Many thanks to Rich Hill over at SB Nation's Patriots blog, Pats Pulpit, for answering some of my Chiefs-Patriots questions. Find our Q&A below and be sure to check out Pats Pulpit to get caught up on the enemy.
1. What's the status of the Patriots OL? Where are the weak points?
PP: That's a trick question because to have a "weak" point would imply that there is a "strong" or "average" point. The Patriots offensive line is awful and that's not up for debate. Left tackle Sebastian Vollmer is battling an ankle injury and he is only playing the position because the Patriots lost typical starter Nate Solder to a season ending injury. The Patriots will play either rookie Shaq Mason or third year Josh Kline at left guard based upon whichever player is "less bad."
Center Bryan Stork is back, but he's gone from playing between to experienced veterans in the retired Dan Connolly and the IR'd Ryan Wendell to rookies Mason and right guard Tre Jackson. While Mason is a good run blocker, he's probably the worst pass blocker on the team, while Jackson is merely sub-par at both. Marcus Cannon is the team's right tackle, a role he picked up when he wasn't good enough to take over for the injured Solder.
So it's not good. The Patriots can find a way to compensate with quick passes, but if you put any other quarterback under center, they'd be in the emergency room by the second quarter.
2. Edelman is back. How much of a difference will he make? Is he or Gronk the bigger key to the Pats passing offense?
PP: H-U-G-E. Julian Edelman is Tom Brady's soul mate and they have great trust in their connection. There's a whole domino effect at wide receiver when Edelman is out because Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell are above-average No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, but they are not good when asked to be the No. 1 and No. 2. Factor in the injuries to Amendola (knee sprain) and LaFell (ongoing foot problem) and the loss of Edelman is even worse.
That said Gronk is the most irreplaceable player on the team. If Gronk is out, there's no one that commands double coverage up the seam. There's no one that offers versatility to come and block like an offensive tackle. There's no one that can also flex out wide. At least when Edelman goes down, the Patriots can trust Amendola to play as a 75 percent version. Scott Chandler can't even hold Rob Gronkowski's beer funnel after the game.
3. Let's assume you're Belichick and Maclin is playing. Who will the Pats defense want to take away?
PP: Is Maclin at 100 percent or not? If Maclin is 100 percent, the Patriots will put Malcolm Butler in coverage with safety Devin McCourty over the top. Both players are great and it would force Alex Smith to look to his other targets to win. Travis Kelce will likely see bracket coverage for most of the game, with safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Jamie Collins, and that would leave Albert Wilson with Logan Ryan. Wilson could possibly win that match-up, but the Patriots would rather the Chiefs try to win with their No. 3 receiver.
If Maclin is NOT 100 percent, then look for the Patriots to put speedster Justin Coleman in coverage, while Butler could handle Wilson on the other side of the field. Ryan would likely be asked to cover Chris Conley. The defense of Kelce might not change, but the Patriots could actually bracket with Chung as the "linebacker" with McCourty over the top, freeing up Collins to help with delayed blitzes and with the run defense.
4. How confident are you the Patriots can avoid turnovers?
PP: It depends on how frustrated Tom Brady gets. He turns into a knucklehead when the rest of the players on the offense aren't functioning, so if the Chiefs can have their way with the offensive line, Brady could resort to some ugly deep throws for easy interceptions. If the Patriots skill players step up and Brady is able to utilize his quick release, then the Chiefs will probably only force a turnover off a tipped ball.
As for fumbles, New England has done another good job of holding onto the football.
5. What's your prediction for the game?
PP: I think the game comes down to injuries. If Maclin is available and is very healthy, then the Chiefs will have a much greater chance of winning. If Maclin can't play, then the Patriots could be in control.
That said, the Patriots are banking on the following players being healthier than they were in Week 17: Brady, Edelman, Amendola, LaFell, Gronkowski, Chandler, Vollmer, Kline, Coleman DE Rob Ninkovich, DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont'a Hightower, S Patrick Chung, S Devin McCourty. All of these players are starter or nickel players (so 60+ percent of snaps) that were seriously injured over the final weeks of the season. That's basically half of the team's starters that need to play at a higher level.
If these guys don't step up, the Patriots will be in for a long day. But if they're fully recovered? The Patriots have a good chance of winning at home.