No divisional-round game touts more intrigue than Saturday's impending chess match between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
There's Kansas City head coach Andy Reid and his sudden ability to get his team to rattle off 11 consecutive wins while down Jamaal Charles (knee). Now, his team has to deal with Tom Brady, and there's a question mark around top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (ankle).
Then there's Brady, who had the Patriots on fire until the end of the regular season while working without top wideout Julian Edelman (foot), who may return Saturday. Great, but now there's a question mark around tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee).
Below, let's nail down some predictions about the encounter before crowning a projected winner in what looks like the most unpredictable matchup of the weekend.
When: Saturday, January 16, at 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts
Spread: New England (-5)
Chiefs Sputter on Offense
It's been quite a year for the Chiefs, with or without Charles in the backfield.
Quarterback Alex Smith needed only 20 touchdown passes to lead the team to its impressive record, though his value as a runner cannot go understated. He finished second on the team with 498 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.
Speaking of runners, the duo of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware helped keep the Chiefs afloat in the regular season:
Kansas City had leeway to operate at a conservative pace thanks to a disruptive defense that ranked third in the NFL after allowing just 17.9 points per game. The Chiefs defense also gave up only 98.2 rushing yards per game.
It's asking a lot for the Eric Berry-led defense to contain the Patriots, though, especially on the road.
This makes the job harder on Smith and the Chiefs, who will have to move the ball against a New England defense that quietly ranked 10th in the league, allowing 19.7 points per game. The Patriots also allowed only 98.8 rushing yards per game this year.
While much of the focus will be on Kansas City's pass rush, keep in mind that New England can get after quarterbacks at an elite clip, too. Led by Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks), the Patriots tallied 49 sacks in the regular season and will face a Chiefs offensive line that allowed 45.
Long story short, the Chiefs will have to try to move the ball on the road with a hobbled No. 1 wideout while possibly getting funneled into a predictable attack if the defense fails to uphold its end of the bargain. It's a recipe for disaster for a conservative offense.
Tom Brady Explodes
Brady sits in the MVP conversation for a reason.
Edelman played only nine games this year. Gronkowski missed one and battled nagging injuries. Yet Brady still completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 4,770 yards with 36 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while leading New England to 12 victories, the AFC East title and a first-round bye.
The elite defense helps, of course, but so does an unwavering confidence in whoever happens to take the field with him on offense.
"Whoever's out there we're going to have to have confidence in. There's no next week, so we're going to have to do everything you can do to be out on the field and help us win," Brady said, per ESPN.com.
Edelman might be back, though, which would be a huge boon for everyone. Despite missing a large patch of time, the man's 61 grabs for 692 yards and seven scores were second to only Gronkowski's 72 for 1,176 and 11.
Gronk's a bigger question mark after missing practice Thursday, but even if he misses the game in a shocking turn of events, New England can move the ball. Edelman can open up the field, pass-catching back James White can provide a big-play threat out of the backfield and folks seem to forget tight end Scott Chandler made a seamless transition to the first-team offense when necessary this year, catching four touchdowns on 23 receptions.
Kansas City can rush the passer, and the cornerback duo of veteran Sean Smith and stud rookie Marcus Peters is formidable. But Brady's quick-hitting plays will take the Chiefs pass rush out of the game and allow him to post gaudy numbers at home.
It's easy to dwell on the fact that New England lost two games to close the season, and Kansas City has won 11 in a row.
What gets lost, though, is that the Patriots appear to be getting healthier, while the Chiefs had to take the field last week and watch their top wideout leave the game with an injury.
A week of rest for Brady's weapons, not to mention an extra week of preparation for Brady, means a lot going into a game in Foxborough. The Chiefs will face a more difficult task Saturday than they did while thwarting Johnny Manziel, Jimmy Clausen and Brian Hoyer in recent weeks.
Look for the Patriots to pull away in the second half and never look back.
Prediction: Patriots win, 33-17.