CHIEFS AT PATRIOTS JAN. 16, 4:35 P.M. ET
THE CASE FOR
IF NEW ENGLAND GETS Julian Edelman (the receiver broke his left foot in Week 10), Sebastian Vollmer (tackle; ankle), Patrick Chung (safety; hip), Dont'a Hightower (linebacker; knee) and Chandler Jones (defensive end; toe) back at near-full strength, this is easily the AFC's Super Bowl 50 entrant. Even without Edelman (who's been cleared for Saturday), receiver Danny Amendola, linebacker Jamie Collins and, by the end, tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots were one muffed punt away from beating the Broncos in Denver. They ended up losing that game in overtime, the first of four losses in their last six outings—not exactly the final flourish we're used to seeing from Bill Belichick's teams. New England badly needs Edelman to be the same player he was before his injury, when he had 61 receptions in a 9--0 start. His knowledge of the offense and ability to beat man coverage made him the engine of the passing game: The Pats converted 50% of their third downs with him in the lineup, 29% without. Gronkowski, meanwhile, provides the horsepower, and New England appeared to modify his routes (more outside than over the middle) over the final month of the season, probably to keep him healthy for the playoffs. If both receiving threats are at peak performance, I don't see anyone stopping this offense. Defensively, the strength is in a tough front seven, mainly Hightower, Collins, Jones and Jabaal Sheard. But physical teams can run on them, and the league's top QBs will find success. Luckily for the Patriots, most of those reside in the NFC.
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Tom Brady. To win in Santa Clara (near his hometown) the QB would have to beat one of the NFL's best secondaries: All four NFC teams have a top-eight defensive passer rating.
THE ODDS OF KANSAS CITIANS being rewarded with a second world championship in one year? It's not impossible, but.... Consider: Quarterback Alex Smith would have to outplay Tom Brady (at Gillette Stadium), and then either Peyton Manning (in Denver) or Ben Roethlisberger, for the Chiefs to make their first Super Bowl appearance since 1970. Smith has a phenomenal postseason track record (10 TDs, one interception and a 107.0 passer rating); he even survived a 36--32 shootout against Drew Brees's Saints during the 2011 playoffs. But that win, just like his stellar outing in a '13 loss to the Colts, was against a terrible secondary. He won't have that luxury this postseason. If an opposing D keeps Smith from running and forces him to win from the pocket, the Chiefs aren't very explosive on O. If receiver Jeremy Maclin (sprained right ankle) is out, it becomes even tougher. Even then, the Chiefs can't be counted out because their defense (No. 3 with 17.9 points allowed, No. 5 with 29 takeaways, No. 4 with 47 sacks) will keep them in almost any game. K.C. boasts seven elite defenders: corners Sean Smith and Marcus Peters, outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, inside backer Derrick Johnson, nosetackle Dontari Poe and free safety Eric Berry. Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger—any of these guys will have to work to put up even 20 points against the Chiefs. Considering that defense, and the way the offense takes care of the ball (15 giveaways, second fewest in the NFL), they stand a chance in every game. It will be up to Alex Smith to put them over the top.
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Marcus Peters. With savvy Sean Smith on the other side, teams take their chances on the rookie CB—and they pay. Peters co-led the NFL with eight INTs.
GREG A. BEDARD RANKS 'EM:
TIMOTHY T. LUDWIG/USA TODAY SPORTS (EDELMAN)
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HOUSTON)
PETER AIKEN/GETTY IMAGES (PETERS)
STEPHAN SAVOIA/AP (BRADY)