There’s an argument to be made that Pat Mahomes was the most talented QB in Big 12 history. Not necessarily the best and certainly not the most accomplished, but probably the most talented and certainly in terms of pure throwing ability.
The Kansas City Chiefs embraced his abilities and the direction of football this season, essentially playing an Air Raid offense in which he threw for 5k yards with 50 TD passes and 12 INTs. Former B12 space weapon Tyreek Hill (5-10, 185 pounder from Oklahoma State) was also prominently involved with 87 catches for 1479 yards and 12 TDs while Travis Kelce (6-5, 260 pound TE) offered them a chain-mover with 103 catches for 1336 yards and 10 TDs.
They scored 35.3 ppg this season, putting them first in the NFL, and they ran a ton of four and five-wide spread sets where teams just couldn’t maintain matchups on Kelce and Hill that could hold up. Much like his Texas Tech defenses, the Chiefs’ defense was pretty useless and only allowed them to go 12-4 and ultimately go down in the AFC championship game.
Their opponent in the AFC championship game was of course the New England Patriots, led by undead QB Tom Brady and an aging cast of skill players such as their own speedy slot WR Julian Edelman (5-10, 198 converted QB from Kent State) and gorilla/TE Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 268 pounder from Arizona). This was a fascinating contest in large part because we got to see how the greatest football minds in football, Bill Belichik and Ernie Adams, attempted to address a team on the cutting edge of modern football.
The Patriots’ two-pronged plan
New England had a two-pronged approach to defending Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs. The first was their actual defensive strategy.
They matched the Chiefs’ speed with a lot of nickel and dime sub-packages. They regularly had five guys on the field that weighed less than 200 pounds in addition to 202 pound CB Stephen Gilmore and 215 pound safety Patrick Chung.
From there the Pats’ defensive plays were much more matchup oriented than formation-based. They kept 5-9, 190 pound Jonathan Jones (4.33 40 at the combine) on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce drew 6-1, 198 pound J.C. Jackson. Then rather than committing two-high safeties over the entire field, the Patriots leaned on longtime veteran Devin McCourty playing as the sole safety over the top but shading to different threats in different situations. It’s common to find the Patriots basically playing cover 2 man to one side of the field and then cover zero to the other side.
The Oklahoma Sooners employed some tricks of this variety against Texas in the Big 12 title game, a trick borrowed from Oklahoma State in their upset victory over the Longhorns. If offenses are going to go in extreme directions to create and hammer matchups, why play conventional coverages and sets?
Of course eventually the Chiefs figured things out. The keys were the remaining matchup advantages against the Patriot defense, RB vs LB. Of Mahomes 16 completions and 295 passing yards, the RBs were responsible for six catches, 87 yards, and two TDs with most of that coming from former Sooner Damien Williams. The Pats still tried to keep their LBs on the field and those guys are big, Kyle Van Noy checks in at 6-3, 250, Donta Hightower is 6-3, 260, and Elandon Roberts is the smallest at 6-0, 238.
Tyreek Hill had a single catch for 42 yards and Travis Kelce had three catches, although one was a TD where he escaped McCourty’s notice over the middle and beat Jackson on a slant. The other big producer was Sammy Watkins, producing four catches for 114 yards working on rub routes against New England’s lesser cover DBs and with less attention from McCourty.
It was amusing to hear Bill Simmons’ bewilderment in his excellent post game podcast about how New England outgained KC 524 yards to 290 yet needed some major Tom Brady heroics and a winning coin flip to pull the victory out in overtime. If you read this blog you understand or at least have been exposed to the idea that the modern passing game is just more efficient for producing points than the run game. It’s normal for a team like KC to be able to keep up simply because throwing the ball to guys in space is a more reliable way to get the football across the goal line than running it.
Of course the other prong of the Patriots’ defensive strategy was to control the ball on offense by pounding away with the run game and then relying on Brady heroics to make third down work out.
They ran 94 plays to the Chiefs’ 47 and that margin becomes 79-47 if you take out their kneel at the end of regulation and 13 plays in overtime. They held the ball for 43:59 minutes of game clock, 39:07 if you subtract the overtime possession. It’s been noted that this was useful for “wearing down the Chiefs’ defense” but it also seemed to wear down RB Sonny Michel, who got 19 first half carries for 75 yards and a score at 3.9 ypc and 10 in the second half for 38 yards, another score, and 3.8 ypc.
You know who definitely wore down in this game? The New England pass-rushers who had to chase Pat Mahomes and his receivers all day. The old adage that you pound away at an opponent and wear them down in the run game is much less valid than the idea that flinging the ball around will wear down a defense. Pass-rushing and chasing a QB eats up more energy than beating blocks to stop the run and then chasing down WRs in pursuit in the open field is another big energy killer.
Anyways, they were able to limit some of the potential damage from the Chiefs by playing keep away but ultimately that couldn’t save their defense from wearing down and yielding 31 points in regulation.
What ultimately beat the Chiefs was the Patriots’ own spread O
You know what’s almost as hard as stopping Pat Mahomes from hitting matchup weapons like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in space? Stopping Tom Brady from doing the same with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. The Patriots won this game by spreading the Chiefs out on third down and converting 13 of 19 of those.
Check out the Pats’ three third and 10 conversions in the overtime drive:
They’re in 11 personnel here but have Gronk and the RB chip the outside guys before releasing into routes and put their eggs in the dig-post combo that Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett are running.
The underneath defenders are sucked in by the threat of Gronk and the RB and they have to be, as Gronk is a monster and RB James White technically lead the Patriots in receptions this season.
They went back to the same play on the next third and 10 with the exact same result:
The Chiefs are in a two-deep coverage and they just can’t match up against Edelman’s inside release on the switch, inside route break on the dig, and then Brady’s placement and timing. The Pats are playing spread-iso ball here, flooding the field with receiving threats only to zero in on one particular target.
Here was the last conversion:
Still in 11 personnel but this time Gronkowski is isolated as the X receiver on the boundary with Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Dorsett to the other side of the field. The boundary safety doesn’t play cover 2 this time but sneaks down and is looking to rob Hogan’s route over the middle, which is exactly what Brady is expecting. He hits Gronk on the flat/slant combo that took down the legion of boom, first down at the 15. The Pats would run it in from there.
It’s not inconceivable that the Patriots could have won this game by embracing a shootout and trying to win 66-59. Ultimately it still came down to a shootout and which team could isolate their weapons and space and convert in the big moments. Fortunately for the Patriots, they could lean on the “Oklahoma solution” for holding back a Mahomes-led upstart team and simply out-execute the Chiefs down the stretch with their own offense executing the same sorts of spread tactics.