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What the Patriots’ Rare Loss to the Chiefs Proves About the AFC Playoff Race

Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:20 PM
Jack Winter
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:20 PM
  • The Chiefs ended the Patriots’ record-long home winning streak.
  • New England is now 0-3 against teams at the top of the AFC.
  • With the Patriots mortal, the AFC, finally, is truly up for grabs.

The New England Patriots, it turns out, are mortal after all.

The reigning Super Bowl champions were beaten 23-16  by the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, their first loss at Gillette Stadium since 2017 – a streak ended after an NFL record-tying 21 games.

There’s been widespread criticism of officiating that hindered the Patriots, but it’s also undeniable that the Chiefs were in control throughout the contest. New England only had the chance for a late-game comeback due to Andy Reid’s debilitating penchant for conservative play-calling when his team is nursing a second-half lead.

The Patriots have represented the AFC in three consecutive Super Bowls. But after their storied home streak was finished by a longtime rival on Sunday, it’s abundantly clear the conference crown is truly up for grabs with the playoffs looming.

Three-Team Carousel…Without the Patriots

If the postseason began today, the Baltimore Ravens would be the top seed, followed by the Patriots, Chiefs, and Houston Texans. Despite its 10-3 record and long history of playoff supremacy, though, there’s growing reason to believe New England may belong a tier below those fellow Super Bowl hopefuls in the conference pecking order.

patriots, chiefs, afc playoff race
Source: Twitter 

All three of the Patriots losses are attributed to Baltimore, Kansas City, and Houston. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens made a statement with a 37-20 victory over New England last month, and the Texans beat the Patriots a week before the Chiefs coaxed boos from fans at Gillette.

The main similarity between those three foes: Superstar play at quarterback. Tom Brady has earned that distinction for well over a decade, but he and his unenviable corps of receivers have been average at best all season long.

Will Brady be able to go toe-to-toe with Jackson, Mahomes, or Watson when it matters most? The most recent evidence indicates otherwise, leaving the Patriots without the playoff trump card they’ve long relied on most.

Another Test Looms for New England

bill belichick, patriots
Bill Belichick and the Patriots face another big test soon. | Source: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images/AFP

The Patriots’ biggest likely edge in the postseason, other than Belichick, remains their home field. They’ll play at least one game in Foxborough if they win out, and have an outside shot at hosting the conference title game.

But New England is hardly assured of playing a postseason game from the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium, much less receiving a first-round bye.

Bookended by next week’s matchup with the one-win Cincinnati Bengals and a season finale against the 3-10 Miami Dolphins is a rematch with the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 21. The 9-4 Bills put a major scare into the Patriots in September, falling 16-10 only after starting quarterback Josh Allen was knocked from the game  by a helmet-to-helmet hit.

New England could very well be jumped in the playoff standings if it falls to Buffalo. And without a bye in the first round and the comfort of home field thereafter, the Patriots will be absent yet another advantage they’ve used on the road to the Super Bowl each of the last three seasons.

Chiefs Prove the AFC Is Finally Wide Open

Of course, it would be remiss to write off New England no matter how the playoff bracket shakes out.

The Patriots’ defense has been dominant despite the team’s recent struggles. They allowed just three points to the Chiefs after halftime, and have yielded 6.3 points in the second half over the past five games – an especially impressive feat considering the competition.

new england patriots defense
Source: Twitter 

No coach better prepares for opponents than Belichick. He’s routinely found new avenues to exploit the opposition under the postseason microscope.

No one is leaving New England for dead. But a home loss further cements the Patriots’ mortality, and Jackson, Mahomes, and Watson have already proven capable of beating them.

Buckle up for the AFC playoffs. With New England finally falling back to the field, they could be more epic than ever.