KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It seems football fans everywhere are suddenly on the Chiefs’ bandwagon, enthralled by Kansas City’s record-setting young quarterback and exciting playmakers and hopeful the amiable coach can finally win the big one.
Then again, maybe they’re just fans of anybody facing New England.
The Patriots have dominated the AFC for nearly two decades, and the coach-quarterback combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will be playing in an eighth consecutive conference title game tonight when New England visits the Chiefs at frigid, hostile Arrowhead Stadium.
But whereas Brady & Co. once instilled awe in their opponents, the Chiefs view their showdown as an opportunity for Patrick Mahomes to take the baton as the league’s best quarterback and for Kansas City, seeking its first Super Bowl appearance in 49 years, to surpass the Patriots as the NFL’s “it” team.
“It’ll be huge,” Mahomes said. “When I got here, the goal was to win the AFC championship and get to the Super Bowl, and win that. To do that early in my career, it would be a huge thing.”
There aren’t two more dichotomous teams than the Patriots and Chiefs.
New England has won five Super Bowls during the Belichick-Brady era, setting all kinds of records along the way. The cruel efficiency with which the Patriots have sliced up the AFC has made them the bane of fans everywhere but New England and given them the kind of unbeatable aura that accompanied the New York Yankees teams of Derek Jeter and the Chicago Bulls teams of Michael Jordan.
It’s not just petty jealousy, though. Many fans have been turned off by Deflategate, Spygate and other instances over the years that have saddled the Patriots with a rather unsavory reputation.
Brady has mostly shrugged it off. So has Belichick, who almost seems to embrace the villain role.
“I don’t think about it too much, what people might say or think,” said Brady, whose team is a rare playoff underdog tonight. “I know we’re playing against a very good football team. They’re the first seed for a reason. They’ve had a great season and we’re going to have to go into a really tough environment and play our best football, and it’s a great opportunity for us.”
On the flip side are the Chiefs, a team that dominated the AFC throughout the 1990s but reached only one conference title game. They were the league’s worst franchise six years ago, when Andy Reid came aboard, but have become a perennial playoff team that was always missing that certain something.
They found it when they drafted Mahomes nearly two years ago.
The quarterback shattered just about every franchise passing record in his first season as a starter, and his down-home style has made him a fan favorite. Kids dressed up like him for Halloween, his curly Mohawk has become the trend at local barbershops, and the aw-shucks way Mahomes has embraced his stunning success has only made him more endearing.
“I think he’s a great player on a great team that’s very well-coached,” Belichick said. “They have a great scheme and a great system. He’s got a ton of weapons, so he’ll be tough to handle, as will their entire offense, as will their entire team. We’ll need our best game.”
As the Patriots (12-5) try to advance to their third consecutive Super Bowl, something only two other franchises have accomplished, and the Chiefs (13-4) try to make it for the first time since winning the title in 1970, here are some things to know:
The Patriots beat the Chiefs in a 43-40 shootout in Week 6, but both teams are different these days. The Patriots lost wide receiver Josh Gordon to personal issues, and the Chiefs waived Kareem Hunt because of off-the-field trouble. Kansas City also is poised to have linebacker Justin Houston and star safety Eric Berry back from injuries.
“I mean, that was Week 6. That was a long time ago,” Patriots safety Patrick Chung said. “We can’t really worry about that. They’re a better team and they’re on a roll. It’s the two best teams in the AFC, so you can’t really worry about, ‘Well, we beat you guys last, so we’re going to win.’ If we have that mentality, we’ll get kicked — they’ll kick our a—, pretty much.”
Brady and Mahomes get plenty of attention, but they don’t do it alone. Pats running back James White tied Darren Sproles’ postseason record with 15 catches in their 41-28 divisional victory over the Chargers, while Sony Michel has become a breakout star and Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman remain dangerous downfield threats.
The Chiefs counter with running back Damien Williams and the pass-catching trio of All-Pro speedster Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and sure-handed tight end Travis Kelce.
New England hasn’t lost at home since early last season, but it’s been a struggle away from Gillette Stadium. The Patriots were 3-5 on the road this season, their worst mark since 2009, and lost back-to-back games in Miami and Pittsburgh in December. They haven’t won a postseason game on the road since 2006, and away teams have lost 10 consecutive conference championship games.
“I don’t get caught up in all that,” Reid said this week. “They’re a heck of a team. I mentioned that before, if you’re talking about a dynasty in the National Football League, they’re that.”
The Chiefs were founded by Lamar Hunt, the namesake of the Lamar Hunt Trophy awarded to the AFC champion. But they will be hosting the AFC title game for the first time after ending a 25-year drought in divisional playoff games last week against Indianapolis. They are 8-1 at home this season with their lone loss coming on a last-second 2-point conversion by the Los Angeles Chargers.
“You know it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere there,” Gronkowski said. “I’ve been there in the regular season and it felt like a playoff atmosphere. So I just can’t imagine what it’s going to be like going into a stadium like this.”
While snow was expected Saturday, the forecast for frigid temperatures today has improved a bit and it could be in the 20s much of the game. There will also be a “super blood wolf moon” later in the night, a rare total lunar eclipse in which the moon turns a rusty shade of red.
“There’s not really much you can do with the cold,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “I think Trey (Flowers) and Bill said it best, give us a ball and a field and we’ll be there.”