Just over a month ago, it looked like both the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots would miss the playoffs. Or, at the very least, they seemed destined to have to scratch and claw their way into the postseason.
How times have changed.
In the span of a few weeks, the reigning AFC champions and the six-time Super Bowl winners have suddenly seized control of their respective divisions and become major threats to capture the Lombardi Trophy by employing the same simple strategy. And if Andy Reid and Bill Belichick keep their teams trending in the right direction, don’t be surprised if the two future Pro Football Hall of Famers face each other in January.
The Chiefs and the Patriots have gone from struggling to string together victories to seizing back control of their respective divisions
Just when the rest of the league thought the Chiefs and the Patriots had no chance to compete for a championship, both teams got hot at exactly the right time.
After getting off to a sluggish 3-4 start that raised warranted concerns about the outlook of the season, Kansas City has ripped off four straight wins. By stringing together victories over the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Las Vegas Raiders, and Dallas Cowboys, Andy Reid’s team now owns the No. 1 spot in the crowded AFC West.
Has everything been perfect?
Of course not.
Patrick Mahomes and Co. rank 12th in scoring, which shows the offense still has room to improve. However, there’s no doubt the Chiefs look like a strong Super Bowl contender as Thanksgiving approaches.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have undergone a similar transformation. Since suffering a crushing overtime loss to the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys in Week 6, Bill Belichick’s squad has ripped off five straight wins in dominant fashion.
Between New England’s resurgence and the Buffalo Bills losing three of their last five, the landscape of the AFC East has shifted dramatically. Like the Chiefs, the Patriots have gone from looking up in the standings to sitting atop their division.
Both teams suddenly look like top Super Bowl contenders thanks to a simple but effective strategy
Ironically, two teams led by two Hall of Fame-level coaches have turned their seasons around by using the same simple strategy.
In a pass-happy, point-scoring league that’s designed to let offensive players shine, the Chiefs and the Patriots suddenly find themselves in the familiar position of competing for the No. 1 seed thanks to their much-improved defenses.
In fact, it’s hard to find two teams that are playing better on that side of the ball.
The Chiefs couldn’t stop anyone earlier in the season. But after surrendering more than 400 total yards in four of their first five games, they’ve clamped down and held three of their last six opponents to less than 300. More importantly, they’ve allowed a total of 47 points during their four-game winning streak.
Much of that has to do with getting more out of the front seven. Moving Chris Jones back to his natural position of defensive tackle has unlocked the best out of the strong, athletic sixth-year pro. Plus, fellow highly paid defensive lineman Frank Clark has racked up two sacks, seven quarterback hits, and two forced fumbles in November. With their two big-name pass rushers back to wrecking havoc, it’s easy to see why the Chiefs have climbed to 16th in points allowed (22.7 per game).
Of course, they still rank well behind the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL.
The Patriots have allowed a mere 16.1 points per game this season, putting them just ahead of the division-rival Bills. After getting shredded by the Cowboys, they’ve made life absolutely miserable for quarterbacks on their schedule. The emergence of rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore, the continued excellence of top free-agent addition Matthew Judon, and the improved play of veterans like Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy have factored heavily into New England’s streak of strong play.
By applying consistent pressure on opposing signal-callers and picking off ill-fated passes, the Patriots have allowed a mere 13 points in their last three games. And after pitching a shutout against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football, it’s clear Belichick has everyone firing on all cylinders as the calendar turns to December.
Don’t be surprised if Patrick Mahomes and Co. square off against Bill Belichick’s squad in the playoffs
If things keep trending in the same direction for the Chiefs and the Patriots, the two talented squads could square off in the postseason. The idea of Belichick going up against Reid in the playoffs no longer looks like a remote possibility. Rather, it would be a mild surprise if they don’t see each other at some point.
While the Bills have a physically gifted quarterback, Josh Allen still makes costly mistakes in crunch time. Plus, they don’t run the ball effectively or stop the run, which makes it difficult to see them succeeding when the weather gets cold and the stakes increase.
As for the other “contenders” in the conference?
The Tennessee Titans have lost to the lowly New York Jets and the rebuilding Houston Texans. And with Derrick Henry out with a foot injury, it’s hard to envision Ryan Tannehill carrying the team to a title.
You can’t completely count out the Baltimore Ravens simply because of Lamar Jackson. But you can put them lower on power rankings due to their 18th-ranked scoring defense and up-and-down offense.
Overall, the Chiefs and the Patriots boast the most balance. The former also happens to possess perhaps the most dynamic player in the entire sport. And the latter has the greatest coach in NFL history leading the way.
So, even though the future didn’t look promising for Andy Reid and Bill Belichick in early October, they should be excited about what lies ahead. And if their teams continue to play well, they may face each other for the chance to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 56.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.