The Patriots are damn near impossible to beat at Gillette Stadium. Including the playoffs, they’ve won 16 straight home games dating back to October 2017. In the postseason alone, they’re on a 10-game winning streak in Foxborough and have a 20-3 overall record in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
The problem is they’re not playing at home this Sunday — partly thanks to Gronk’s inability to play safety.
The Patriots travel to western Missouri, where the Chiefs finally broke the curse and won their first home playoff game since Mariah Carey’s “Hero” was the No. 1 song on the radio ... and y’know, when people still listened to this thing called the “radio.”
Despite a three-point win over the Chiefs earlier this season, the Patriots will have to play in the decidedly unfriendly confines of Arrowhead Stadium. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Chiefs have only lost at home once this season (and it took the Chargers converting a last-second two-point conversion to do it). They’re the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and Arrowhead is a notoriously loud and uninviting environment for visitors.
The Patriots don’t have to hit the road often in January, but when they do, they “struggle,” at least as much as the Patriots ever struggle. They’re just 3-4 as the away team in the Brady-Belichick era. Brady’s three wins are actual fewer than Mark Sanchez has in his postseason career — in fact, one of Sanchez’s four road wins was also one of the Patriots’ three home losses.
Fewer road playoff wins than Mr. Butt Fumble himself? How embarrassing.
Panic index: The best possible news for the Patriots is the game isn’t in Denver, where three of their four losses have come. The next best possible news is that they’re not facing Peyton Manning, who handed them three of those losses (two with the Broncos, one with the Colts).
Last week, the Chiefs and young Patrick Mahomes rolled the Colts in a game that began a little snowy. The weather could be even more treacherous Sunday afternoon. Then again, the Patriots aren’t going to be scared of a little “arctic blast”. Their first ever playoff win with Brady came in the infamous “Tuck Rule” game.
Oh good, it’s another Andy Reid-Bill Belichick matchup
And that’s awful news for the Chiefs.
Belichick has historically owned the veteran Kansas City coach, with a 6-2 head-to-head record against him that includes a 2-0 record in the postseason. The good news is Reid’s Chiefs put up 40+ points in each of those two wins, and they both came in the past four seasons. The bad news is neither one of those victories came after September.
Reid will get a chance to boost his winning percentage against the five-time Super Bowl winner from .250 to .333 by handling the the defending AFC champions at home, but Reid hasn’t been inspiring in conference title games in the past. He’s just 1-4 when a shot at the Super Bowl is on the line, but 11-8 in the Divisional and Wild Card rounds.
On top of that, Tom Brady has faced 10 quarterbacks in his illustrious career who were playing their first postseason as an NFL starter. He hasn’t lost to a single one of them. So history isn’t particularly thrilled about the Chiefs this weekend, either.
Panic index: On the other hand, the weather in Kansas City Sunday is calling for frigid temperatures and the Patriots start a 41-year-old quarterback. Sure, Brady was great in last week’s 26-degree day against the Chargers, but a 6-degree day is an entirely different beast. You know who moves well in 6-degree weather? Polar bears and that’s it. Even penguins, evolved behind billions of years of graceful-ass bird genes stumble around like drunk little waiters when it’s cold.
The Chiefs can turn Brady into a little drunk waiter Sunday. Especially if Chris Jones, Dee Ford, and Justin Houston are on point.
Drew Brees’ 40-year-old arm looks extremely 40 years old
The New Orleans Saints aren’t the most explosive team offensively. They’re at their best when they’re picking opponents apart with unstoppable drives, like the 18-play touchdown drive against the Eagles that took nearly the entire third quarter.
That efficiency got them a close 20-14 win over Philadelphia in the Divisional Round. But the Saints are probably going to need more points to beat the potent offense of the Rams.
That’s going to be tough if Drew Brees continues to struggle to make any throws downfield. On his first play from scrimmage against the Eagles, Brees badly underthrew Ted Ginn Jr. to set up Cre’Von LeBlanc with an interception:
Eagles would not be here without Cre'Von LeBlanc pic.twitter.com/yYrXNPDg3p— The Bitter Birds (@AdrianFedkiw) January 13, 2019
Early in the second half, Brees’ struggles to throw downfield almost led to another interception when he couldn’t quite get the ball deep enough for Taysom Hill:
Drew Brees has now underthrown 2 different sure-thing deep ball touchdowns vs. the Eagles pic.twitter.com/dB81zlIZqF— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 13, 2019
This is a problem that started creeping up on the Saints late in the season. In the first three months of the year, Brees was 24 of 44 on passes at least 20 yards downfield with 777 yards, nine touchdowns, and one interception. In December, he was just 4 of 11 for 94 yards without a touchdown.
Panic index: The Saints are going to need big plays against the Rams. The Raiders were the only team that allowed more pass plays of 40 or more yards than Los Angeles. But thanks to the defensive line — led by the destructive ability of Aaron Donald — the Rams don’t give up many lengthy ball-control drives.
There will probably be explosive plays to be had against the Rams. If Brees can’t make the throws, the Saints may get bounced.
The Rams’ fate is predetermined
One of the better games from the regular season happened in Week 9 when the Saints beat the Rams 45-35 in New Orleans. Now, it’s the playoffs; the Saints have home-field advantage again and just battled back from a slow start and a 14-0 deficit to host the Rams this week. So a repeat of Week 9 is pretty much fait accompli, right?
Maybe not. That was a different Rams team, one that didn’t have the cornerback who’s made himself the man of the hour with f-bombs — Aqib Talib.
In that game, Saints receiver Michael Thomas was a one-man force, catching 12 of 15 targets for 211 yards and a touchdown. He mostly saw Marcus Peters, though. Talib was sitting out with an ankle injury (he missed Week 4 through 12). Without Talib in the lineup, the Rams allowed an opposing passer rating of 111.6 (30th), according to Pro Football Focus. With Talib, opposing QBs had a rating of just 74.5 (third).
And even if Talib isn’t on Thomas exclusively, the rest of the secondary benefits from having him back there. Just look at Marcus Peters’ numbers:
QBs targeting Marcus Peters in Weeks 1-9:— Adam Stites (@AdamStites_) January 15, 2019
34 of 47, 591 yards, 6 TDs, 1 INT, 145.2 passer rating
QBs targeting Marcus Peters in Weeks 10-17:
17 of 28, 149 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, 45.1 passer rating
They’ll need it. This is the biggest test this Rams defense, hell, the whole team has faced.
Panic index: There’s no easy path to winning in New Orleans for the Rams, but they can do it. It might end up being more of a war of attrition, but at least they’ll have all their people ready to play — and perhaps eat some gumbo.