It is an exercise in nitpicking to point out any on-field flaws of the New England Patriots during their dynastic run with Bill Belichick as coach and Tom Brady as quarterback. They are, after all, playing in a remarkable eighth straight AFC championship game Sunday at Kansas City. They are seeking their ninth Super Bowl appearance and their sixth title of the Brady-Belichick partnership.
But there is one small thing: As great as they have been, the Patriots’ dynasty has not traveled well. The most dominant team of its era has not overwhelmed teams on the road in the postseason.
So, yes, Sunday’s task is formidable for the Patriots, as much because of the venue as the brilliance of a Chiefs offense led by second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the likely MVP.
“It’s a tough game,” Brady said during a midweek news conference. “It’s a tough challenge. It’s tough to beat the number one seed on the road. That’s the reality, just like we’re tough to beat at home when we’re the number one seed. It takes a lot.”
Their 41-28 triumph over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday at Gillette Stadium improved the Patriots’ postseason home record with Belichick and Brady to 20-3. But they are just 3-4 on the road over that span, and their last playoff road win came in January 2007.
There are other issues. The Patriots were 3-5 on the road during the regular season, compared with 8-0 at home. They also are returning to the site of one of the low points of Brady’s career. The Patriots last played in Kansas City early in the 2014 season. They lost, 41-14, in an ugly performance on “Monday Night Football,” and Brady failed to finish the game, being lifted in favor of backup Jimmy Garoppolo.
“I don’t think that game has anything to do with this one,” Belichick said at a news conference this week. “We’re going to get ready for Sunday.”
The Patriots looked unusually vulnerable entering the playoffs. Brady has had, at age 41, a good season. But he has not been the league MVP that he was last season at age 40. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has not been as unstoppable. Wide receiver issues that the Patriots experienced early in the season resurfaced when Josh Gordon, obtained in a mid-September trade with the Cleveland Browns, left the team and then was suspended indefinitely for violating the terms of his most recent reinstatement under the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
All of those concerns melted away when the Patriots rolled up 35 first-half points Sunday in their conference semifinal against the Chargers. Brady was as precise as ever; he finished with 343 passing yards. He had help from the running game: Sony Michel ran for 129 yards. Running back James White had 15 catches, and wideout Julian Edelman amassed 151 receiving yards. It was like the Patriots of old, not the old and creaky version.
But that was at home. So, too, was the Patriots’ regular season victory over the Chiefs, a 43-40 decision in Foxborough, Mass., in mid-October. Now the Patriots must bottle all of that and haul it to Kansas City.
Brady was quick to play the lack-of-respect card after beating the Chargers, saying in a postgame interview with CBS that “everyone thinks we suck and, you know, can’t win any games.” It’s probably a stretch for a five-time Super Bowl champion to take that approach. But the Patriots-vs.-the-world stance always has served Brady and Belichick well. Brady continued to embrace the underdog rule during the week.
“It just kind of shows you what people think about what our chances are,” he said. “That’s about it. No more added comment to that.”
The Chiefs were the league’s highest-scoring team during the regular season, but they ranked 31st in yards allowed. The defense played far better in Saturday’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts, but Brady and the rest of the New England offense will have to take full advantage if the Patriots are going to have a chance.
“It takes a lot of good football,” Brady said. “It takes a great complementary game. All three phases have to be on point . . . I think everybody at every position has to play well. That’s what championship games are all about. These aren’t just handed to you on a silver platter and here you go, here’s your trip to the Super Bowl. You’ve got to go fight them out.”
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