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Chiefs vs. Patriots: 7 things to watch for in the opener

The season starts with a monumental challenge for the Kansas City Chiefs. I can’t think of a tougher situation than to go on the road to face the defending Super Bowl champions in primetime. The New England Patriots still have Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but they’ve also added a lot of speed on offense. They don’t lose at home, they don’t lose in season openers, hell, they don’t lose very often at all. Check out this tidbit from the Star’s preview: “New England has won 24 straight regular-season home games against non-division opponents.”

That said, this isn’t the same Kansas City team that lost to New England in the playoffs. This version of the Chiefs features a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the field in Tyreek Hill, an improved offensive line, and a healthier, more opportunistic defense featuring Justin Houston, Marcus Peters, Eric Berry and a loaded defensive line. This should be the most intriguing and entertaining matchup of the week and one of the best this season.

Here are a few things we’ll be watching for this week’s opener:

Will Tom Brady find a victim in the Chiefs secondary?

The surprising move of putting Steven Nelson on IR-return this week is causing many of us to worry about the Chiefs cornerbacks facing the greatest quarterback of all time. It’s now a given that Marcus Peters is an elite corner but the guys behind him are all question marks to some degree.

As Rotoworld fantasy writer Evan Silva pointed out on Twitter, the Patriots offense has a way of exploiting what they feel are the opposing team’s weaknesses. Brady will throw repeatedly in the direction of the defensive backs that he feels he can beat and dare those guys to make a play. Otherwise promising cornerbacks for the Chiefs have had their careers derailed by Brady (or Manning) picking them apart.

Cornerback Phillip Gaines has been one of those guys in the past, and he’ll be in a key role this week. Hopefully, he’s up for the challenge now that he’s fully healthy. Most Chiefs fans feel good about Terrance Mitchell when he’s on the field, but he has missed the bulk of the preseason. Can Mitchell get back to proving he’s the second best corner on this team? After Peters, Gaines and Mitchell, you have another guy who was picked on at times last season in DJ White. The Chiefs cornerback depth is a real question, and one that Brady will make sure is answered (one way or another) early in this game.

Or can the new and improved Chiefs front seven make a difference?

What’s the best way to keep Brady from picking on your young secondary? Get pressure on him up the middle, and quick. The return of Justin Houston and the development of Dee Ford gives some confidence that the Chiefs can get pressure on the edges. But, nobody is better at stepping up into the pocket and delivering strikes than Tom Brady. So, it will come down to Chris Jones, Allen Bailey and Bennie Logan to collapse the interior of the New England offensive line. If they can get to Brady up the gut, he won’t be able to step up into the pocket, and you just might give the pass rushers a chance to impact the game with multiple sacks and hits.

Watch the chess match between Reid and Belichick

As many have pointed out, the Chiefs are fairly reliant upon Andy Reid to scheme his way to wins. They haven’t had the dominant franchise quarterback to carry the team on his back (though it appears they finally do have one waiting for his shot to play). Instead Reid has been able to use creative formations, motions, and route combinations to keep the offense moving even without elite talent.

Bill Belichick has long been ‘playing chess while others play checkers’. His offensive game plan seems to change dramatically every season and even every week. They can beat teams running, with short passing or going deep. They can overcome the loss of multiple veteran stars by plugging in role players, rookies and other teams washouts. When nobody else was throwing to tight ends, Belichick featured two of the best. When they started expecting that, the Patriots ran the ball down their throats. They have won with the short passing game and with explosive deep threats. Essentially, you don’t know what to expect when playing the Patriots, other than the fact that they will be damn good.

Both coaches have had all offseason to prepare for this game. Both are known to be among the best game planners in the league. Andy Reid typically has a great script for the Chiefs opening offensive drive. Belichick is known to be able to take away the one thing you want to hang your hat on and force you to beat them with your second and third options. The punch-counterpunch and in-game adjustments will be fascinating to watch this week.

Will Tyreek Hill continue to impress in primetime?

Andy Reid has an ultimate chess piece at his disposal this year in Tyreek Hill. Hill, now the featured No. 1 receiver, will be a key player to watch all season. Hill has shown there’s nothing he can’t do, and that defenses will have to be prepared for him every time he steps on the field. His improved route running and ability to track the deep pass will be on full display without Jeremy Maclin on the team. Hill has a history of making huge plays in key situations, starting with this return in college. In his rookie season with the Chiefs, he came up big in prime time games, with seven of his 12 touchdowns. If anyone in the country hasn’t seen how dangerous Tyreek Hill is on the football field, let’s hope he shows them on Thursday.

Watch the Chiefs running game

There have been some significant changes among the running backs, and turnover at the one position on the offensive line that seemed to make a difference last year. Spencer Ware is out for the year. Kareem Hunt looks promising, but he’s a rookie, so it’s hard to know what to expect. CJ Spiller has been cut and re-signed within the last week. Charcandrick West had a big performance in preseason, and showed he can be a factor in pass protection, which means he’ll see the field. Parker Ehinger seemed to be the key cog in the Chiefs offensive line when it comes to run blocking, so watch to see if Witzmann can fulfill that role this week.

The running game is critical when playing against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks because you have to keep them off the field as much as possible. The Chiefs can shorten this game by grinding out runs and screen passes, putting together 15-play drives that end in touchdowns. We also know that running Alex Smith is the BEST Alex Smith. Having the added bonus of the quarterback picking up first downs with his legs keeps the Chiefs offense rolling along. The Chiefs can NOT afford to get one-dimensional against the Patriots.

The Chiefs must find other ways to score again this week

The Chiefs have been among the league’s best at scoring touchdowns off of turnovers and kick and punt returns. We think the offense could be more explosive this year, featuring Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. In recent history, the Chiefs have relied upon their defense and special teams units to put points on the board when the offense was lacking. The Chiefs need to keep with their blueprint of a stout, opportunistic defense that gets turnovers, paired with an offense that doesn’t turn the ball over, and a special teams unit that is a threat to score on every return. If the offense is more explosive, that’s even better. Getting extra possessions and non-offensive touchdown might be the one thing that can almost assuredly lead to a Chiefs victory in New England.

Will the Chiefs embrace their underdog status?

There are two ways a team can approach this game when the opponent is favored by nine points. One, they can go in accepting they are unlikely to win, and just try to keep it competitive for a moral victory. A strong showing against the Super Bowl champs on opening night, when the banners are being raised could be enough to signal that the Chiefs are on the right track, even if they start off 0-1.

Alternatively, the Chiefs could take the nine point line and the national media focus on the Patriots as a sign of disrespect. The Chiefs leaders can rally the team with the idea that they should be the ones everyone is talking about. Us against the world can be a powerful rallying cry for a team that feels they are not getting enough credit for how good they really are. Guys like Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Marcus Peters and Travis Kelce can come out pissed off and fired up, their energy can spread to the entire team to come out with something to prove, and a chip on their shoulder.

The Chiefs are the underdogs this week, that much is a fact. How they respond to that fact is what we’ll be watching for.

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