Patriots vs Chiefs Preview: What To Watch For In AFC Championship Game.New England Patriots vs. Kansas City Chiefs. No. 2 vs. No. 1.Winner advances to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. Loser? Well, better luck next season.Here’s what we’ll be watching for in the AFC Championship Game:
Time: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
Location: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
The Chiefs are pegged as three-point home favorites, making this the first time New England has not been favored in a postseason game since the 2013 AFC Championship (26-16 road loss to the Denver Broncos).
The last time the Patriots were underdogs in any game was Week 1 of the 2016 season, when Jimmy Garoppolo led them to a 23-21 road victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The last time that happened in a Tom Brady start was Week 13 in 2014 at Green Bay.
Home teams have won each of the last 10 conference championship games. The last road teams to advance to the Super Bowl were the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 postseason.
The Patriots defeated the Chiefs 43-40 in Week 6, but that game was played at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have not been the same team on the road this season, going just 3-5 away from Foxboro. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are 8-1 at Arrowhead and have won 72.5 percent of their home games (37-14) since Andy Reid became head coach in 2013.
This is the Patriots’ eighth consecutive AFC title game appearance and their 13th since 2001. The Chiefs haven’t played in a conference championship since 1993. They’re vying for their first Super Bowl berth since 1969.
Early forecasts predicting a sub-zero “arctic blast” proved inaccurate. It’ll be cold in Kansas City on Sunday, but not historically so, with the latest forecast calling for a high temperature in the low 30s and a low in low 20s.
Both teams are remarkably healthy entering this game.
New England had zero players listed on its final injury report of the week — just the third time that’s happened for any Patriots game in the last five seasons — and Kansas City had just one: linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, who was ruled out with an ankle injury.
Several other Chiefs players were removed from the injury report Friday, including running back Spencer Ware, offensive tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and safety Eric Berry, indicating they’re likely to play Sunday.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sony Michel, Patriots running back
Controlling the clock will be important against an offense as explosive as Kansas City’s, and the numbers bode well for Michel in this game. The first-round draft pick has surpassed 100 rushing yards in five of his 13 games this season — including last week’s divisional-round win over the Los Angeles Chargers — and the Chiefs’ defense has been one of the worst in the NFL at stopping the run. Michel accounted for 102 of the Patriots’ 173 rushing yards in their first matchup with the Chiefs.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs quarterback
An NFL MVP front-runner, Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns this season — joining Brady and Peyton Manning as the only QBs in league history to reach that mark — and continuously bamboozled defenses with his arsenal of no-look, left-handed and cross-field passes.
The Patriots were able to confuse the 23-year-old phenom in the first half of their Week 6 meeting, but he broke out after halftime, completing 9 of 13 passes for 188 yards and four touchdowns — including 67- and 75-yarders — over the final two quarters. Limiting those kinds of big plays will be crucial for New England on Sunday.
Julian Edelman, Patriots wide receiver
Edelman’s track record of postseason production is simply remarkable. He’s been targeted 10 or more times in each of the Patriots’ last 10 playoff games and has averaged 8.3 catches and 101.6 yards per game during that span.
Last week in the divisional round, Edelman tied his career high with 191 yards on nine catches. His primary matchup this week will be slot corner Kendall Fuller, who’s allowed 19 catches on 23 targets for 206 yards and has missed five tackles over the last three games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Tyreek Hill, Chiefs wide receiver
Stopping Hill — arguably the NFL’s fastest player and its most dangerous deep threat — will be the No. 1 priority for New England’s secondary this week. Hill led the league in deep targets (41), deep receptions (20) and receiving yards on deep passes (754) during the regular season, per PFF, and the Patriots are well aware of just how lethal he can be if he finds space in the open field.
As was the case with Mahomes, the Patriots handled Hill in the early going in Week 6 but let him run wild in the second half, with seven of his eight catches, 140 of his 142 yards and all three of his touchdowns coming in the final 31 minutes. It remains unclear exactly how the Patriots will cover Hill in this game, but it’s likely either J.C. Jackson or Stephon Gilmore will be primarily responsible for tracking the speedster.
Dont’a Hightower, Patriots linebacker
Hightower is coming off arguably his best game of the season (eight pressures vs. LA), and he played a key role in holding the Chiefs to nine first-half points in Week 6. The savvy veteran intercepted a Mahomes pass in that game after feigning a blitz and also helped force multiple incompletions by pressuring the young QB.
It’s also worth noting Hightower and the Patriots’ other linebackers won’t need to worry about covering running back Kareem Hunt this time around. Hunt, who was released early last month, is a major threat in the passing game, averaging 14.5 yards per reception this season. Replacement Damien Williams has been great as a rusher (two 100-yard efforts in the last four games) but doesn’t pack the same punch as a pass-catcher, averaging just 7.0 yards per reception this season.
Eric Berry, Chiefs safety
Berry has appeared in just two games since rupturing his Achilles against the Patriots in the 2017 season opener, but he’s expected to play Sunday after being a full participant in practice this week. Who knows whether he’ll look anything like three-time All-Pro he was before his injury, but at his peak, Berry was one of the few players in the NFL capable of singlehandedly neutralizing Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski hasn’t nearly the dominant force he had been in years past this season, so it’ll be interesting to see how Kansas City will deploy Berry if he does, in fact, suit up. Third-year pro Jordan Lucas has played well of late in his absence.