Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Here comes the first AFC Championship Game to be played in KC

Chiefs looking forward to Patriots in AFC Championship Game

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is looking forward to the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019 against head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, while cold weather conditions predicted doesn't worry Reid.
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Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is looking forward to the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019 against head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, while cold weather conditions predicted doesn't worry Reid.

The bar is low but the most memorable win at Arrowhead Stadium in the 21st century might have been the last time the Chiefs and Patriots played there.

It was Sept. 29, 2014, which I don’t have to look up because it was the night before the Royals’ AL Wild Card Game against the A’s and we all know the Wild Card Game was on Sept. 30.

The Chiefs won 41-14 that night, a win so overwhelming that the crowd broke into a LET’S GO ROYALS chant in the second half and the Boston media spent the next week asking if Tom Brady would be benched for Jimmy Garoppolo.

Jamaal Charles scored three touchdowns, and the Chiefs sacked Brady three times, including one that was captured immaculately by Dave Eulitt in the next day’s issue of The Star — the ball knocked loose, and perfectly positioned to cover Brady’s face. A blow-up of that page hangs in the Arrowhead Stadium press box.

The thing I remember most about that game was not any particular play, or even that Garoppolo looked pretty good in relief.

The thing I remember most is the easy feeling that filled Arrowhead. Easy feelings NEVER fill Arrowhead. Ever. Not before, and not since. Historically, the Chiefs have had a way of making things hard. When they’re easy — like this effing offense this year at times — those breakthroughs ignite eruptive noise.

But they’re never consistently easy, never for a whole game, but that’s the way that night felt.

That was a different time. Those two seasons are likely the only since the start of the 1990s that the Royals have overshadowed the Chiefs. The Royals had just qualified for their first postseason in 29 years, and the biggest game since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series was the next night.

If the Chiefs beat the NFL’s 21st century dynasty, then great.

If not, the football game was like an extended tailgate for the next night’s baseball game.

Facing Jon Lester, that was pressure. Facing Belichick and Brady that night, in that context, was just the pregame entertainment.

That night comes to mind for obvious reasons, because the Patriots will be back at Arrowhead on Sunday for the biggest game in the stadium’s (or city’s) history.

The vibe will be decidedly different, because instead of a Chiefs team that many people were happy was simply competent again, this time the Chiefs are on the brink of doing something they haven’t done in 49 years.

Beating the Colts was a breakthrough, but a loss on Sunday takes some of the boost away, which means the same angst from Saturday will be there again.

If the Patriots block a punt, then Patrick Mahomes needs another Daddy’s Home touchdown drive.

If Sammy Watkins fumbles, then Justin Houston needs another strip sack two snaps later.

Because the home playoff drought might be done, but the Super Bowl drought is very much alive.

The Chiefs are good enough to win. They’re even good enough to be favored. But as much as it looks like the franchise with the 23-year-old presumptive MVP quarterback will have chance after chance like this, none of that is guaranteed. The Chiefs have this chance now, their best in 25 years, and we might look back and see it as their best chance of the next 25.

No more easy feelings.

This week’s eating recommendation is the meatball panini at Cupini’s, and the reading recommendation is My 460-pound Self by Tommy Tomlinson.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook, and as always, thanks for your help and thanks for reading.

Sports can be the absolute best thing in the world. That is not hyperbole. Nothing else like it — an unscripted drama that so many of us devote WAY too much time and money and emotion into, essentially rooting for the laundry worn by people we have very little in common with, but the act of doing so means we feel like we have everything in common with them.

Forever memories were made in that blizzard on Saturday. Kids became lifelong Chiefs fans because of that game. Became lifelong football fans, or sports fans.

My mind tends to work in strange ways which might explain this recurring thought — when the aliens come, it’ll be hard to explain to them why we care about sports so much, but then, that’s the point. That’s why they’re aliens, and why we’re humans.

This is still “only” the AFC Championship Game, something that the Jacksonville Jaguars played in last year, and the Jets (the JETS!) did twice in a row with Mark Sanchez (MARK SANCHEZ!) within the last 10 years.

So we should probably slow down on some of this stuff, but it is an objective fact that this is the biggest game in the history of Arrowhead Stadium and Kansas City history*.

*Some old-timers might argue for the 1971 Christmas Day game, which was at Municipal Stadium, but remember that was in the divisional round, not a game from the Super Bowl, and that none of this was as big a deal back then as it is now.

Look, I get really annoyed when teams or leagues release studies that vastly overestimate the economic impact that sports can have. It’s become a punchline, and the greatest offender might be an old Sporting Club commissioned study that estimated the since-constructed TRAINING facility would generate $1.5 billion in earnings.

Come on.

But that shouldn’t be why we ever do stuff like this, because it certainly isn’t why we care about stuff like this.

Forget economic impact. The emotional impact that sports can have on us will always be impossible to measure.

A sort of civic self-esteem boost is often discussed, and anyone in Kansas City right now can tell you it’s real. Right or wrong, people feel better about the place they live in when the sports teams do well. Standing in line at the dry cleaner is more enjoyable. Go out to eat, and there’s a natural connection with anybody you see there.

That’s probably truer in a place like Kansas City than most, because people who live here tend to be from here, and we’re all well aware that bigger cities in the middle of the country have an easier time getting over that obnoxious flyover thing than we ever will.

But the stuff I’m thinking about goes a level or two deeper than that. When teams do well, people have an easier time connecting. That’s a hell of a thing, and it means that fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, friends of all kinds have a reason to get together.

I hear from people all the time who have bad relationships with their parents, but are able to talk through sports. Sometimes that’s the end of it, but other times the lifeline of a game or team to talk about is enough to be a bridge to better times. These things build relationships, corny as that sounds.

That stuff matters, too. It might even be why some of those guys you saw on Saturday were crying.

It really is. We all have too much time on our hands, with too much excitement, so sometimes that means overhyping games that aren’t worth it. This is not that. This game is incredible no matter how you look at it — for drama, for strategy, for history, for entertainment.

No matter what, a city will remember what happens this weekend for years and years.

Michael Garozzo — and yes I’m name dropping him because I’m a fanboy of his work — texted a headline suggestion: The latest vs. the greatest.

We’re locked into this game regardless, because that’s how this works, but for a casual football fan it’s hard to think of a better championship weekend:

The top four offenses, four of the best five or six coaches, a no-doubt Hall of Fame quarterback going against a young star in each game.

Tom Brady has won five Super Bowls and three MVPs and has been No. 1 on the NFL’s Top 100 each of the past two years. Patrick Mahomes threw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his only full season, will probably win this year’s MVP, and could be No. 1 on the list next year.

This is one of the greatest offenses of all time going against perhaps the greatest defensive coach of all time.

This stunned me the first time I heard it: Bill Belichick’s Patriots have given up 40 or more points just seven times in 18 years.

Andy Reid’s Chiefs are three of those games.

The notable exception is the playoff game a few years ago, when the Chiefs ran what was basically an 8-minute drill to try to win, but the point is a strong one.

There will be points.

Also, apparently, there will be what’s being called an arctic blast.

The AFC Championship Game is in Kansas City, and quite literally, Arrowhead Stadium is freezing over.

Whoa you guys that was something.

To be fair, the Chargers basically peed down their leg. They looked unprepared and lost, both physically and mentally. They would have been a good match for the Raiders that day.

But the Patriots looked like, well, they looked the Patriots. That’s not a surprise, especially not this time of year or in that building, but there was a general consensus this year that the best of the Patriots was in the past.

For the record, I still believe that. I believe it because of what’s been reported by the great Seth Wickersham, and I believe it because there just isn’t as much talent on the roster as most years.

Here’s a take for you: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have won their last Super Bowl together.

I believe all that, but I also believe that if you watched their game against the Chargers on Sunday and don’t believe they’re capable of winning at Arrowhead you are delusional and/or not paying attention.

The Chargers are the better team, if we’re talking about talent and balance.

The Patriots are the better team, if we’re talking about who wins when it counts.

Belichick’s reputation is as a coach who will take away an opponent’s strength by going to extremes, by taking chances that other coaches just aren’t willing or creative enough to design.

I don’t know what that means against these Chiefs. My thought has always been that you control the ball with your offense, and keep them from big plays with your defense. That means never allowing Tyreek Hill to line up without safety help, and chipping and doubling Travis Kelce as much as possible.

That’s also easier said than done.

The Chiefs have scored at least 26 points in every game. No NFL team has done that. They’ve played 17 games, and scored 35 or more in nine of them, including 40 at New England. The Chiefs are the only team to score 40 in Foxborough in the last six seasons — and they’ve done it twice.

All of that is true. But if there was ever a situation in which Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes would see something they’ve never seen before, or hadn’t prepared for, it’s facing Bill Belichick in an AFC Championship Game.

This game works on so many levels, you guys.

The latest vs. greatest.

The possible end of the Patriots dynasty.

The greatest quarterback of the last 20 years against what might be the greatest quarterback of the next 20.

The defensive mind of Belichick against the offensive explosiveness of Mahomes and Reid.

It works as narrative, as football strategy, as unscripted drama.

This game is everything.

The good thing about this is your boss will probably be dealing with some cobwebs, too.

So I’m not sure you have a lot to worry about there.

I don’t buy it, you don’t buy it, the Chiefs don’t buy it and I would guess that the Patriots themselves don’t buy it.

Maybe they’ll work themselves into a place where they believe it by Sunday, because minds are mendable, and there is no delusion like an athlete’s delusion.

There are two things to mention about this.

First, the last time Tom Brady was a betting underdog was in 2014, a ridiculous length of time, but not as ridiculous as the fact that it was against Kyle Orton and the Bills. You guys, what the hell? How was this a thing? The Bills were 3-2.

This was that weird year when the Chiefs throttled the Patriots 41-14 on Monday night, the night before the Royals’ Wild Card Game, and there was this dumb thing that Boston media were doing where they were talking about Jimmy Garoppolo replacing Brady. But the Patriots beat the Bengals — we’re on to Cincinnati — 43-17 the week before the Buffalo game.

People weren’t convinced?

Anyway, the Patriots won 37-22 because of course they did, and beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Underdogs, against Kyle Orton and the Bills. Come on you people.

OK, the second thing to mention about this is that it could not matter less what the line is. Could not matter less who I pick to win, or anybody on ESPN, or (no offense) any of you reading this. It just does not matter.

There are moments with various teams when this stuff might make a difference. Maybe. A midseason game where the outside noise crashes in and galvanizes a locker room in a way that a team responds with better focus or motivation.

But if that moment is an AFC Championship Game, then that team is probably a fraud, and I don’t think either of these teams are frauds.

We have a lot of time to kill between now and 5:40 on Sunday night, and I’m not here to tell you how to spend it, but this simply does not matter.

You guys, the Guinness thing is a farce. Yes, I said it. Someone has to say it. You need to hear that and know that.

I have been to every game at Arrowhead Stadium since 2010 as a writer, and to many many more before that as a fan, and I think I could make a top 50 of loudest moments at Arrowhead without mentioning the time late in a blowout against Terrell Pryor’s Raiders when MANY fans had already left that the “official” record was apparently broken.

Look, I don’t begrudge you your 142.2. Go for it. Cool.

But this is not A Thing, other than a genius marketing move by the maker of a good stout*.

*This is not a slam! I own copies, and lost large chunks of my childhood reading those books and trying to figure out how I would make it someday.

But when I think of what this Sunday might be, well, the first thing I think about is how cold it will be.

But, yeah. It’ll be a hell of a time.

People who go will not forget it, for many years, no matter what.

Sports don’t give us a lot of these moments, at least not with the specific team or teams you follow.

When these times come, you have to cherish it.

Jon’s got jokes!

We all have different perspectives, but I’m a hard disagree here.

Let’s talk first about the grander parameters of the NFL. That league legislates parity, and I know we can talk about kickers and penalties and joke curses and everything else, but the truth is the Chiefs are a functional enough organization that you figure eventually they’ll get through.

Then, obviously Patrick Mahomes changes everything. He is a generational talent, way too good to never win a Super Bowl, so unless he is surrounded by a level of failure that just does not exist or appear to exist at any point soon, he will win a Super Bowl.

The MLS Cup is similar to the Super Bowl, except that Peter Vermes provides that competence and competitive edge that the Chiefs are just now getting into. In a smaller league, a team with ambitious ownership and good players will have its cracks. Sporting won in 2013, and I’d expect they’ll win another if Vermes sticks around.

To compare the challenge of winning either of those trophies to the impossibility of the Royals winning the World Series is a short memory.

Because at least the Chiefs have won some games, and made the playoffs. The Royals went 29 years without making the postseason, and there is a span of about 20 years there were the closest they got was an 83-win fluke in 2003 that EVERYONE IN TOWN knew was fundamentally unsustainable.

This sounds silly now, but I remember thinking that just winning the Wild Card Game was enough to consider the Royals a success. They’d made it. They’d climbed into relevancy, into competitiveness, and isn’t that all the fans had said they demanded?

The Royals, for so long, were stuck in a league where the rules were stacked against them and they were basically flying blind. Small-market teams had to be smart and hard working and ambitious and lucky just to compete.

The Royals had all the disadvantages, but none of that support or cunning, at least not until David Glass was embarrassed enough to finally operate like a major-league franchise when Dayton Moore was hired.

The idea that the Royals could win the World Series was, literally, laughable. Right up until the point they did it.

There have been times that the same could be said about the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl, but they always had the advantage of NFL parity, and once it became obvious that Mahomes was an alien it also became likelier than not that eventually he’d win a Super Bowl with the Chiefs.

The Shaw sibling rivalry is strong.

I’m conflicted about this. It’s certainly possible. Young, rocket-ship quarterback on a rookie contract, surrounded by young talent and a coach with at least five more years in him and a long history of developing strong coaches who might someday take his place.

Yeah, it could happen.

But more than all of that, I would say that people — fans and media — get it wrong by forecasting dynasties WAY more than they get it wrong by not seeing a dynasty as it begins.

The LeBron Heat might be the most famous recent example, and they won two titles in four years. Not a dynasty.

Calipari at Kentucky was supposed to be a dynasty, and he’s won one title with four Final Fours in 10 year. Not a dynasty.

Ben Roethlisberger went 15-1 as a rookie and won a Super Bowl in his second year. Not a dynasty.

Russell Wilson won the Super Bowl in his second year, and made another in his third. Not a dynasty.

Also, there was a time when Michael Jordan was Just A Scorer, and when Mike Krzyzewski couldn’t win big games.

I would say that, as a general rule, humans are as bad at predicting sports dynasties as they are just about anything in this world, with the possible exception of not unnecessarily slowing down on the highway when there’s a wreck or something ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DAMN ROAD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!?!?!?

OK.

Maybe it’s best to just move on.

Counter theory: the Chiefs would still be playing Orando Scandrick if he hadn’t screwed up the switch on the two-point conversion at the end of the Chargers game at Arrowhead.

They were thinking about the move for a few weeks, but there’s a big difference between thinking about it and actually doing it, and it makes sense to me that they needed a big moment like that to find the comfort in going with youth over experience — especially that late in the season.

Now, it’s an oversimplification to just say ...

Step 1: Ward/Lucas in

Step 2: Scandrick/Parker out

Step 3: Profit!

... because there’s a lot of other stuff going on here. The Chiefs have played at home, for instance. The Raiders had absolutely given up. The Colts weren’t sharp. Justin Houston has been particularly good. Same with Dee Ford. Kendall Fuller is now healthy.

I’ve watched the game from Saturday a few times now, and it does seem like the Chiefs ran some blitzes against the Colts that they hadn’t tried before. They were bringing some stunts — games, as Bob Sutton calls them — up the middle that caused chaos through the Colts’ line.

But the same way the struggles weren’t all Sutton’s fault* the success isn’t all his credit.

*Every time they missed a tackle way too many people were blaming the coordinator.

Derrick Nnadi, for instance, was terrific against the Colts. Might’ve been his best game. Chris Jones was winning one-on-one with Quenton Nelson often enough that the Colts were giving their rookie All-Pro help.

So it’s collective. Sutton giving his guys an edge with blitzes and a positive feel for what’s required when, and his guys making the calls work with individual wins and consistent execution.

The next question you’re going to ask is whether it can continue, and come on, I have no idea.

I did believe the Chiefs’ defense would be better on Saturday than most people expected, but there was no way to expect that. The Patriots and Colts were similar statistically on offense this year, but shutting down Tom Brady is a different challenge than Andrew Luck.

The Patriots still have a star tight end and they still throw a lot to their backs, and that is still a weakness of the Chiefs.

I know we talked a little about this earlier, but I wanted to take this opportunity to plug an upcoming column on Ward.

He has a remarkable story to tell, and I hope I do it justice.

But you’re asking about the football part, and I know I’m in the minority here, but I actually thought he was pretty good against the Seahawks. People remember him being on the bad end of some big plays, but on the two they usually remember he had good coverage.

You still have to make the play, sure, but it’s OK to give credit to a Hall of Fame quarterback and star receiver beating an undrafted rookie on a few plays at home on national TV.

The problem in that game for Ward was the penalties, not the coverage.

I really think they might have something with him. He’s long, fast, and tackles like a brick. There are some rough edges — Oakland got him on a fairly basic double move — but he is getting better.

Against the Colts, he gave up four catches on eight targets for 42 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a 65.6 passer rating. We’re crossing streams a little bit here, but the official box score credited him with four passes defended, so if that’s correct and PFF’s numbers are correct the four balls thrown his way were all accurate enough that he had to knock them down.

Let’s not get carried away. Ward and Jordan Lucas are an upgrade, but the Chiefs are still going to be hunting defensive backs in the draft.

As they should.

I’m glad you said pressure, and not sack, because with Brady it’s less about bringing him down than making him move. This isn’t an old joke, but he doesn’t move as well as he used to, and even the way he used to move wasn’t all that great.

Move him off his spot, make him shuffle his feet, throw from different platforms. That’s the only way.

The thing about going against the Patriots is people often give the same gameplan: pressure with four.

Well, “pressure with four” is basically a football cheat code against any offense.

But Chris Jones will be critical here. I’m skeptical that the Patriots will block him with one man very often, but when they do, he has to win. Between him, Justin Houston and Dee Ford, someone will be single blocked on most every pass snap and that man has to win.

I want to say right here at the top that this is an oversimplification, but it’s also true:

Andy Reid’s Chiefs have played Bill Belichick’s Patriots four times. The Chiefs have won twice, when they had two strong and healthy edge rushers. They have lost twice, each with Justin Houston on the sideline.

Again, this is an oversimplification. The problem wasn’t the defense in the playoff loss two years ago, for instance.

But I bring this up only as a point that the Chiefs have some pieces that have proven to be difficult for the Patriots to beat.

You joke, sort of, but I’m here to tell you that I would absolutely bet the over on a Mahomes statue being built and I would say that we have not seen the moment it will memorialize.

But it will happen.

When I was about 22, there was a Brigade game — remember them? — that I nearly missed because it was at noon the day after my best friend’s bachelor party. But that’s not weather.

I was about 24, I nearly missed a T-Bones game until my boss called to ask how the game was. I was on my couch, 30 minutes away. It was the seventh inning. I rushed out the door and made it in the top of the ninth, just in time to see a bench-clearing brawl, which was the only thing I’d have written about anyway. Sometimes the universe does you a solid.

But if we’re just talking about weather, the closest I can think of was in 2010, when K-State was playing in the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City. I booked a flight to land two days before the game — the day before media availability.

Got on the plane, too. But at some point, there was a storm — I can’t remember now whether it was rain or snow or what — that diverted us to Amarillo. Yep. Amarillo. I spent two days there that seemed like 20, so long that I thought about taking the 72 oz. steak challenge just to have a story to tell, before a flight finally opened up that landed a few hours before tipoff.

Worth it.

That game was the 101-96, double-overtime win over Xavier that is still one of the best games I’ve ever covered in my life.

Literally, I called my boss after filing to apologize for not being able to live up to what happened on the court.

I still think the energy K-State spent that night sapped them, that they would have beaten Butler in the regional final with fresh legs.

Hell no.

Let me be clear. Zero degrees is better than 100 degrees. Snow is better than humidity. I find these truths to be self-evident.

I am comfortable in the cold, in part because I sweat like a fat pig when it’s above 65. I like hoodies and jeans, and would remind anyone that you can always put on more clothes but at some point taking more clothes off becomes socially unacceptable.

Now. We all have limits, and I’m comfortable enough who I am to tell you that if it was not literally my job to be at the game Sunday night there is a 0.0 percent chance that I would be there.

I would be at home, watching from my couch, with a roaring fire and either a big plate of nachos or takeout wings from the Peanut.

I am in awe of each and every one of you who will spend hundreds of dollars and basically your entire Sunday to watch that game in person. You are a central part of what makes sports so fun. You are all incredible.

And also at least a little bit insane.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for the snow sticking around long enough that I could take the boys outside for some sledding on Sunday. And I’m also grateful that as many things that have changed since I was their age, their instinct is still to grab a handful of snow and shove it in their mouth.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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