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Chiefs vs. Patriots preview: The ballad of Alex Smith

Prediction Time: Chiefs vs. Patriots on #TNF

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In four years with the Kansas City Chiefs as part of a 12-year career in the NFL, KC Chiefs QB Alex Smith has been called many things.

His loudest critics have their favorite—“He’s just a game manager.” They will tell you about his inability to throw downfield, his 2-4 record in the playoffs and how in 2012, he was replaced by Colin Kaepernick when one of the most respected football men in the world in Jim Harbaugh thought a 24-year-old kid was a better bet to win a Super Bowl.

Smith’s supporters, on the other hand, will ask you to look at the bigger body of work—“But the guy just wins,” they will say. And the thing is they aren’t wrong. Since 2013, when he was traded to the Chiefs by the San Francisco 49ers, Smith has 41 regular-season wins and just 20 losses. Only the Seattle SeahawksRussell Wilson (45) and his opposing quarterback Thursday night, Tom Brady (47), have more in that span.

It’s certainly an impressive feat, but to many fans in Kansas City—yes, those same fans who watched the Huards and the Croyles and the Cassels—it just isn’t enough anymore. Back-to-back divisional-round exits have made it easy to question Smith, and it has never been more apparent than in the buzz surrounding their new prince in Patrick Mahomes.

Thursday night, on the surface for the Chiefs, is about knocking off the world champions while a national audience watches along on NBC. Still on the tip of the iceberg, it’s about whether the man endearingly nicknamed “Baby Gronk” by football analysts in Travis Kelce can outplay “Actual Gronk” in a returning Rob Gronkowski.

But the deeper storyline is what this entire season and therefore very much this first game means to the now-more-than-a-decade-long career of Smith.

The Chiefs, who could not have been more unwavering this offseason in saying that he is the undisputed starter for 2017, can save quite a bit of cap space by cutting him after this season—meaning this is as contract of a year as it gets.

But putting aside the monetary component of it all, I’d argue that this thing means more to him than just that. When San Francisco decided after seven years they didn’t want him, Kansas City gave Smith the keys.

Together, with Andy Reid and the departed John Dorsey, he helped build the Chiefs into a winner, and maintaining that success at this stage of his career will be a lot easier with the 2018 Chiefs rather than the 2018 New York Jets or Jacksonville Jaguars.

So how in the world, with Patrick Mahomes flashing like he did this preseason, does Smith keep his job in Kansas City?

The hard answer? Make it to Super Bowl LII.

The easy answer (that essentially means the same thing)? Beat the New England Patriots.

“I think one of the things you do look at with a team like the Patriots, especially on defense, they can throw a lot at you,” Smith told the media this week. “They can do a lot of different things from a personnel standpoint—fronts, coverages, you name it, they can do it a lot of different ways and it’s hard to predict what’s coming. Certainly it being an opener, even more so— what un-scouted things can they spring on you or play that you can’t prepare for? It’s tough.”

The hardest part about winning for Smith and the Chiefs Thursday night will also be the hardest part about winning for Brady and the Patriots. Reid and Bill Belichick, two of the greatest coaching minds this game has to offer, have had six months to prepare. Both get wary of the other, and it’s doubtful either showed many cards, if any, in the preseason.

Kelce specifically mentioned the Patriots’ tendency in the past to bracket and double-team him in an attempt to take him out of the game. When Smith was asked about how his tight end gets around that, the answer was somewhat telling.

“I think the biggest thing is just identifying those and then having an answer,” Smith said. “Identifying what they’re doing to you, how they’re playing you, and then have a comeback to it— how can I defeat this, how can I best defeat this? And then sometimes they’re doubling you and sometimes the other guys have to win and you’re doing your job by taking two (defenders).

“It’s a mixture of those things. I think the biggest thing is just how good Kelce is mentally at seeing all that stuff, seeing how teams play him, leverage, things like that. He seems to always have a plan to combat it.”

In many ways, this is the most important year of Smith’s career—his legacy depending on it. What will that pressure be like? Will he have a plan to combat it?

The first piece of our 16-part, yearlong answer will be presented to us in Foxborough on Thursday night.

Key players to watch

Chiefs offense: Smith’s three biggest weapons are Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt. It should be interesting in seeing if the preseason and Hill’s training camp flashes into the elite translate into the regular season. With Kelce mentioning the Patriots’ tendency to double-team and bracket him, that could open up the door for Hill, Hunt and perhaps even Chris Conley to make an impact.

Patriots defense: I like middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and a good secondary led by Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler and a top free-agent cornerback in Stephon Gilmore.

Patriots offense: Besides the obvious in Brady and Gronkowski, keep an eye on how the Patriots use a new addition in wide receiver Brandin Cooks. With running back LeGarrett Blount gone, I’m interested in seeing the mix of Dion Lewis and former Bengals back Rex Burkhead. WR Chris Hogan is another one to watch. Despite missing some time in the preseason, starting left tackle Nate Solder did not appear on this week’s injury report.

Chiefs defense: The cornerback situation for the Chiefs is a little bit murkier than that of the Patriots. With Steve Nelson on injured reserve due to core muscle surgery, reporters asked Reid if Phillip Gaines would start at right cornerback, and Reid said he’d be “one of them.” Look for some mix of Terrance Mitchell and perhaps Kenneth Acker there. Safety Ron Parker is officially listed as questionable. Justin Houston and Dee Ford will be pivotal to stopping Brady and the Patriots offense.

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