FOXBORO, Mass. — Weather, fast starts and underdog status. There, I just encapsulated 90 percent of the storylines surrounding the New England Patriots in the week leading up to the AFC Championship Game.
Looking for a surefire way to garner an affirmative response out of an athlete or coach? Ask them if it’s important to start fast in a football game. The answer will always be yes.
“Starting fast is a huge advantage in the league, big time,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said this week.
“You always want to start fast,” Bill Belichick said this week.
Well, it is important. And that’s why it’s leading off our three keys to a Patriots win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
Starting fast gives the Patriots two ever-important advantages: It allows them to run the ball, and it makes the Chiefs one-dimensional.
The Chiefs were fairly terrible at stopping the run this season, and the Patriots were quite good at moving the ball on the ground. The Patriots will be forced to get away from the run if the Chiefs get out to an early lead, and we’re not quite sure they can win a shootout on the road while trailing against KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But if the Patriots can start fast and either get out to an early lead or trade blows with the Chiefs, then they can control the game on the ground with running back Sony Michel and their impressive offensive line.
If the Patriots gameplan to stop Mahomes and the Chiefs’ passing attack, then Kansas City running back Damien Williams likely will find success on the ground. If the Patriots get out to an early lead, then the Chiefs will be forced to abandon that running game early.
LIMIT TYREEK HILL
This might be most important. Hill went off for seven catches on 12 targets for 142 yards with three touchdowns in the Chiefs-Patriots Week 6 matchup. The speedy wideout beat cornerback Jason McCourty and safeties Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty for big plays.
Expect to see either JC Jackson or Stephon Gilmore on Hill this time around. We’re rooting for Jackson, a rookie, to cover Hill, though Gilmore, an All-Pro, is the safer option. Whoever doesn’t take on Hill will cover Sammy Watkins.
We like the Jackson option just because he’s been so good at preventing big plays. He hasn’t let up a touchdown, and he’s allowed just two catches all season on deep routes. Jackson also would have help over the top. Gilmore could take on Watkins alone. We prefer the idea of giving Jackson help over Gilmore, and whoever is covering Hill will need help. Giving Gilmore help almost seems like a waste of his talents.
We believe limiting Hill is even more important than stopping tight end Travis Kelce just because the Patriots have done the latter before. He averages less than 60 yards per game in four contests against the Patriots. His best game against New England came in 2014. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have been solid against tight ends, especially late in the season.
WIN TURNOVER BATTLE
If Tom Brady can stay mistake-free, and if the Patriots can force an interception or two out of Mahomes, then it feels like a lot would have to go wrong for the Patriots to still lose.
The Patriots had a slightly better turnover margin than the Chiefs this season (plus-10 to plus-nine). This game being played at Arrowhead Stadium is huge, though. The Patriots were a much better team at home.
The Patriots, to some degree, will have to hope the moment becomes too big for Mahomes, who’s a first-year starter.
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images