Being charged with explaining how the New England Patriots can win the Super Bowl is a lot like being charged with building out a diagram on how to breathe in oxygen. I don’t know man, it just kind of happens and you should be able to figure it out by yourself at this point.
My colleague Sean Wagner-McGough took a much more detailed route to figuring out how the Chiefs can win the Super Bowl. Cody Benjamin breaks down the Rams chances and I double-dipped to show how the Saints can win it all. I’ll go into some details below, but the reality of the Patriots winning their sixth title since 2001 is the keys are the same to the first five: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick need to do what they’ve been doing for nearly two decades and just outsmart and outplay everyone else.
It’s obviously not that simple for the Pats to win, but those are the broad, general stroke moves for New England to win. Regardless of who they play after (theoretically) moving past the Chiefs, the Pats will get to line up in Atlanta in dome conditions. They’ve won a title in every conceivable stadium setup, but the dome takes some variables out when preparing for the game.
Let’s get into a few more specific things that will greatly improve their chances of winning the game.
Work the run game
It was staggering to see how badly the Patriots outcoached the Chargers on Sunday in Foxborough, particularly on offense. The Pats lined up in a giant formations, snugged Rob Gronkowski inside as an over-sized tackle and pounded Sony Michel into that adorable seven-man defensive back formation the Chargers trotted out to so much praise for the second week in a row. Not once did Gus Bradley consider bringing in some more weight or dialing up some blitzes. And it might not have mattered: even when the Patriots passed, Tom Brady had tons of time to throw and the Chargers zone defense wasn’t interested in covering Julian Edelman.
That run game is exactly what the Pats have been building to over the final few weeks of the season. Sony Michel came on strong for the Pats and looked outstanding against a Chargers run defense that wasn’t ready to be there, running 24 times for 129 yards and three touchdowns. The Chiefs should be less exhausted and more motivated, but don’t sleep on Belichick receiving the opening kickoff (a rarity for him) and stealing the Chargers souls as part of the problem. A 14-play, 7-minute march down the field for a touchdown quickly reminded everyone on that defensive line just what was happening. Pull off the same thing in Kansas City and the cloak of invincibility starts to kick in.
Kansas City was the worst rush defense by DVOA this year, ranking 32nd against the run. Over the final five games of the regular season, here are the rush yard totals the Chiefs gave up: 171, 194, 119, 210 and 127. They locked down the Colts, but was that reality or just an inspired effort?
The Saints and/or Rams will present a tougher challenge. New Orleans ranked second in rush defense DVOA this past season, although losing Sheldon Rankins certainly hurts. The Rams were 28th against the run by DVOA, but man did they look good against the Cowboys. Beating the Patriots, who are willing to supplement the run game with other attacking methods, is much more difficult.
Listen to Will Brinson and Jason La Canfora break down the title game matchups on the Pick Six Podcast:
The Short Passing Game
For instance, the run game through the air, courtesy of Josh McDaniels’ modern marvel, James White. The pass-catching specialist does his best work in the postseason and he was excellent against the Chargers, catching 15 (!) passes for 97 yards. The Chargers gave up the second most receiving yards per game to running backs this year (59.3) and the Chiefs weren’t far behind them at No. 3 (56.4). Expect the Patriots to exploit White on short passes, particularly if the weather is bad.
Throw Julian Edelman in here too. The slot man is a terror on third down. And against the Chargers he looked like he was back to his full form after tearing an ACL prior to the 2017 season. It’s been roughly 18 months, so it would make sense that Edelman finally feels healthy. Brady’s super powers only increase when Edelman is healthy, and I’m not sure there’s anyone on the Saints or Rams who can really lock him down with the way he operates.
Kendell Fuller might be the answer for the Chiefs; if Edelman wins the battle against Fuller more than half the time on Sunday, the Patriots are going to put the Chiefs in a compromising position.
Conjure an arctic blast/blizzard
Speaking of which, there’s a pretty good chance an arctic blast is creating major weather problems for the Chiefs and Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. We — everyone, really — spent a whole lot of hot air and virtual ink pointing out that the snowstorm coming into Kansas City benefited the Colts more than the Chiefs in the Divisional Round.
That was stupid. It ignored the coaching mismatch and quarterback upgrade for the Chiefs. It also ignored Andrew Luck having not played in an outdoor game with temperatures under 30 degrees since 2014. Mahomes has a couple under his belt between starting in Denver last year in Week 17 and this season being surprisingly cold for some of his matchups.
But this is a different beast. The Patriots have experience in bad weather, even if they have minimal experience in games where the temperature is below 10 degrees.
Former Pats player Rob Ninkovich, in a Twitter exchange with Jeff Howe of The Athletic about the game, believes the Pats will roll if the temperature gets cold enough.
His thought process is the temps below 15 degrees turns the matchup “into an old school running game” which is a bad matchup for the Chiefs.
This is, again, what we thought would happen with the Colts matchup. A couple of differences: the Patriots have done this before, and it would be pretty stunning if Brady suddenly just couldn’t throw the ball, in the same way that Luck appeared to completely lose his physical ability to accurately throw the football in the direction of his receivers.
Contain Patrick Mahomes
This stat I overheard Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus dishing on NFL Network Tuesday afternoon perfectly explains the problem that Patrick Mahomes presents for any defense: he has 300 more yards passing outside the pocket than the next closest quarterback. Mahomes has been excellent this season and will likely and justifiably win the MVP award. But he isn’t simply sitting in the pocket and destroying teams. The combination of his arm and legs becomes lethal the second he starts moving, because Mahomes can throw from any angle and he has receivers like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce who can exploit mismatches and freelance while he extends the play. Mahomes can sling the ball 60 yards on a rope while running at full speed towards the sideline, making him lethal when the playground action starts.
The Patriots will have to worry about Jared Goff/Todd Gurley/Brandin Cooks and Drew Brees/Alvin Kamara/Michael Thomas on the other side. Those guys present problems too. But Mahomes is the most unstoppable force in football this year and getting past him on the road is a serious step to take before you can hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Establish the rush
The Patriots have had a knack for defensive players making big plays in big moments over their lengthy run. Dont’a Hightower’s got quite a few of them himself and he looked like someone who might be smelling the playoffs and the pursuit of another title.
But New England won’t be able to pull off what it did against the Chargers, uncorking blitz after blitz in the direction of Mahomes, Brees and Goff. Those guys are all coached by someone who is smart enough to make adjustments. Unleash a cover-zero blitz at Mahomes and Andy Reid will screen you to death with Damien Williams and start running Tyreek Hill on crossing routes. It will get ugly. Brees will throw dump-offs to Kamara until the Saints are up 400 points.
New England will need to figure out a way to get some organic pressure against its next two opponents. Do that and suddenly New England can really start to think about a sixth Lombardi for Belichick and Brady.
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