The last time we saw the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, they were battling for the AFC championship in one of the great NFL playoff games this decade. A back-and-forth battle, ending in a 37-31 overtime win for the Patriots, seemed to set the stage for a repeat performance in January 2020.
Since then, both teams have faced obstacles in their bid to repeat. A rare stretch of iffy performances by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady highlights the struggles of a team looking for an offensive identity after the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Chiefs have struggled through several defensive lapses and a multi-week injury to quarterback Patrick Mahomes for a dislocated kneecap.
The problems have raised questions as to whether either team can squeak by the surging Baltimore Ravens in the AFC. But most NFL rivals remain green with envy at the position both of these franchises are in. Boasting a combined record of 18-6 between them, each team has their division locked up barring a shocking late-season collapse. The focus is already on fine-tuning for the 2019 playoffs rather than simply fighting to make them.
We'll see their latest tweaks Sunday afternoon in a game that will inevitably be compared to January's contest. Can both teams rise to that level of play?
Kansas City at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 8 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Tom Brady recapture the magic?
Most hot takes in the NFL this week have centered around the 42-year-old Brady's declining play. His struggles have been well documented here and here. Now, there's talk of both elbow and toe injuries while rumors escalate this season could be his last in New England. (Brady, of course, hasn't helped matters by putting his house on the market since midsummer).
The Chiefs' defense, though is unique among the AFC contenders in that Brady has a chance to resurrect his game. Here are the stat lines they've given up to some of the league's top QBs this year:
Lamar Jackson: 313 combined yards, rushing TD
Deshaun Watson: 280 passing yards, TD, 2 INTs, 42 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs
Aaron Rodgers: 305 passing yards, 3 TDs, 29 rushing yards, no turnovers
Those are solid performances against a defensive unit that ranks just 16th against the pass. Kansas City has been even worse against the run (30th) but we know Brady can't do much there as an aging pocket passer. Sony Michel has had an underwhelming second season and can only do so much to spread the defense.
Not surprisingly, though the Chiefs remain concerned about Brady and his ability to still take over a game.
"It's a myth," cornerback Bashaud Breeland said of Brady's recent struggles. "People said the same thing about Aaron Rodgers. He'd have slow starts, and then he'd turn it on. Once you're a GOAT (greatest of all-time) and you have that GOAT status, at any moment you can turn it on. Brady can hit that switch anytime he's ready."
He'll need to do it in order for the Pats to win on Sunday afternoon.
2. Which Patriots defense will show up?
The Pats' D has shown some cracks in the armor in recent weeks against top teams. They allowed just 61 points in the first eight games. Since then, they've allowed 65 to the Ravens and Texans alone. A defense that allowed no team in the season's first half to convert more than 25 percent of their third-down opportunities allowed a whopping 50 and 54.6 percent rate to those AFC contenders.
What did those two teams do the Chiefs can learn from? Simple: take care of the football and cash in on every scoring opportunity. Both Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson played interception-free football, managing the game well (although the Ravens did wind up losing two fumbles). The duo also led their teams to a combined 7-for-7 in the red zone. Consider all other opponents were a combined 2-for-11 in the Patriots' 10 wins this season.
Mahomes will be another stiff challenge for the Pats in that respect; the Chiefs are 8-for-10 in the red zone in their last three games. He’s also thrown just two interceptions total despite a variety of injuries that have hampered his movement. Can he rise to the challenge against a unit that’s far tougher than the Titans, Chargers or Raiders from this recent stretch?
3. Can the Chiefs complement Patrick Mahomes with their running game?
Bill Belichick is a master at taking away a team's biggest strength. The strategy will almost certainly be centered around doubling Tyreek Hill, clogging up the passing lanes for Mahomes and forcing the Chiefs' rushing attack to step up.
The absence of Damien Williams (rib injury) has been felt by an offense that's struggled to find a primary back all year. Mahomes was the leading rusher against the Chargers, going for only 59 yards before Darwin Thompson went for 44 last week. Thompson wasn't all that impressive although he didn't need to be with the Chiefs winning that game in a blowout.
Veteran back Spencer Ware was signed this week, an indication Williams may not be fully ready to play. If that's the case, Thompson will bear the brunt of the load along with a fading LeSean McCoy. The Pats' defense should have a field day in the backfield, then although it's notable the Chiefs had just 41 yards on the ground last time these teams played... and that didn't stop them.
Mahomes' mobility has also ticked up in recent weeks with his kneecap fully healed. Look for the Chiefs to set their QB loose more than ever; he may be their best option on the ground.
The Patriots are in a unique position if they fall to the Chiefs on Sunday. At 10-3, each of their losses will be against the other likely AFC division winners: Baltimore, Houston and now Kansas City. It could even bring back the AFC East into play, however unlikely, with Buffalo sitting at 9-3 entering Sunday's showdown with the Ravens.
It's hard to believe the Patriots putting themselves in that type of spot. The Chiefs' defense has enough holes for Brady's passing game to improve; Mahomes will find the Patriots more difficult to pass on than was the case in January. Having no kicker is cause for concern up in Foxboro (Nick Folk and Kai Forbath are the most likely candidates) but this team has hung in there thus far without Stephen Gostkowski.
It'll be a close game, but the home-field advantage for the Patriots should play a role. Expect it to come down to the final possession either way.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Chiefs 27
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.