When the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots kick off their Divisional Round playoff game Saturday at 3:35 p.m. CT, Chiefs fans will finally get the match-up that their fans have wanted for three seasons. Or ever since former Patriots exec, Scott Pioli, crashed and burned the KC franchise by bringing “the Patriots Way” to the Midwest during his disastrous four-year stint as the Chiefs general manager.
A 41-14 drubbing of the Pats last season on Monday Night Football was a nice appetizer, but ending the Patriots reign as the current Super Bowl champions in Foxboro on their home field would be equivalent to the best Kansas City steak with all the trimmings, or a heaping plate of the world’s best BBQ from right here in town. But first, in order for the Chiefs to win their 12th consecutive game, they will have to beat one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, #12 for the Pats, Tom Brady.
While the Chiefs were blowing out the Houston Texans last week, 30-0, the Patriots got a bye that gave them a week to recover from their myriad of injuries. Friday’s injury report that the Pats filed with the league had a whopping 17 players on the list and 12 of them are listed as “Questionable”, which means they only have a 50/50 chance of playing in the game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee, back) and wide receiver Julian Edelman (foot) are both questionable but are expected to play. Even Brady was on the list with an ankle injury he suffered against the Miami Dolphins in Week 17. Unfortunately for KC, he is listed as “Probable” which means he is almost certain to play.
In contrast, the Chiefs had twelve players listed in total with only offensive linemen Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mitch Morse as “Out” with concussions. They have five players listed as “Questionable” – Tamba Hali (knee, thumb), Jeremy Maclin (ankle), Justin Houston (knee), Spencer Ware (ankle), and Albert Wilson (hamstring) – and five listed as “Probable”.
Of course, with this being the playoffs, the chances of seeing most, if not all, of the questionable players on the field Saturday are excellent. For whichever team loses, there’s a solid seven months for players to recover before training camp starts next summer.
Beating the Patriots at home in the playoffs will certainly be difficult, but not impossible. With all the injuries they have, this might be one of the best times to play them. Here is a look at five keys to the game that could give the Chiefs an excellent shot at upsetting the Champs:
1. Respect, but don’t fear. Yes, the Patriots are the most successful team in the NFL over the last 15 years led by one of the league’s all-time best coaches and a top-five all-time quarterback. However, this is basically the same team that the Chiefs destroyed last season, so Kansas City KNOWS without doubt that they can beat this team and beat them soundly. Chiefs coach Andy Reid – and especially defensive coordinator Bob Sutton who played the Pats twice a year every season when he was with the NY Jets – will have this team focused on playing their game and not getting sucked into playing the Patriots game. To win eleven games in a row in the NFL is outstanding no matter how easy or hard your schedule is. At worst, the Chiefs are mentally equal to the Pats and at best, it’s New England who might be questioning themselves after losing four of their last six games and remembering the beatdown from last year.
2. Don’t count on turnovers to win. The Chiefs have been cosmically good at forcing turnovers this season (fifth in the league with 29) and have often given their offense short fields to navigate when the defense isn’t scoring themselves. Unfortunately, the Patriots and Brady lead the league in fewest giveaways (14) so the Chiefs cannot hope to get more than one or two turnovers at the most. That means the offense will have to put together longer drives to score. Luckily, the Chiefs were second in the league in fewest turnovers with 15, so the odds are the turnover battle will be a wash.
3. The Chiefs need to crowd the Patriots receivers at the line of scrimmage. The Pats don’t even pretend to try and run the ball, preferring Brady to air it out 50 times to move the ball with the short passing game. The Pats offense is based on timing and Brady’s ability to get rid of the ball in two seconds or less. The best way to disrupt that timing is to 1) get in Brady’s face with pressure, and 2) bump his receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt that timing. If the Chiefs bigger cornerbacks and safeties can buy the pass rush an extra second or two by bumping receivers off their routes, the Chiefs pass rush has a much greater chance of hitting Brady, which upsets his wife, Giselle and the Patriot Nation to no end. Remember, after the game at Arrowhead, there was a huge groundswell of opinions that Brady was finished as a QB and the Pats needed to bench him. That was a little premature as evidenced by the Super Bowl trophy Brady was lifting over his head last season, but there is no reason the Chiefs can’t punish him again.
4. Special teams needs to set up long fields for the Patriots, short ones for KC. With their sparkling performance in the Houston win last week, the Chiefs special teams unit got one of the highest grades that any S/T unit received in 2015 from Football Outsiders. Unfortunately, the Chiefs aren’t playing the Texans and their terrible special teams this week. They are playing a team in the Patriots that performs just as well as the Chiefs do. While a touchdown return like Knile Davis got last week is game-changing, the Chiefs cannot count on getting another one this week. However, what they CAN do is play a smart game and make solid, fundamental plays each and every time. If the worst they do is play equal to New England on special teams, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
And guys … if you’re ever planning on having a game where you don’t get any stupid holding or blocking in the back penalties on kick returns, this would be the time to do it. Because you never know … since taking over for the injured De’Anthony Thomas on punt returns, Frankie Hammond has had just about every fantastic potential game-changing kick return of his called back by penalty this year, so maybe this is HIS week to find the end zone?
5. The run game will be the key for the Chiefs. In three of their four losses, the Pats defense gave up 546 yards rushing combined to Denver, the Jets, and the Eagles, who all rushed for more than 125 yards each. It’s up to Charcandrick West and (hopefully) a healthy Spencer Ware (ankle) to pile up some yards on the ground this week. A lot of yards. The added benefit of the Chiefs getting their ground game going is that it leaves the 38-year old Brady standing on the sidelines getting cold with those creaky old bones starting to stiffen. The Chiefs carry the sixth-ranked rushing offense into the game (better than those other three teams that beat the Pats) and they showed last year that they know how to run against Bill Belichick’s defense. In that Monday night game last season, KC gouged the Pats for 207 yards on the ground even when New England knew they were trying to run out the clock in the second half. West and Ware need to combine for 130+ yards and whatever Alex Smith can do on the ground is just gravy.
Bottom Line: If your Chiefs Examiner was putting his own money down on this game with a bet (for entertainment purposes only, of course) he would go with the Patriots to win just because that is what they usually do. However, even the objective journalist in me believes the Chiefs have the worst match-ups across the board for New England to handle and I believe the defense won’t let Gronkowski or Edelman run wild. I see this magical 11-game run KC has been on continuing for one more week. The Chiefs get in Brady’s face and keep the Pats under their normal scoring output and win a close one.
Chiefs – 23, Patriots – 17