Editor’s note: We welcome in managing editor Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit — our sister site covering the New England Patriots — for “Five questions with the enemy” as we head into the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
1) Tom Brady enters Sunday’s AFC Title game at the age of 41. An oft-debated subject in 2018 was whether or not Brady is still the same player. What is your take on the matter, and what have you seen one way or the other? What about TE Rob Gronkowski?
Brady is coming off what can best be described as an up-and-down regular season. He made some comparatively un-Brady-like decisions earlier in the season, his stats are a bit down when going against his last three years, and he often times failed to pull the Patriots back out of situations of which he usually pulled them back out of in the past (just look at the Jaguars game). So if you’re going by that, then he has dropped from the elite tier of quarterbacks.
However, he said! While that is all true, a convincing argument can be made that Brady is not too far below the his three-year stretch from 2015 through 2017 — arguably the best of his illustrious career — and still a top-three quarterback in the NFL. One reason for that is his physical abilities and his picture-perfect technique: a look at the tape shows that they pretty much still look the same as they did one or five years ago. So when looking at it from that perspective, there is no visible decline.
But something’s still gotta give, right? There are two things that can be brought up as contributing factors for Brady’s inconsistencies:
1) Injury: according to reports out of Foxboro, Brady suffered an MCL strain in week 10’s loss against the Tennessee Titans and only recently was back at full strength. While a knee injury doesn’t force a quarterback to throw questionable passes (hello, fourth quarter pick against the Steelers), it still might impact the mental makeup of a player standing in the pocket with pass rushers coming after him.
2) His supporting cast: the Patriots lost their top two wide receiver, their starting running back, and their starting left tackle in the offseason and the entire offense especially at the skill positions needed some time to grow into form and find some chemistry. And I would argue that this process has finally reached a good stage over the wild card bye, and it showed last week against the Chargers when the unit was clicking on all cylinders. Before that, the cast around Brady underwent constant change — from Julian Edelman missing four weeks, to Josh Gordon coming and going, to Rob Gronkowski being a virtual non-factor as a pass catcher.
Speaking of which: Gronkowski is an enigma this season. He is terrific as a blocker (watch his game tape from last week, at times he was moving people as if he were a Pro Bowl-caliber offensive tackle), but as noted above has contributed little as a receiver. While, yes, he did catch 48 passes for 707 yards and three touchdowns this season, those are far from your typical ”Gronk“ numbers.
The most likely explanation for this is that his injuries are finally catching up to him: he has been dealing with ankle and back issues for most of the year and while not listed on the injury report recently appeared to have lacked the proper explosiveness and power when hitting routes. Of course, maybe the Patriots coaches just kept him under wraps to torture the Chiefs on Sunday… Well, I wouldn’t count on it.
2) What makes the running back tandem of James White and Sony Michel so good and hard to defend? How many times do you expect White to touch the ball against the Chiefs on Sunday?
What people need to understand first is that James White and Sony Michel are two completely different players who just both happen to carry the same positional label. White is primarily a pass catcher — he has 102 catches for 784 yards and seven touchdowns on his résumé so far this season — that carries the football only now and then. That being said, he still set a career high with 94 carries for 425 yards and five touchdowns this season. However, when he is on the field it is likely the Patriots throw the ball.
When Michel takes the field, however, a run play or play-action pass is the most likely outcome. The first-round rookie is a true workhorse running back that has carried the football 233 times so far this season for 1,060 yards and nine scores — despite appearing in just 14 of a possible 17 games.
So, what makes it hard to defend? In White’s case, it’s his chemistry with Brady and ability to get open quickly especially when matched up against linebackers. He has the necessary elusiveness to shake defenders in man-coverage, but also possesses a very good vision and high football IQ — all reasons why Brady trusts him so much in crunch time (and beyond). Michel’s vision and patience to let the blocks develop are the most dangerous traits when it comes to stopping him, especially considering that he is playing behind one of the NFL’s better run blocking offensive lines (and tight ends, and fullback). And in combination with the other members of the Patriots’ offense like Julian Edelman and even Gronkowski they all form a dangerous and potent albeit at times inconsistent group.
The answer to the second question is likely ”depends.” I think that we will see White get around the same number of touches he received in week six when he had six runs and five catches, but the number might get higher if the Patriots are forced to throw the football more often (e.g. when they are trailing). If all goes according to plane for the Patriots, I think Michel will see the bulk of the backfield touches, with White filling his usual role as a third down and change of pace back.
3) Pro Football Focus rated CB Stephon Gilmore as the top cornerback in the league. What traits make him so good? Gilmore took Sammy Watkins out of the game back in Week 6. Do you expect something similar on Sunday?
Gilmore’s usage on Sunday will most likely depend on how confident the coaching staff is in the matchup for J.C. Jackson. The undrafted rookie has been a steal for New England so far this year and a very solid perimeter cornerback: he has allowed a 44.6% completion percentage this year, no touchdowns, and has registered three interceptions for a passer rating of 39.1 that would make even Nathan Peterman go ”eww!“ If the Patriots feel comfortable giving him Watkins as an assignment then I can see Gilmore or Jason McCourty take on Tyreek Hill — depending on if he lines up on the boundary (Gilmore) or slot (McCourty). I think we will see plenty of different matchups, though, if you ask me although I would be surprised if the Patriots trusted Jackson with Hill.
Going back to Gilmore, his strengths as I see them are primarily his physicality at the line of scrimmage, his closing speed, and his wing span. He also is a very patient cornerback and rarely gets too antsy, if you will, trying to jump routes or going for the big play instead of the tackle. He is just very good at almost everything he does, which makes him perfect for the Patriots as they can use him on whatever assignment they feel works best for the whole secondary and not just him as a single player.
4) Which player on the Chiefs do you find to be the biggest mismatch for the Patriots defense? Why?
Am I allowed to say Patrick Mahomes? Yes? Because that would be my choice. You may have heard, he is pretty good. Seriously, though, what makes Mahomes such a productive player — his ability to stay in control of the situation even when forced to improvise, plus his incredible arm — is a dangerous matchup for any team, especially a New England squad that has struggled a bit with quarterbacks like him this year. The main concern is the Patriots’ ability to contain him inside the pocket. While, yes, Mahomes is dangerous no matter if inside or outside, the secondary still has an easier job when not having to cover for an extended period of time.
While the Patriots did a good job of limiting Mahomes in the first half of their week six meeting by throwing multiple looks at him and forcing him to make correct and quick decisions against non-standard pressure and coverage packages, Mahomes still went off in the second half. He is the motor that makes the machine run (alongside with the coaching staff doing an excellent job of scheming plays around him to take advantage of his strengths).
When looking at the skill positions, I would take Travis Kelce. Tyreek Hill is a tremendous player that has had enormous success against the Patriots in the past, but I think that Kelce is a more difficult matchup from a personnel perspective because New England will likely try to bracket Hill — leaving Kelce one-on-one against either a linebacker or a safety. And with him being the best receiving tight end in the NFL at the moment, that is a mismatch from the Patriots’ perspective.
5) Being a Patriots fan and follower, what is your confidence level headed into a game with Patrick Mahomes to head to the Super Bowl? Do Patriots fans respect Mahomes?
I think anyone that doesn’t respect Mahomes and what he has brought not just to the Chiefs but the NFL as a whole can be classified — for lack of a better term — as a “hater.“ And I think overall Patriots fans are certainly well aware of his abilities and the impact he can have on a game, so I would say he gets plenty of respect in New England.
Regarding the confidence, I think the combination of Mahomes, Arrowhead Stadium, and the offense as a whole is what hurts confidence levels for Patriots followers (and so does the rather irrelevant history of New England’s road playoff games). Personally, I think it will be a tough matchup and I’ll be interesting to see what both teams learned from week six. Ultimately, I think the Patriots are certainly capable of a victory — but they need a near-perfect game from start to finish, something they have not done all that often this year, especially on the road.