Sam Mellinger

The 2019 season is a fun prelude to another Chiefs-Patriots AFC Championship Game

Andy Reid walked to the lectern and stood behind the microphone and looked at his notes. Notes are good. Notes are helpful. And notes are comprehensively unneeded for this part of Reid’s message:

“We look forward to the challenge of playing the Colts.”

Reid says a version of this virtually every time he speaks publicly. The Chiefs could be playing a pack of thorn bushes and Reid would describe them as well-coached, and good football players.

This is intentional, of course, and something of a self-survival mechanism. Football games are weird. The balls are oblong and bounce unpredictably. The league is set up for parity, and one matchup a coach didn’t prepare for or a strategy he did not consider can tilt the result.

So, yes. Reid will continue to look forward to the next challenge, and the next challenge only.

The Colts do have a good team, too. A deep roster, with lots of speed. They last played in Kansas City in January in a Divisional Round playoff game. That’s why NBC targeted this KC-Indy game for the league’s marquee weekly platform — Sunday Night Football.

But then Andrew Luck retired.

The Colts remain a worthy opponent. Jacoby Brissett has performed well. But the gap between the Chiefs and the Patriots and the rest of the AFC is widening, signaled by a double-digit betting line.

So, Reid can look forward to the challenge of the Colts. He should, and his job is to make sure everyone in the locker room does the same.

But come on. We can see where this season is headed. We can see that Reid’s weekly message could just as honestly go like this:

We look forward to the challenge of playing the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

The expectation is strong within the organization and locker room, too.

“Yeah,” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “Naturally. Anytime you’re able to put a team together to compete for a Super Bowl, which is not every year, you always think about possibly meeting up with the Patriots. They’re just one of the teams you always keep an eye on.

“If you see yourself as a playoff team, you always picture yourself playing against the Patriots.”

Disclaimers: This is early. Week 5 is no time to make guarantees. Teams can change drastically from December to January, let alone October. Injuries can change everything.

But, now, some facts.

The Patriots (+333) and Chiefs (+500) are by far the heaviest Super Bowl favorites. Next best is Dallas (+1100), and in the AFC it’s the Browns (+2200). “Follow the money” is an old truism, and the money is sending a clear message to expect the Chiefs and Patriots to play for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Weeks 5 through 13 are prep, then, with the Chiefs-Patriots Week 14 matchup in Foxborough determining where the rematch in the AFC Championship Game will be played.

It feels ... inevitable?

Two of the Chiefs’ last four postseasons have ended against the Patriots, and this year’s versions of each team might be the best in recent years.

The Chiefs’ offense ranks first in points, yards per play, passing yards, yards per pass, scoring percentage and Football Outsiders’ catch-all DVOA metric for offense.

The Patriots’ defense ranks first in points, yards per play, turnovers, scoring percentage and Football Outsiders’ catch-all DVOA metric for defense. The Patriots have not surrendered a touchdown all season and have scored on a blocked punt and two interception returns.

The teams the Chiefs have beaten are 8-3-1 in their other games, and only the Lions were not behind by three scores at some point in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots are the only team to beat the Bills, and they did it on the road despite a rotten day from quarterback Tom Brady: 18 completions in 39 passes with no touchdowns and an interception.

This gap that appears to be building each week is common in other sports. The Astros, Yankees and Dodgers are widely seen as the best in baseball. NBA seasons are now largely defined by in-season jockeying for playoff seeding, with the term “load management” going mainstream.

Maybe some of that is bubbling in football. For reasons that range from player safety to a continued emphasis on offense and the importance of quarterbacks, the NFL’s longtime signature of parity is fading.

If you have a great coach-quarterback combination you have an outsized advantage over your competition. Brady and Bill Belichick are the most successful pair in league history, and Patrick Mahomes and Reid are building a unique and productive bond.

One more time: Nothing is guaranteed, and to be sure part of achieving success in the NFL depends upon compartmentalizing and focusing. Most in the locker room will only talk about the next opponent.

But the shape of this particular season must be accounted for. Personnel moves can be made with particular emphasis given to a potential playoff matchup with the Patriots.

Specific strategies can be workshopped not just to beat that week’s opponent, but with the grander purpose of going to the Super Bowl — which would almost certainly mean facing the Patriots.

“When they’re on TV, you’re watching them play, watching highlights, seeing who they’re getting the ball to and who they’re featuring,” Mathieu said. “Just kind of taking a mental note. You try to pick up as much knowledge as you can on them before you play them. But you also realize they’re a game-plan team.

“You realize that one week, Brady may throw for 300 yards and the next week he may throw for 120 and they still win the game the same way.”

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Brady threw for 306 yards in week 3 against the Jets. Last week, he threw for just 150 against the Bills. It’s not a coincidence that Mathieu used those numbers.

“Right,” he said, laughing.

Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback and now a broadcaster with CBS, has called the Chiefs or Patriots in each of the first four weeks. His broadcast team is the only one with that distinction.

His perspective is valuable, then, and his answer interesting when asked if he sees a big gap in the AFC after the Chiefs and Patriots.

“No,” he said. “I see one quarter of the season, and three quarters to go.”

Correctly, he points out that all teams have issues. The Patriots “haven’t been their normal self” on offense, and the Chiefs are still merging with new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system.

Asked who else he would put in the AFC’s top tier, Fouts mentioned the Chargers (“but they have a brutal stretch of travel coming up”) and Bills (“they should’ve won last Sunday”) with a 9-7 division winner perhaps coming out of the South and North.

His point is valid. It’s too early to talk in certainties. Football is a wild game at its highest level.

But taken a certain way, two flawed contenders and a pair of 9-7 division winners does sound like it’s the Chiefs and Patriots and then everyone else, doesn’t it?

Don't have a KC Star subscription? Help support our sports coverage

If you already subscribe to The Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 per year. It's your ticket to everything sports in Kansas City ... and beyond, and supports our award-winning coverage.
Related stories from Kansas City Star

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.
  Comments