Offensive, defensive and special teams keys for the Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) in Saturday’s divisional round game in the AFC playoffs against the New England Patriots (12-4) starting at 3:35 p.m. CT at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Ma.
Offensively, the Chiefs have not been running on all cylinders over the last month-plus. They’ve had just enough production to not lose games; they’ve struggled at times to win games with the offense.
Now, it appears their most potent offensive force is highly questionable to play, as wide receiver Jeremy Maclin dealing with an ankle injury. Even if he does get on the field, it’s unlikely he’ll be anywhere close to the playing level he was before suffering his sprained right ankle.
There’s no mystery to what the Chiefs must do against a New England defense that finished the regular season among the top 10 units in the league, giving up 339.4 yards per game.
This is the ultimate football chess match between Andy Reid and Doug Pederson taking on Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia. Both sides will have something new designed just for their opponent. It then becomes a question of countermoves for the coaches.
The players have to produce when given a chance. Last Saturday, the Chiefs lost some 120 offensive yards when Alex Smith was a foot away from connecting with Albert Wilson on a big-play pass. Then, they lost Smith’s 64-yard run when Wilson was called for holding. Against the Patriots, they need to be sharper in execution. The higher the stakes, the performance has to go up to match. That type of play has been sporadic from Smith and his offensive mates.
Always, the game will be decided along the line of scrimmage and the Chiefs offensive line – however it is constituted for this game – must be better. New England finished No. 9 in rushing yards allowed at 98.8 yards per game. On the pass rush, the Patriots were No. 2 in the league for sacks per pass play and that will put the spotlight on tackles Eric Fisher and Donald Stephenson.
Pass rushing defensive ends Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich are all similar in size and skills coming off the edge. Fisher and Stephenson need to make sure they are not beaten to the inside, rather they must take their rushers outside, opening up an avenue for Smith to run if the pocket collapses. Smith’s feet will be as important for the Chiefs chances of victory as his arm.
No turnovers, no big penalties, decent pass protection and balance between run and pass has been the Chiefs formula in the last 11 games. It must continue if they are to win No. 12.
That the Patriots remain a division winner and are successful offensively is a credit to one man: quarterback Tom Brady. It seems every year, injuries take away a handful of Brady’s best options as runners and receivers. And, every season, Brady somehow comes out and posts numbers that are among the league best.
At 38 years of age, Brady has two enduring strengths: his intelligence and his competitive nature. Growing older has not dimmed Brady’s desire to win; it’s what he does. In his NFL career he has led the Pats to 172 regular season victories and 21 in the playoffs.
Dealing with Brady’s smarts and experience are tough for opposing defenses. Chiefs coordinator Bob Sutton said it best this week when he noted that there weren’t a lot of schemes they could put on the field that would surprise Brady. Opposing defenses now try to attack his weapons, which again have been diminished by injury. New England was No. 30 in rushing yards in the 2015 season, gaining 87.8 yards per game. The Pats most productive runners – LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis – are both on injured reserve. Alex Smith with his 498 yards would be New England’s second most productive runner.
Julian Edelman is expected back in the Patriots offense after missing seven games due to a foot injury. There’s no question he will be rusty and the nature of his injury puts into question how many snaps he gets.
The offensive weapon for Brady is tight end Rob Gronkowski, with 72 catches, 1,176 yards and 11 touchdown receptions this season. Opposing tight ends have not damaged the Kansas City defense; in 17 games, they caught 67 passes for 672 yards and 3 TD receptions.
That averages out to 4 catches for 40 yards per game. In their 11-game winning streak, the Chiefs have given up just one TD catch to a tight end. Brady will look for Gronkowski, and while the Chiefs defense won’t be able to shut him down, they need to make sure he does not get loose for big yardage after the catch.
In their wildcard game victory over Houston, the Chiefs kicking game was a big factor in the outcome, starting with the 106-yard kickoff return touchdown from Knile Davis, to the kicking of Cairo Santos and punting of Dustin Colquitt.
K.C. won the field-position game thanks to their special teams. They must do that again against the Patriots.
New England’s most productive players on special teams are kicker Stephen Gostkowski and blocker/coverage man Matt Slater. Gostkowski hit 91.7 percent of his field-goal attempts (33 of 36), all 52 of his PAT kicks and finished with 69 touchbacks on kickoffs, tied for the most in the league.
The Patriots return game has not produced during the season as their longest play among six punt returners went for 82 yards, but the other 46 punt returns went for no more than 21 yards. New England’s most successful kick return among six players was 75 yards, but no touchdowns.
There always needs to be something extra for a team to win a game in the playoffs when they are on the road with Davis’ return last Saturday an example. The Chiefs will need another point-producing play to pick up a victory in Foxboro.