top receivers at his disposal. Pittsburgh is also centering its offense around running back Le’Veon Bell, who has set franchise playoff records in back-to-back games by rushing for 167 yards against Miami and 170 at Kansas City. Bell has rushed for at least 118 yards in seven of his last eight contests but was limited to 81 on 21 carries by New England while making 10 catches for 68 yards. Antonio Brown has racked up 481 receptions over the last four seasons, including seven for 106 yards in Week 7, while going over 100 yards in both postseason wins. The defense has shown the most improvement for the Steelers. They have permitted an average of 16.6 points and registered 31 sacks during their winning streak.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (15-2)
After throwing for 28 touchdowns against only two interceptions, Tom Brady matched the latter total by getting picked off twice during a pedestrian performance in last week’s 34-16 victory over Houston. Brady, though, routinely has carved up Pittsburgh’s defense, throwing for 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the last six matchups, and for his career has 26 scoring passes versus three picks while posting a 9-2 record against the Steelers. Running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Week 7 meeting, but Dion Lewis did the bulk of the damage against Houston with three TDs. It includes one on a 98-yard kickoff return. The Patriots’ defense led the league by surrendering 15.6 points during the regular season. New England is 16-3 at home in the playoffs since 2001.
NFL Playoffs Conference Championships
A road team was finally victorious in the post-season, but that doesn’t mean the results of last week’s divisional round have taken away any of the appeal to either of the NFL playoffs conference championships matchups (Enter contest). In fact, the outcomes have left us with a pair of regular-season rematches featuring the league’s two hottest teams taking on its two most dominant teams in the regular season for the right to play in Super Bowl LI.
The NFC Championship Game features Green Bay, winners of eight in a row, against Atlanta. The Packers are coming off of a thrilling, last-second 34-31 win in Dallas over the top-seeded Cowboys, while the Falcons are fresh off of a 36-20 dismantling of the Seahawks. Aaron Rodgers (21 TDs, 1 INT over last eight games) has been playing at an MVP level the past two months, but the award could end up going to Matt Ryan. The first-team All-Pro threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win over Seattle, and he hasn’t been intercepted since early December.
New England had little trouble dispatching of Houston 34-16 last week and Sunday will be Tom Brady’s 11th conference championship game, the most of any player in NFL history. To make it to a record-breaking seventh Super Bowl, Brady and the Patriots will need to beat a red-hot Pittsburgh team that has already won in a hostile environment. The Steelers made it nine wins in a row after outlasting Kansas City 18-16 in Arrowhead Stadium last week. Le’Veon Bell has been a beast (NFL-record 337 rushing yards in first two career playoff games) thus far, but Pittsburgh will need Ben Roethlisberger (8:9 TD-to-INT ratio since Week 13) to play better than he has lately.
These teams already have some familiarity with each other, as Atlanta beat Green Bay 33-32 in Week 8 at home on a late touchdown pass from Ryan to Mohamed Sanu. Ryan and Rodgers combined for 534 passing yards and seven scores in the high-scoring affair. New England defeated Pittsburgh 27-16 at Heinz Field in Week 7, behind a 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount. However, Roethlisberger didn’t play because of a knee injury and the Patriots’ leading receiver that day was Rob Gronkowski, who went on injured reserve (back) in December.