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The AFC Championship tale of the tape

It’s the league’s best regular season team against the best playoff juggernaut ever. Who wins? Bill Connelly uses advanced stats to break down the matchup and offer up a prediction.

1. The Playoff Patriots

Football is maybe the most stat-unfriendly sport in the universe, and it’s not even because of the pointy ball — it’s the sample size that kills us more than anything. Twelve regular season games in college, 16 in the pros — that’s not even 20 percent of an NBA regular season and not even 10 percent of an MLB season.

Part of my ethos when working with football advanced stats, then, is that you should try to wring meaning out of everything you possibly can. In college, that means pulling whatever possible from games against FCS competition — there’s got to be at least a little we can learn when Clemson plays Furman, right?

On the pro side, that means avoiding the narrative that takes over in very specific, very small-sample instances. Team A stinks in the red zone because of this one drive in the playoffs last year? That’s not good enough. Coach B can’t win the big one because of this one game two years ago? Not going down that road.

That all sounds great and noble. And then the Patriots go and utterly destroy the Chargers.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

On paper, there was no basis for New England’s easy win over Los Angeles in last week’s AFC divisional round. Throughout the regular season, the Chargers were the statistically superior team in about every possible way but special teams. Never mind the narratives — Philip Rivers has never beaten Tom Brady, the Playoff Patriots are infinitely superior to the Playoff Chargers, etc. Los Angeles had the better team, and that was what mattered most right?

It didn’t matter in the slightest as New England played a perfect first half and leading 35-7 at halftime. It didn’t matter as Pats fans yelled to yank Tom Brady and company for the reserves in the fourth quarter — very Clemson-Furman behavior right there.

I could tell you that Kansas City, which hosts New England in what should be a frigid Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday evening (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS), has easily been the superior team over the first 19 weeks of the 2018 season. But will that matter one game from the Super Bowl? Or are the narratives more powerful after all?

Should we dive into the stats at all, or should we save energy and assume that the playoff team led by Bill Belichick will down the playoff team led by Andy Reid and that Tom Brady, with his five Super Bowl rings and eight AFC titles, will have more than enough guile to get past the enthusiastic but playoff-unproven, first-year starter on the opposite sideline?

For the moment, humor me. Let’s pretend that stats matter and see what we can glean from them.

2. If you can’t harass Mahomes, nothing else matters

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Kansas City’s aforementioned first-year starting quarterback has been a revelation this season, and he’s likely to have to build a trophy case in this coming offseason.

For all of the justifiable talk about how NFL offenses have begun to evolve in 2018, and how the quote-unquote “college offense” has begun to infiltrate the pro game, a lot of Kansas City’s extraordinary success this fall has simply come from Mahomes’ pure athletic skill, his arm talent, if you will. He can stretch the field vertically better than anyone else, and he’s got help from maybe the fastest target in the league, Tyreek Hill.

That opens up options — it creates space for both tight end Travis Kelce and opens up wide running lanes for check-downs to running backs on the perimeter. Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have been able to get creative in both taking advantage of that duo and the counters that come when defenses attempt to adapt to a devastating base offense.

Mahomes is merely good when he’s under pressure, though.

Per PFF’s pressure data, Mahomes is better than Drew Brees when kept clean but is worse than Matthew Stafford when harried. Great! So pressure him then! Easy, right? Not if you’re the Patriots. The regular season Patriots, anyway.

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Kansas City’s offense has been infinitely more effective in obvious blitz situations than New England’s defense, even with Mahomes’ merely decent pressure numbers. But the Patriots didn’t look like a feckless blitz downs defense last weekend.

New England was able to render Los Angeles one-dimensional — Charger backs combined for just 19 yards on 10 carries — and then pin its collective ears back. Rivers was sacked twice and hurried seven times; he was forced to throw the ball away on several occasions, and when he didn’t, he was throwing before Charger receivers could get separation. The result: one interception and eight total passes defensed.

This was everything New England wasn’t in the regular season. The Patriots were well-rested and had an extra week to prepare for the Chargers, and it showed. But can they remain as creative and effective this week at Arrowhead?

Part of that question will be answered by how well the Patriots can contain the Kansas City run game.

Kansas City’s offense isn’t quite as effective as it was before the midseason dismissal of running back Kareem Hunt, but in part because of the other preoccupying threats they possess, and in part because of a great offensive line, the Chiefs still run the ball pretty well. They certainly did in similarly frigid conditions last week against the Colts, when Damien Williams carried 25 times for 129 yards (5.2 per carry) and a touchdown.

Mahomes averaged just 10.3 yards per completion against Indy’s great big-play-prevention defense, but thanks to steady gains via both run and pass, Kansas City was able to work efficiently and hog the ball, ending up with 78 snaps to Indy’s 53.

That’s what’s most frustrating about Kansas City’s offense: it’s patient.

The Chiefs are great at the sexy big plays, and they’ve got an inexperienced QB leading the way, but you can’t really bait them into taking foolish chances. Mahomes will take what’s given to him, and Kansas City will score points because of it, but if the Patriots can get after him when they get the rare opportunity, their own offensive advantages could take over.

3. Kansas City is great at third-and-longs but can’t force them

The key for both defenses — and really, every defense in the league in every game, if we’re being honest — is pressuring the opposing QB when it has the chance. The Chiefs’ defense is great at this, much better, in fact, than New England’s. But their problem is that they have been abysmal at actually creating these chances.

See if you can spot the biggest mismatch:

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In open-play situations — the snaps that take place between the offense’s 10 and the defense’s 30 (i.e. the majority of a given game) — Kansas City’s defense ranks a ghastly 31st in both marginal efficiency and the percentage of opponent first downs allowed before third down. New England’s offense ranks sixth in the former and first in the latter.

There was a great viral video floating around this week, with Brady and Chargers end Joey Bosa showing mutual respect for each other and Bosa complaining that Brady gets the ball out too fast for a pass rush to get to him.

This is a bit misleading, though. It suggests that Brady was just too good in pass-rush situations, and while that’s true, the Chargers’ biggest issue on Sunday was that they simply couldn’t force pass-rush situations.

The Patriots gashed a strong Chargers defense to the tune of five touchdowns in six first-half drives. During that stretch, the Pats faced only seven third downs and failed to convert only one. Average distance to go: 4.4.

An inability to force third-and-longs has been Kansas City’s fatal flaw since the beginning of the season, and it was certainly an issue in a 43-40 loss in Foxborough in Week 6. In that game, the Patriots both a) converted 54 percent of their third-down attempts (Kansas City: 40 percent) and b) generated 24 first downs before third down altogether (KC: 13). Rookie back Sony Michel rushed for 106 yards, and that was before his late-season improvement (he’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry over his last three games).

The weather conditions will make this a different game for any number of reasons, but Kansas City simply must figure out a way to knock New England off-schedule and give an excellent pass rush a chance to make a difference.

To their credit, they did an incredible job of this against Indianapolis last week — the Colts generated only 14 pre-third first downs and went 0-for-9 on third downs (average distance: 7.9 yards). But as good as Andrew Luck is, and as good as the Colts were late in the year, we’re talking about the Playoff Patriots here.

4. If special teams matter, that’s probably good for the home team

According to DVOA, only the Jets had a better special teams unit than Kansas City this year. Place-kicker Harrison Butker was perfect on field goals under 40 yards and went 8-for-11 beyond 40, and he was the weakest link of the unit. Tyreek Hill (punts) and Tremon Smith (kickoffs) are a terrifying pair of return men, and little-used punter Dustin Colquitt was as steady as ever this season, too.

Thanks to the combination of special teams and extreme offensive efficiency, the Chiefs are an incredible field position team, and the early field position battle could be telling on Sunday. When you’ve got an iffy playoff history (to put it kindly) and you’re facing probably the best playoff QB of all time, tilting the field in your favor is one way to alleviate some tension. Kansas City might not win this game with a field position advantage, but the Chiefs might find it impossible to win this game without one.

5. As strange as it sounds, the Chiefs are the steady team here

During the regular season, Kansas City posted not only the second-best scoring margin in the league but also created one of the smallest standard deviations, meaning that despite potential hindrances — first-year starting quarterback, steadily bad defense — the ups and downs were minimal. They lost some games, sure, but everyone does. They were a pretty safe bet overall.

New England? Not so much.

New England won seven of its 16 games by at least two touchdowns but also lost by 24 to Tennessee, by 16 to Detroit, and by 11 to Jacksonville (average points scored in these games: 13.3) and let a pretty spectacular set of miscues lead to a loss in the most memorable finish of the regular season. Their top gear is as strong as it’s been in a while, but they have stalled out sometimes as well.

We saw the top gear last weekend. It’s easy to assume we’ll see it again on Sunday — Playoff Patriots and all. But on paper, New England was drastically unstable. I’m pointing this out on the off chance that I get to pound my chest and point it out again late on Sunday evening.

6. Steady or not, the Chiefs bear the burden of proof

Kansas City actually won a home playoff game last weekend, ending a six-game and 22-year slide. Now comes the stiffest test imaginable: a Patriots team that has won all the playoff games that the Chiefs haven’t in this century, and an offense perfectly built to punish the Chiefs’ defensive weaknesses and avoid their strengths.

Last week, I wrote that Philip Rivers had his best opportunity ever to beat Brady and company and even predicted it to happen. And then the Playoff Patriots showed up and rendered that prediction woefully inaccurate. Basically any projections system you choose is going to pick Kansas City to win, but I’ve learned my lesson, and it’s time to overcorrect: if I’m wrong this week, it’ll come from overestimating the Pats, not underestimating them.

My prediction: Patriots 27, Chiefs 23.

Prove me wrong, home team.

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