Sunday, January 17, 2016

Patriots Beat Chiefs 27-20

The Patriots started the playoffs with a rousing 27-20 win over the Chiefs in Foxboro yesterday. The win puts the Pats in the AFC Championship Game; the opponent next week depends on the outcome of the Steelers/Broncos game tonight. The Patriots will either host the Steelers in Foxboro or go on the road to play the Broncos in Denver.

The game yesterday went about as expected. With most of the Patriots healthy, and Kansas City missing their best receiving threat, the Pats started fast, leading 14-6 at the half. They turned the ball over from Kansas City on the first drive of the second half, and before you knew it, it was 21-6.

From there, they played the slow-down game on defense, keeping multiple scores ahead most of the time, and the Chiefs ran out of time. Although that was partially their own fault; head coach Andy Reid reverted to form with terrible clock management, aided and abetted by his QB, who huddled after most every play with the clock running down.

The secondary did a great job of keeping very tight coverage. It wasn't perfect. Starters Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler, along with nickel back Justin Coleman, all had some terrific plays and coverage, and all made some boneheaded plays that gave up completions. But they were doing something right, holding Chiefs QB Alex Smith to his lowest yards-per-completion (4.9) of the season and second-lowest completion percentage (58%) during their recent winning streak.

More than a few times we at the stadium marveled that there were simply no KC receiver with more than a yard of separation. Mind you, this is part of the Chiefs' DNA. Patriots QB Tom Brady would have thrown into those tight windows. But Kansas City has less faith in their receivers to battle for the ball, so they often throw the ball away when it's a close call.

Ryan and safety Patrick Chung led the team with 9 tackles a piece, and Chung did a nice job holding KC tight end Travis Kelce to just 3.8 yards per catch, the lowest number of Kelce's entire career. Safety Devin McCourty was mostly used near the line as a cornerback, which tells me the Patriots don't trust their corners after Coleman. That put Duron Harmon in centerfield to protect against long passes, which he mostly did a good job on (despite a few hiccups).

The linebacking corps held up well, overcoming injuries that knocked all three starters out at different points in the game. Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo left in the third quarter and did not return. Dont'a Hightower was in-and-out during the game, and he stood out, with six tackles and a big fumble recovery. Jonathan Freeney played surprisingly well filling in, and Dekoda Watson (#52 on your scoresheet) was up-and-down but made a few plays, too.

On the defensive line, Chandler Jones had an excellent game, notching four tackles, one sack, a QB hit, and a huge forced fumble. The younger players seemed unsteady in the big game. Both Malcom Brown and Aikeem Hicks weren't as active as they'd been recently. As a result, KC ran the ball better than expected, averaging 4.2 ypc and totaling 135 yards on the day. Fortunately they fell behind, and thus had to abandon the run midway through the third quarter.

Quarterback Tom Brady was in complete control of the game from the start. He had only two or three bad throws, and without some dropped passes he would have topped 70% completions. With a more complete portfolio of receivers, he released the ball quickly and hit receivers in stride. One of his best throws of the night was a pump-and-go on the second touchdown to tight end Rob Gronkowski. The timing of those two was on display on that play and many others.

The receivers were outstanding. Gronkowski finished with 7 catches for 83 yards and 2 TDs, and receiver Julian Edelman returned with 10 catches for 100 yards, and five first downs. It wasn't perfect for Edelman; he had a least two drops, but the rust should come off as the games progress. Keshawn Martin was the biggest receiving surprise. He had only two catches, but both were for big first downs on scoring drives.

Running back James White had more receiving yards (39) than the entire team had rushing (38). In other words, if the Patriots plan to go further in the playoffs, it'll be on the arm of Brady and the route-running of the receivers, not on the running game. The backs should play based on how well they block and can be used in the passing game, because there is no running to be had by New England right now.

The offensive line did play better with the return of tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Still not great, but with the receivers getting quick separation, the O-line didn't have to protect for very long.  Brady wasn't sacked but that was mostly due to the quick-release, so don't be fooled.

Special Teams had one bad penalty when Nate Ebner was offside on a kickoff. It's only a five-yarder, but on the re-kick the Chiefs picked up 14 total yards, and got a field goal just before the end of the first half. It didn't cost them this time, but that combined with Danny Amendola's penalty shows there are still some issues on special teams.

Also, punter Ryan Allen didn't live up to his usual standards. His 26.3 net average is the second worst of his career, and he had no punts downed inside the 20 yard line. His kicks were uncharacteristically low, which allowed decent returns by the Chiefs. Hoping it was an anomaly, not a new normal.

The Patriots coaches had an excellent game plan to start the game. And once they got ahead, they let the Chiefs try to come back with their history of poor clock management and no deep threat. Although they did have some poor clock management themselves, running off just 60-seconds of clock time mid-fourth quarter, when they should have run off at least 2:15.

My other complaint with the coaching was that both of their replay-challenges were ill-conceived. On the first one, they had the ball first-and-goal at the half-yard line, so their chances of scoring in any event were excellent. (And in fact, they scored on the first play after the challenge was denied.)

The second challenge was on a non-catch over the middle that the Patriots wanted reversed to a catch-and-fumble by the Chiefs. But the replays were pretty clear that the play was an immediate hit, which is not ruled a catch in today's NFL. The coaches have to be smarter with those challenges; they won't always be playing against ultra-conservative coaches with lesser offensive weapons.

So where does that leave us? Awaiting the result tonight, I guess. Hoping for a Steelers win, but the undermanned Pittsburghers won't have it easy in Denver, without their best receiver, best running back, and an injured quarterback. You can always hope; but no matter the outcome, Brady will be in his tenth AFC Championship Game.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In the 2015 regular season, the Patriots converted 50% of their third downs when Edelman was on the field, but only 33% when he wasn't in the game. With his return yesterday, they converted exactly 50% again.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Julian Edelman for the reason stated in the Statistical Oddity. He's the motor that makes this offense go, and even if Gronkowski scores more points, without Edelman, there aren't enough first-downs to get to the end zone.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Once it was clear the Pats receivers were okay, this game was always going to be a win. KC just doesn't have the weapons to keep up."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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