The Patriots are in for their toughest battle yet come Sunday as they welcome in the Kansas City Chiefs, arguably the best team in football through the first five weeks of the 2018 NFL season. The Chiefs are riding high on the backs of second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes and their high powered offense, and have jumped out to a hot start with key wins over the Charger, Steelers, and Jaguars.
The Chiefs had a busy offseason, with key signings like receiver Sammy Watkins and defensive tackle Xavier Williams. The roster also saw significant turnover with the departures of players including Darrelle Revis, Tamba Hali, Zach Fulton, Derrick Johnson, and Terrance Mitchell. Their biggest offseason move, however, was trading quarterback Alex Smith to the Redskins for a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller, who was one of the better cornerbacks in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus. On top of getting a ridiculous return for a game manager-type quarterback, the move also paved the way for Mahomes to step up to the plate and take control of the starting role.
The Chiefs have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, with a ridiculous group of playmakers that includes Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley, Sammy Watkins, and Travis Kelce. They also have an impressive offensive line led by Eric Fisher and Cam Erving. Through five games this season the Chiefs are averaging the second most points per game at 35 and the fifth most yards per game at 413. They have done this with a strong balance of running and passing the ball. They rank in the top 12 of the league in both passing and rushing yards per game. Their success on the ground comes on the legs of Hunt, who is averaging 4.0 yards-per-carry in his second NFL season. The passing game has been led by Hill and Kelce, each of whom has nearly 40 receptions and over 400 receiving yards. Patrick Mahomes has been a revelation for the Chiefs, totaling 1513 passing yards, 14 passing touchdowns, and just two interceptions to go along with a 63% completion percentage through the first five weeks of 2018. He has also added 66 yards of his own on the ground, highlighting his ability to move out of the pocket. Mahomes' most impressive skill so far has been his ability to roll out and make plays on the move. He has been able to keep his eyes downfield and make difficult throws thanks to a cannon for an arm. This has also helped highlight the best talent of the Chief's skill players: the ability to exploit a broken play. Kansas City has arguably the best group of pure athletes in the NFL. When a play breaks down and Mahomes scrambles, the Chief receivers and tight ends have a potent ability to find open space and give Mahomes a target, making their offense extremely difficult to stop. This is evident by their nearly 46% third down percentage.
The Chiefs defense, on the other hand, has been dismal overall. This isn't exactly unexpected considering the number of players that departed in the offseason. However, with stars such as Justin Houston and Eric Berry still leading the team, it's a surprise that they have struggled so much this season. They are currently dead last in the league in total yards per game given up, second last in passing yards per game, 24th in the league in rushing yards per game, and 20th in points per game. Their best accomplishment is holding opponents to the second-lowest third down completion percentage in the league. Despite their struggles, the Chief's defense is not a pushover and has been improving each game. They still have significant talents scattered about, such as Berry, Houston, Kendall Fuller, Reggie Ragland, and Dee Ford. They are also in the top half of the league in takeaways per game, highlighting their aggressiveness and ball-hawk ability. They are a unit that is improving as players become more comfortable, and could pose a serious threat as the season progresses.
As mentioned, the Chiefs defense is not as bad as the numbers may make them seem. The Patriots will need to have a controlled and balanced game plan if they want to put points on the board. In addition, the Patriots offense will have to employ a strategy that opposing teams usually try to implement against them: running the ball and maintaining long drives to keep the opposing offense off the field.
Establishing a strong rushing attack from the opening drive will be crucial for the Patriots. Getting Sony Michel in a rhythm early will be important in wearing Kansas City down and controlling the clock. Fans can expect to see a lot of James Develin early, as the fullback has been vital in the success of the Patriots rushing game so far. His blocks at the second level have cleared huge wholes for Michel and James White. Michel is also finally through his "preseason" after playing in his fourth NFL game last Thursday. His success over the past two weeks should continue and even increase as he becomes a more important part of the Patriots offense.
The Patriots passing offense will also play a huge role in the teams' potential success. Tom Brady is coming off of his best game of the season; despite the stat sheet showing two interceptions (neither were his fault), Brady played flawlessly and looked to be in MVP form once again. He should be able to continue that this week against a Chiefs secondary that is giving up nearly 350 passing yards per game. The Patriots threw for over 340 yards last week against a Colts defense that is (slightly) better than Kansas City's against the pass. Julian Edelman will likely see a high number of targets as he continues to work back into the Patriots offense. He has advantages over the Chiefs linebackers in both speed and agility and should be able to find open spots consistently. Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett should also both be more involved, as the attention paid to Edelman and Rob Gronkowski will give them favorable matchups.
Gronkowski may be subject to another quiet game. Eric Berry is one of the best cover safeties in the NFL and has been successful in man coverage on Gronk in the past. The Patriots will do things to get their star tight end open, but Berry should keep him from having a breakout game. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as that will keep the Chiefs best defender distracted.
The biggest key for the Patriots offense is getting James White and even Sony Michel involved in the passing game. The Chiefs have been horrendous at covering running backs in the passing game. They gave up eight receptions and 69 yards to TJ Yeldon, five receptions and 48 yards to James Conner, and nine receptions and 102 yards to Melvin Gordon. None of these running backs compare to White's ability in the passing game. He should be able to have a huge day on Sunday, and will likely be force fed the ball by Brady. If the Chiefs design a plan to cover him, it'll likely open up opportunities for the rest of the Patriots receivers.
Facing the Chiefs offense will be the biggest challenge of the season for the Patriots defense. Kansas City outmatches them with speed and skill and has a balanced attack that prevents the team from overplaying either. They also have an extremely adept mobile quarterback, something that has seemingly been a fatal flaw for the Patriots over the past few seasons.
The Patriots front seven is going to have a difficult job. Containing Mahomes will be the most important task that they will be asked to do in the entire regular season. The athleticism of the Chiefs skill players means that if the Patriots defensive line allows Mahomes to scramble, then Kansas City will be able to break coverage and make easy plays for huge chunks of yardage. New England was successful in keeping Deshaun Watson contained in the pocket in week one, but hasn't been able to match that performance since. Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, Trey Flowers, and Kyle Van Noy will have arguably the most important jobs on the defense, as they will need to make sure that they do not over-pursue and allow Mahomes to sneak out of the pocket.
They will also have to deal with Kareem Hunt, who has proven to be one of the most dynamic runners in the game. He has a lethal combination of strength and speed and could give New England fits if their interior defensive line cannot establish control early. This is a game where Danny Shelton and Malcolm Brown need to prove why they were drafted in the first round. In addition, Adam Butler could play a huge role in the middle of the line. He has excelled recently in pass rush, run stoppage, and screen recognition, and could be a huge factor on Sunday night.
Dont'a Hightower is also a key player in this game. He is supposed to be one of the team's best players but has not lived up to it so far. He is on pace for 38 tackles this season, which would be good for the second lowest number of his career. While he does have two sacks, they have not been game changers. Hightower has been relatively invisible over the first five games, and the team needs more out of him.
The Patriots secondary is going to be tasked with their hardest matchup of the season. They do not have anyone who can consistently man-up on Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce for four quarters. To defeat Miami two weeks ago, the Patriots spent much of the game with five, six, or even seven defensive backs on the field. They will likely need to employ a similar strategy to keep the Chiefs in check. The return of Eric Rowe would be crucial, as it would add depth at cornerback. Preventing the big play will be easy; they have consistently been doing that for seasons. However it is the crossing routes and broken plays that could be their downfall, and they will need to play as tight of coverage as possible.
The biggest challenge for the Patriots defense is going to be their lack of speed trying to keep up with the Chief's abundance of speed. Zone coverages, bump and run man coverage underneath, and good tackling will all be crucial in limiting the Chiefs offense.
This will be an extremely difficult game for New England. However, they have had a week and a half to prepare, and have had a month of game film to study. The Chiefs are not infallible and have played in a few close games this season. This feels like it could be a trap game for Kansas City, as what has happened for the past two decades is that many teams come into Foxboro riding high and leave disappointed. The Patriots are by no means guaranteed to win. However, this seems like a matchup that, despite having physical disadvantages, is able to be schemed to victory.
New England 27 Kansas City 24
Until next time - B$