As the playoff picture unfolded last weekend it became apparent that Tom Brady and the Patriots would host the red hot Chiefs in Foxboro. In my Patriots article last week, I stated: “In a perfect world, The #6 Steelers will knock off the #3 Bengals resulting in a trip to Mile High Stadium. The #5 Chiefs should be able to defeat the #4 Texans who lack a postseason franchise quarterback to lead them deep into the playoffs.”
Luckily for the Patriots, they avoided hosting the Bengals due to the utter stupidity of their own defense. The Bengals had a defensive group that featured physical, dominant players like Vontaze Burfict, Adam Jones, AJ Hawk, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Rey Maualuga. On the offense side of the ball Cincinnati featured downfield threats like Tyler Eifert, and AJ Green. On the ground they had a formidable combination of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. The Steelers knocked them off in incredible fashion and Marvin Lewis would again lose in the playoffs.
If the Bengals had won the Patriots defense would have had their hands full due to their talent both on the ground and through the air. Instead the Patriots have the Chiefs in the divisional round. Some Patriots writers like Ben Volin of the Boston Globe stated that the “Chiefs are the worst possible opponent for Patriots”. Volin says, “The Chiefs are riding an 11-game winning streak following their 30-0 shutout over the Texans in the Wild-Card round, and have all the elements to give the Patriots a tough fight — a veteran quarterback who is careful with the football, a fast, aggressive defense that has a physical secondary and an overwhelming pass rush, and an experienced NFL coaching staff that won’t cower at the sight of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady on the opposite sideline.”
The Chiefs played the Patriots last season in an unforgettable 41-14 beat-down at Arrowhead Stadium. After the game former Ravens quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer would state: “The Patriots are simply not good anymore”. We know how the 2014 season ended and just how wrong Dilfer was. In any other sport the previous season’s drubbing would create a compelling argument against the Patriots overcoming the Chiefs. However, in football there is a significant difference from one season to another. Just ask the 49ers who went from one of the most powerful teams in the NFL in 2013 to not even making the playoffs in 2014. In 2015, San Francisco had their roster completely implode and they were one of the weakest teams in the NFL.
There is a considerable turnover season-to-season within professional football. The Patriots have the ability and coaching to look back upon their failure and highlight the mistakes they made in 2015. They also clearly have the upper hand to stop the Chiefs in Foxboro where New England went 7-1 in the 2015 regular season campaign. Arrowhead is undoubtedly one of the loudest and toughest places to play in all of the NFL; another factor that assuredly played an advantage in the Chiefs favor in 2014.
To be fair Volin does say: “That game was a long time ago, but many of the key faces on both sides are the same, and the Patriots have many of the same issues this time — a shaky offensive line, and a lack of continuity because of several key players battling through injuries.”
The lack of continuity has certainly hurt the Patriots down the stretch as they struggled toward the end of the season. The key players that have been battling through injuries have had the opportunity to heal their wounds during the bye week and return for the playoffs. Sebastian Vollmer, Julian Edelman, and Dont’a Hightower have all been cleared to practice and return for the Patriots. Danny Amendola, Josh Kline, Rob Ninkovich, Patrick Chung, and Devin McCourty should all be returning healthier and in better form than they were in week 17. Chandler Jones status remains up in the air for Chiefs game.
The Chiefs are a team that feature Alex Smith at quarterback. His reputation is good, but not great. He is more of a game manager than a standout franchise quarterback. With the injury to Jeremy Maclin their offense takes a huge hit. Maclin did not practice today due to his high ankle sprain. Usually this type of injury can take up to a month to heal. Some say that high ankle sprains are even more bothersome than breaking a bone. Maclin is unlikely to make a significant impact and return to form before the match-up this Saturday.
When the Chiefs destroyed the Patriots in 2014 they had one of the best running backs in the league: Jamaal Charles. Charles is out for the season and Kansas City now uses a combination of Knile Davis, Charcandrick West, and Spencer Ware. All three have had flashes of brilliance throughout 2015 but do not possess the same dynamic ability that Charles brings to the roster. With the Maclin injury, the Chiefs have Jason Avant, Albert Wilson, Chris Conley, and Frankie Hammond as their remaining wide receiver targets. Maclin led the team in receiving with 1088 yards and 8 TD’s. The four remaining receivers combined for a total of 769 yards and 3 TD’s behind Maclin; 319 yards behind their top wide receiver’s production alone.
Alex Smith’s top target against the Patriots is likely to be tight end Travis Kelce who totaled 875 yards and 5 TD’s in 2015. The Patriots defense is returning healthier key players like Ninkovich, Hightower, Chung, and McCourty. If Chandler Jones can play on Saturday the New England defense will almost be back to full strength. Alex Smith will only have one proven play-maker in Travis Kelce to test the Patriots downfield. Inside the box the Patriots will have Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Jerod Mayo to stop the run. The Chiefs will struggle to find offensive production/make big plays down field with their best offensive downfield target/limited out with a high ankle sprain. All the Patriots need to do is keep Alex Smith in the pocket with consistent pressure and keep Kelce contained so the Chiefs are forced to run or throw to their less talented wide receiving core.
On defense, The Chiefs have a great reputation. Volin states that the Chiefs have “a fast, aggressive defense that has a physical secondary and an overwhelming pass rush”. However, their best defensive player Justin Houston is hobbled by a knee injury that forced him off the field once or twice against the Texans. James Palmer of the NFL Network reports that Houston will play on the injured knee but may be limited against New England on Saturday. Houston’s injury is a significant blow to the Chiefs front.
It is no secret that the Patriots offense has stumbled heading into the postseason. However, it was not due to their lack of talent, effort, or coaching. The injuries mounted and the talent around Brady crumbled down the stretch with the loss of Edelman, Amendola, Gronkowski, Lewis, Solder, and Sebastian Vollmer. All of these players will return except for Solder and Lewis. Brady will have targets around him again that will reopen the playbook and make the offense productive right in time for the postseason. The Patriots have the ability to throw the ball downfield in a variety of ways to Edelman, Gronk, Amendola, LaFell, Chandler. They also have had James White step up in the absence of Dion Lewis. White has done an admirable job as their third down and passing running back. With Blount out for the season the Patriots signed veteran Steven Jackson to run in between the tackles.
The biggest concern for the Patriots this week and heading forward is the health of Sebastian Vollmer. He is their last remaining NFL caliber starting tackle. Solder is out for the season so their offensive line is undoubtedly weaker than desired at this point in the season. The interior of the offensive line has a lot of young talent unpolished talent that could be exposed by a veteran defensive front. As long as Vollmer can stay healthy, the Patriots should have the upper hand on the Chiefs defense with the return of almost all of their premier offensive skill players. The Patriots and Brady need to find ways to make up for the offensive line deficiencies by establishing a running game and getting the ball thrown quickly out of the pocket.
So I would disagree with Ben Volin and consider this to be a favorable matchup for the Patriots. The Chiefs do not have enough offensive talent to overcome the reinforced Patriots defense as their pivotal defensive players return. With the lack of downfield threat the Patriots should be able to focus on Kelce and keep him from having a big day. Brady should flourish with the return of healthier offensive targets. The Patriots are in for another memorable playoff result at Gillette Stadium and the Chiefs 11-game winning streak will come to a screeching halt.