Friday, January 15, 2016

Playoff Preview: Chiefs at Patriots

The Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs this Saturday, and if you are a regular reader, you know I think that is the toughest possible team for the Patriots to face in this year's playoffs (link). Not that any team is unbeatable, but Kansas City poses specific problems that exploit weaknesses on the Patriots.

The last time they played was at Arrowhead Stadium in KC, and you'll probably recall the Chiefs thrashed the Patriots 41-14. If you don't remember the game, maybe these post-game quotes will remind you:
  • "The Patriots just aren't good any more." (Trent Dilfer, ESPN)
  • "[Jimmy Garappolo] could start sooner rather than later." (Chris Mortensen, ESPN)
  • "Less than a month ago Brady said 'when I suck, I'll retire.' If he's true to his word he'll walk away tomorrow." (Will Brinson, CBS Sports)
  • "I don't believe this group is ever going to play in another Super Bowl." (Mike Lupica, New York Daily News)
  • "Their failure was so complete, so embarrassing, that it's hard to see any way they'll win more games than they lose." (Ty Schalter, Bleacher Report)
  • "Should they explore trading Tom Brady?" (Eric Wilbur,
Now that the history lesson is out of the way, has enough changed between September 2014 and January 2016 to think the outcome will be different? Perhaps; read on to find out.

1. Pats O-line Problems

One common denominator is the Patriots problems on the offensive line. Kansas City dominated the line in 2014, as new O-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was still trying to build a cohesive unit. Brady threw two interceptions, lost a fumble, and his QB rating of 59.9 was the lowest of the season.

This year the O-line issues are mostly injury related. Left tackle Nate Solder is out for the year, and the other tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, missed multiple games with injuries. The shifting lineups led to problems with Brady getting time to find receivers, and a mostly non-existent running game.

Vollmer will be back on Saturday, but no certainty how well he plays. The Pats will likely use an extra player in pass protection (either tight end Michael Williams or a sixth offensive lineman). This could be a big problem, but might be mitigated by... 

2. Chiefs Coverage Challenges

The Patriots receivers won't be 100% healthy, but if they are close, they present problems for the Chiefs. Kansas City has given up significant yards and catches to tight ends this year, and ones you might not have heard much about. Imagine how they'll hold up facing the best tight end in the game, Rob Gronkowski.

And even if they double-team Gronkowski, receiver Julian Edelman is expected to return from injury. Reportedly Edelman has been running all the normal routes in the normal way in practice, so he could be at or near 100%. Even double-teaming Edelman doesn't always work, so they are probably better off making quick tackles after the catch.

But assume for a moment that the Chiefs double Gronkowski and Edelman. That leaves Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell facing their third- and fourth-best corner backs. It also leaves only linebackers to cover running back James White. All three of those matchups are mismatches in the Patriots favor.

The Chiefs have to get pressure on Brady. Because if they don't, the myriad weapons in the passing game could eat them alive.

3. Patriots Defense Better, and Worse

The Patriots defense got schooled in that last game. 207 yards on the ground, a 144.4 QB rating for Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, 8.4 yards per pass attempt, and 36:27 time of possession. Those are all really, really bad stats. Some of it was attributable to turnovers, but the defense still gave up big plays on those extra possessions.

For the Saturday tilt, the Pats front-seven is better and the secondary is worse. Jabaal Sheard, rookie Malcom Brown, and veteran Akiem Hicks helped shore the front line, and the team finished second in the NFL with 49 sacks. Few teams run well against the Pats, and running quarterbacks are usually kept in the pocket.

However, the secondary is demonstrably worse. They lost their four top corners from last year, among them Darrelle Revis and underrated slot-corner Kyle Arrington. Second-year corner Malcolm Butler and veteran Logan Ryan have stepped up admirably. But behind them there is very, very little depth.

Fortunately for the Patriots, the Chiefs' top receiving threat, Jeremy Maclin, suffered a high ankle sprain last week. So no one should expect much from him in this game. That leaves mostly tight end Travis Kelce to attack a defense that is very good at eliminating the other team's main weapon. And Pats safety Patrick Chung has done a great job against tight ends this year; expect that to continue Saturday.

So even though the Patriots secondary is worse than last year, the Chiefs are not effectively equipped to attack its weaknesses.

4. Turnovers

The Patriots and Chiefs turned the ball over the fewest times in the league this season. The Patriots turned it over just 14 times, but the Chiefs were close behind with just 15 giveaways on the season. Both teams thrive on turnovers, but neither can expect many on Saturday.

Tom Brady throws an interception only 1.1% of the time he throws the ball. Alex Smith throws an interception only 1.5% of the time he throws the ball. Yep; turnovers are going to be hard to come by in this game.

5. Venue and Weather

The last game was in Kansas City, and that was a major factor in the game. Offensive line play is about continuity and communication. And the crowd noise made communication impossible, which was especially tough with a bunch of new linemen and a new line coach.

In this game, it'll be the Chiefs who have to fight crowd noise on Saturday. And don't discount the Patriots ability to exploit that. Their linebacker and safety blitzes have been very effective this year.

Weather will be chilly but not freezing, and the rain should be over by game time. There will be some wind, but overall, the weather should not be a factor.

7. Quick Hits:

A) The Chiefs pass rush is nothing to sneeze at; they had 47 sacks of their own this year.

B) However, they also gave up the sixth-most sacks, 46, for the season. That is the second-most among playoff teams this year (trivia question #1: which playoff team gave up more sacks than the Chiefs? Answer below.)

C) Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 4-1 career against Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.

D) I keep hearing the Chiefs will have a decided special teams advantage on Saturday. But I don't see it. The Patriots had some breakdowns, but KC hit only 30 of 37 field goals and was middle-of-the-pack in punt and kickoff returns.

E) Since 1970, the Chiefs have two road playoff wins. Both came in Houston (the Oilers in 1993, and the Texans last week).

8. Summary

Even though Denver holds the #1 seed in the AFC, this is still the toughest team for the Patriots. Health of the players is key. If Gronkowski, Edelman, Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Chung, and Devin McCourty are healthy, the Patriots will win. If any of them are less than 80%, it'll be a dogfight.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots lost back-to-back division games to end the 2015 season. The last time they lost consecutive games to division opponents was Belichick's first season in New England, 2000. (Trivia question #2: One of the losses in 2000 was to a team no longer in the division -- name that team. Answer below.)

Enjoy the game, and keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer #1:
The Green Bay Packers have gave up 47 sacks in the 2015 regular season.

PPPS. Trivia answer #2: The Patriots lost three in a row to AFC East opponents in 2000: the Jets, Colts, and Bills. Two years later, the NFL realigned and the Colts moved to the newly formed AFC South.

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