KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — It seems football fans everywhere are suddenly on the Chiefs’ bandwagon, enthralled by Kansas City’s record-setting young quarterback and exciting playmakers and hopeful the amiable coach can finally win the big one.
Then again, maybe they’re just fans of anybody facing New England.
The Patriots have dominated the AFC for nearly two decades, and the coach-quarterback combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will be playing in an eighth consecutive conference title game tonight when New England visits the Chiefs at frigid, hostile Arrowhead Stadium.
But whereas Brady& Co. once instilled awe in their opponents, the Chiefs view their showdown as an opportunity for Patrick Mahomes to take the baton as the league’s best quarterback and for Kansas City, seeking its first Super Bowl appearance in 49 years , to surpass the Patriots as the NFL’s “it” team.
“It’ll be huge,” Mahomes said. “When I got here, the goal was to win the AFC championship and get to the Super Bowl, and win that. To do that early in my career, it would be a huge thing.”
There aren’t two more dichotomous teams than the Patriots and Chiefs.
New England has won five Super Bowls during the Belichick-Brady era, setting all kinds of records along the way. The cruel efficiency with which they’ve sliced up the AFC has made them the bane of fans everywhere but New England and given them the kind of unbeatable aura that accompanied the New York Yankees teams of Derek Jeter and the Chicago Bulls teams of Michael Jordan.
It’s not just petty jealousy, though. Many fans have been turned off by Deflategate, Spygate and other instances over the years that have saddled the Patriots with a rather unsavory reputation.
Brady has mostly shrugged it off. So has Belichick, who almost seems to embrace the villain role.
“I don’t think about it too much, what people might say or think,” said Brady, whose team is a rare playoff underdog tonight. “I know we’re playing against a very good football team. They’re the first seed for a reason. They’ve had a great season and we’re going to have to go into a really tough environment and play our best football, and it’s a great opportunity for us.”
On the flip side are the Chiefs, a team that dominated the AFC throughout the 1990s but reached only one conference title game. They were the league’s worst franchise six years ago, when Andy Reid came aboard , but have become a perennial playoff team that was always missing that certain something.
They found it when they drafted Mahomes nearly two years ago .
The quarterback shattered just about every franchise passing record in his first season as a starter, and his down-home style has made him a fan favorite. Kids dressed up like him for Halloween, his curly Mohawk has become the trend at local barbershops, and the aw-shucks way Mahomes has embraced his stunning success has only made him more endearing.
“I think he’s a great player on a great team that’s very well-coached,” Belichick said. “They have a great scheme and a great system. He’s got a ton of weapons, so he’ll be tough to handle, as will their entire offense, as will their entire team. We’ll need our best game.”
As the Patriots (12-5) try to advance to their third consecutive Super Bowl, something only two other franchises have accomplished, and the Chiefs (13-4) try to make it for the first time since winning the title in 1970, here are some things to know:
The Patriots beat the Chiefs in a 43-40 shootout in Week 6, but both teams are different these days. The Patriots lost wide receiver Josh Gordon to personal issues, and the Chiefs waived Kareem Hunt because of off-the-field trouble. Kansas City also is poised to have linebacker Justin Houston and star safety Eric Berry back from injuries on Sunday.
“I mean, that was Week 6. That was a long time ago,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said. “We can’t really worry about that. They’re a better team and they’re on a roll. It’s the two best teams in the AFC, so you can’t really worry about, ‘Well, we beat you guys last, so we’re going to win.’ If we have that mentality, we’ll get kicked - they’ll kick our ass, pretty much.”
Brady and Mahomes get plenty of attention, but they don’t do it alone. Pats running back James White tied Darren Sproles’ postseason record with 15 catches in their 41-28 divisional victory over the Chargers, while Sony Michel has become a breakout star and Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman remain dangerous downfield threats . The Chiefs counter with running back Damien Williams and the pass-catching trio of All-Pro speedster Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and sure-handed tight end Travis Kelce.
New England hasn’t lost at home since early last season, but it’s been a struggle away from Gillette Stadium . The Patriots were 3-5 on the road this season, their worst mark since 2009, and lost back-to-back games in Miami and Pittsburgh in December. They haven’t won a postseason game on the road since 2006, and away teams have lost 10 consecutive conference championship games.
“I don’t get caught up in all that,” Reid said this week. “They’re a heck of a team. I mentioned that before, if you’re talking about a dynasty in the National Football League, they’re that.”
The Chiefs were founded by Lamar Hunt, the namesake of the Lamar Hunt Trophy awarded to the AFC champion. But they will be hosting the AFC title game for the first time after ending a 25-year drought in divisional playoff games last week against Indianapolis. They are 8-1 at home this season with their lone loss coming on a last-second 2-point conversion to the Los Angeles Chargers.
“You know it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere there,” Gronkowski said. “I’ve been there in the regular season and it felt like a playoff atmosphere. So I just can’t imagine what it’s going to be like going into a stadium like this.”
The forecast for frigid temperatures Sunday has improved a bit and it could be in the 20s much of the game. There will also be a “super blood wolf moon” later in the night, a rare total lunar eclipse in which the moon turns a rusty shade of red.
“There’s not really much you can do with the cold,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “I think Trey (Flowers) and Bill said it best, give us a ball and a field and we’ll be there.”
NEW ENGLAND (12-5)
at KANSAS CITY (13-4)
Sunday, 5:40 p.m., CBS
OPENING LINE — Chiefs by 3
RECORD VS. SPREAD — New England 10-7, Kansas City 10-6-1
SERIES RECORD — Chiefs lead 18-15-3
LAST MEETING — Patriots beat Chiefs 43-40, Oct. 14, 2018
LAST WEEK — Patriots beat Chargers 41-28; Chiefs beat Colts 31-13
PATRIOTS OFFENSE — OVERALL (5), RUSH (5), PASS (8)
PATRIOTS DEFENSE — OVERALL (21), RUSH (11), PASS (22)
CHIEFS OFFENSE — OVERALL (1), RUSH (16), PASS (3)
CHIEFS DEFENSE — OVERALL (31), RUSH (27), PASS (31)
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Kansas City is hosting first AFC title game in franchise history. AFC championship trophy is named after Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt. ... Chiefs are 5-1 against Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium. ... Arrowhead Stadium set Guinness world record for loudest outdoor stadium during September 2014 game between Chiefs and Patriots. ... Patriots beat Chiefs 27-20 in Foxborough in January 2016 in only playoff meeting. ... Patriots beat Chiefs in Week 6 in game featuring 946 yards total offense. ... Patriots’ Bill Belichick is winningest active coach with 290 wins. Chiefs’ Andy Reid is second with 207. ... New England has best playoff winning percentage (.636) and is 10-4 in AFC title games. ... Patriots are playing in NFL-record eighth consecutive conference championship game. They are seeking third straight Super Bowl appearance; only two other franchises have done it. ... New England could become first team since Buffalo (1991-94) to reach Super Bowl after losing it previous season. ... New England has not won road playoff game since beating Chargers 24-21 in divisional round in 2006 season. ... Patriots WR Julian Edelman has 98 postseason receptions, second only to Jerry Rice (151). ... New England can match Pittsburgh (36) for most playoff wins by beating Chiefs. ... QB Tom Brady can match former Patriots K Adam Vinatieri, now with Colts, for most wins in NFL history (236). Brady holds postseason records for TD passes (72), yards passing (10,569), playoff wins (28) and 300-yard passing games in playoffs (15). ... Brady is 8-4 in AFC championship games, going 6-1 at home but 2-3 on road. ... New England has forced 30 turnovers in 17 games. Team forced 19 in 17 games last season. ... Patriots RB James White tied Darren Sproles’ NFL postseason record with 15 catches, totaling 97 yards, in 41-28 win over Chargers last week. ... Patriots RB Sony Michel had four 100-yard rushing games in regular season and another against Chargers. ... Patriots DE Trey Flowers had 7 1/2 sacks to lead team for third straight season. ... Patriots All-Pro CB Stephon Gilmore had 20 passes defensed this season, second best in NFL. ... New England averaged franchise-record 27 yards per kickoff return. ... Chiefs beat Colts last Saturday for first home playoff win since Jan. 8, 1994. .. Reid is coaching in sixth conference title game. ... Chiefs held Colts to 0 for 9 on third downs. ... Kansas City is 8-1 at home this season. ... Chiefs led NFL in scoring at 35.3 points per game, third-best total in league history. ... QB Patrick Mahomes had 50 TD passes, matching Brady (2007) for second most in season in NFL history. He also had NFL-leading plus-38 TD-to-INT differential and 10 300 yards or more passing games. ... Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards during regular season, second only to Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger. ... Mahomes is sixth All-Pro quarterback to face Patriots in Belichick-Brady era. Patriots are 4-1 against previous five. ... Chiefs All-Pro TE Travis Kelce had career-best 1,336 yards receiving. ... Kansas City defense tied for first in NFL with 52 sacks. DT Chris Jones has 15 1/2 sacks. He set NFL record this season with sack in 11 consecutive games. ... Chiefs LB Dee Ford has 11 QB pressures that caused turnovers or fumbles this season, including strip-sack against Indianapolis last week. ... RB Damien Williams ran for 129 yards against Colts, third-best playoff total in franchise history. ... Kansas City was second-most efficient red-zone offense with TDs on 71.8 percent of trips this season. ... Chiefs All-Pro RT Mitchell Schwartz has played league-leading 7,397 consecutive snaps over 112 games. ... Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, AP’s All-Pro flex player, has five TDs of 50 yards or more this season. He has 18 plays of 50 yards in three seasons. ... Kansas City led NFL in first-quarter point differential at plus-91. ... Chiefs have scored at least 26 points in every game.
By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer
It will be dark and cold, perhaps absurdly cold, Sunday night in Kansas City. Arrowhead Stadium will be lit up, though, and the winner of the Patriots-Chiefs game will head to Atlanta for the Super Bowl.
WHEN NEW ENGLAND HAS THE BALL
As they have much of the season, the Patriots will attempt to strike a balance of run and pass. In rookie Sony Michel (26), they have a ground force, and in fellow RB James White (28), they have perhaps the best receiver out of the backfield in the league.
Don’t think Tom Brady (12) won’t m ake use of them often — and more often. Against the Chargers, White tied an NFL postseason mark with 15 catches, totaling 97 yards. The one thing Kansas City can do exceptionally well on defense is rush the passer with DT Chris Jones (95), LBs Justin Houston (50) and Dee Ford (55), so Brady will throw those quick shots to his backs and WR Julian Edelman (11) and TE Rob Gronkowski (87). Should the offensive line led by LT Trent Brown (77), C David Andrews (60) and RG Shaq Mason (69) provide ample time, Brady can then look deep, where he could have significant matchup edges with Edelman, Chris Hogan (15), Phillip Dorsett (13) and even Cordarrelle Patterson (84).
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will need to be aggressive all game; we saw what happens when an opponent isn’t when Brady and Michel ripped up the Chargers last week. Sutton’s secondary has no dynamic players — S Eric Berry (29) is the best but has not been healthy this season — and using six DBs could be a necessity Sunday. The Chiefs (52 sacks) must get a strong pass rush on Brady, making him throw off-balance or before he wants to.
One thing in Kansas City’s favor is a plus-9 turnover margin.
WHEN KANSAS CITY HAS THE BALL
Don’t change what you have been doing.
All-Pro Patrick Mahomes (15) is only the third quarterback to throw for at least 50 touchdowns in a season; Brady also did it in 2007. Mahomes never gives up on plays, and he has an uncanny skill at prolonging them until WRs Tyreek Hill (10), Sammy Watkins (14) or Chris Conley (17) and All-Pro TE Travis Kelce (87) get open. Hill was the AP’s All-Pro flex player, showing his versatility.
Considering his mobility, strong arm and resourcefulness, it is surprising Mahomes was sacked 26 times. New England, which had 30 sacks this season, wants to keep him bottled up, so key confrontations could be All-Pro RT Mitchell Schwartz (71) vs. DE Trey Flowers (98), and LT Eric Fisher (72) against an assortment of pass rushers. The Patriots also will get their linebackers into the mix, particularly Dont’a Hightower (54) and Kyle Van Noy (53).
Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore (24) is an All-Pro and will see plenty of Hill. How the other DBs handle Kelce and Mahomes’ other targets could be a deciding factor; the New England secondary has been victimized often in road games.
Given the potential for cold weather, the Chiefs could work hard to run the ball with Damien Williams (26), who has stepped up nicely since Kareem Hunt was released, and Spencer Ware (32), who has battled a hamstring injury. Mahomes doesn’t use his backs often in the passing game but they are solid.
Both sides are reliable and have some dangerous elements in the return game. Kansas City has Hill for punts and rookie Tremon Smith (39) for kickoffs, while New England features Patterson on kickoffs and the always-reliable Edelman on punts. The cold weather could make the football feel like a lead weight for punters Ryan Allen (6) of the Patriots and Dustin Colquitt (2) of the Chiefs, though wind shouldn’t bother either of them; they’re used to it.
Field goals could be another matter. Although New England’s Stephen Gostkowski (3) and Kansas City’s Harrison Butker (7) have strong and accurate legs, don’t be stunned to see both teams go for some fourth downs. Gostkowski is far more seasoned in pressure spots.
Andy Reid is 2-6 against New England. He’s had one of his best coaching years, though, and his handling of Mahomes has been remarkable. As long as he pushes the envelope, and avoids playing not to lose, he will give Kansas City every chance to reach its first Super Bowl since the 1969 season.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels recognizes his team will need to score aplenty, and he never backs off. The Patriots might be losing defensive coordinator Brian Flores to Miami as Dolphins head coach, and he could show why he deserves that spot by finding a way to slow down a Chiefs team that scored 565 points this season.
The Patriots, in their record eighth straight conference title game, are so experienced in this environment. Yet they claim to feel slighted because of the doubts raised about their level of competence after going 3-5 on the road. A ticked-off Brady is never a good thing for the opposition, and the Patriots could become only the third franchise to reach three straight Super Bowls.
Still, Kansas City is so parched for a trip to the big game — the Chiefs went to two of the first four Super Bowls and won in 1970, but none since. And this team has a freshness about it largely thanks to Mahomes, who shattered nearly every franchise passing record this season.
Their meeting in October could have gone either way, with New England getting the ball last and making the final, winning drive. And that was in Foxborough.