By Jason Keidel
» More Columns
Lost in the whirlwind of wild-card weekend is the team that never has to play in it because they’re too good for it. The most successful team in the NFL has sailed largely under the radar.
As the NFL begins its march toward the madness of Super Bowl 50, the team with the most cracks at it has been forgotten.
That would be the New England Patriots, who’ve had their mail forwarded to the AFC title game since Tom Brady and Bill Belichick performed their epic mind meld. While Steelers coach Mike Tomlin recently had a magical, psychic moment on the sideline with Ben Roethlisberger — with one look, the head coach knew his quarterback was going back in the game, to save the game, with 90 second left — the coach and QB in New England have such spiritual connections yearly, monthly, weekly and, perhaps, daily. That’s how you play in six Super Bowls, and win four of them.
The Patriots, a presumed mess, spinning in the vortex of a Super Bowl title and the inherent lethargy and free agent defections that come with it, played with their normal, lethal efficiency for the first half of the season, dashing out to an 10-0 start.
Then the wheels began to fly off the Patriots machine. Injuries forced them to sign a parade of linemen to be whirled through the turnstile to protect Tom Brady. Then Dion Lewis, a running back revelation, blew out his knee. Rob Gronkowski played on tender legs all season. And the death blow in November was the loss of wide receiver Julian Edelman, leaving Brady to feel most forlorn in the pocket.
Indeed, the Pats went 2-4 to end the season, which speaks to how vital Edelman was to the watchmaker’s precision of the Patriots’ offense.
Brady wrenched his ankle against the Dolphins in Week 17 and is still limping around the team facilities. Danny Amendola, the successor to Edelman, can’t stay on the field because of twisted limbs.
Twelve Patriots have landed on the injured reserve. Among the more essential players are Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and all-world linebacker Jamie Collins.
The Pats will go as far as Brady will allow. His playoff stats are epic, ample and obvious. He’s 21-8, with 53 — 53! — touchdown passes in the postseason. He’s compiled two seasons worth of yardage just in January, with 7,345 yards on 683 completions. There’s no Mount Rushmore without the gridiron Saint from St. Matthew (San Mateo). Brady is the leading man, leading act and playoff protagonist. The 199th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft was (and is) the steal of the century, if not the millennium.
Now the Patriots are facing the most solid, streaking team in the NFL. It’s hard to recall a squad more focused, fiery or competent than the Kansas City Chiefs are right now.
They have been scalding. The only team ever to start 1-5 and then run the table, the Chiefs aren’t great at anything, but are good at everything. During their 11-game streak, they’ve won by an average score of 28-11.
Try to find a weakness. The QB plays with surgical efficiency. Indeed, don’t sleep on Alex Smith, who has rushed for 30 first downs, third in the NFL, including 17 rushes of at least 10 yards.
After nearly a two-year TD drought at wide receiver, the Chiefs signed Jeremy Maclin, who has been a savior. They got a serious infusion of confidence and competence when Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry returned from his battle with leukemia. Perhaps the best pick in the last draft, cornerback Marcus Peters, has been a revelation, leading the NFL in interceptions this season.
Travis Kelce is the Chiefs’ best tight end since the departure of future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and currently leads the NFL in postseason catches and yards. His eight receptions for 128 yards against the Texans were a playoff coming-out party.
And this all happened sans their best player. The Chiefs haven’t lost a game since losing robo-running-back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL in Week 5, using a cluster of castoffs and free agents to fill the wide chasm Charles left behind.
Turnovers. Kansas City finished second in the league in turnover differential (+14). And their 29 takeaways were fifth overall. Almost every stat churned out by every apparatus speaks to the monolithic realities of turnovers, how good they are to get and how bad they are to give up.
The Chiefs and Patriots have faced each other 33 times, but this is the first time in January (Kansas City leads the series 17-13-3). The last time they played in Foxborough, the Pats demolished the Chiefs, 34-3, in 2011.
In four playoff games, Alex Smith has tossed 10 TDs and one interception. Before Brian Cushing picked him off in the first half last week, Smith had thrown an NFL-postseason-record 119 passes without an interception. Earlier in the 2015 season, Smith had gone 312 passes without a pick, the second-longest regular-season streak of all time.
And while it’s backdoor praise to brand someone a “game manager,” Smith has flourished in the role, going back to his years in San Francisco. Pride is the province of rookies, and Smith is anything but a football neophyte, widely considered a team-first guy, with an epic allergy to Pat Riley’s “Disease of We.”
Then you have the last time these teams squared off. Last year, in Kansas City, the Chiefs vaporized the Patriots, 41-14.
According to the ESPN statistical spin-off Five Thirty Eight, the Chiefs have a 49 percent chance of winning, rendering this game little more than a coin flip. Also, according to the same site, the Chiefs have a better chance of bagging the Lombardi Trophy should they reach the Super Bowl. That’s right, the numbers give Kansas City better odds than New England.
And this is the rare time Belichick can’t say he has an epic edge under the headset. Not only is Andy Reid experienced, with ample playoff pedigree, Reid is arguably the NFL Coach of the Year. If not for the magic wand Ron Rivera waved over the Carolina Panthers, leading to their enchanted 15-1 campaign, Reid would likely have bagged the hardware.
For his part, Belichick showed up at this week’s media session with a black eye. Call the presser a precursor, a haunting, portentous, ominous emblem. Maybe the Pats cruise past the Chiefs, on their way to their seventh Super Bowl appearance since Y2K. Or maybe Belichick’s shiner will shine on a new day and a new way of football from the Heartland.
Maybe they aren’t in Kansas anymore, but the Chiefs are more dangerous than Dorothy, the Wicked Witch or the conga line of lions, tigers and bears.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel