For the third-straight year, the Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) will make a regular-season trip to Foxborough, Massachusetts, to take on the New England Patriots (10-2). In recent weeks, these two AFC contenders have been trending in opposite directions. The Chiefs have won two in a row on the back of an improving defense that has forced seven turnovers in those contests. The Patriots have lost two of their last four games after starting 8-0 — and haven’t looked impressive in over a month.
But you can throw everything you know about each team out the window. A win will be crucial for both teams’ playoff seeding — and both coaches are likely to pull out all the stops.
I’ve detailed five things to watch in this big-time matchup:
1. Getting pressure on Tom Brady
As invincible as 42-year old Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seems to be, he has been benefiting from a scheme designed to keep him clean — one featuring a strong running game and quick throws. The teams that have defeated the Patriots have usually been able to overcome that and get to Brady; it’s not a coincidence that the Chiefs totaled only two sacks in their two losses to New England last season.
The Patriots offense has allowed just 22 sacks — the seventh-fewest sacks in the league. But when teams have been able to get pressure on Brady, his performance has significantly declined. Under pressure, his passer rating is only 49.3, which is second-lowest among all quarterbacks with at least 300 dropbacks. Three of his six interceptions have come when he’s been under pressure — and in those situations, he’s thrown the ball away more than anyone in the league.
Brought back for defensive holding, but this is all Brady.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 4, 2019
There have been multiple times this year where Brady feels pressure, panics, and makes a questionable throw. Pass rush is so important this week. pic.twitter.com/aQZjHuaPqr
In Week 13 against the Houston Texans, Brady officially threw only one interception — but this one in the second half was called back on a defensive penalty. After feeling the pressure, he makes an awful decision — throwing off-balance for an easy pick.
This one from Week 5 against the Washington Redskins may be even worse.
The banged-up Chiefs pass rush will have their work cut out for them. Frank Clark left the Week 13 game with a shoulder injury — and has not been a full participant in this week’s practices. Alex Okafor has been a full participant — but is still on the injury report for a reason. On the other side, Brady popped up on the injury report with a toe and right elbow injury.
2. The secondary options in the Chiefs offense
It’s no secret: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick strategizes to eliminate an opposing offense’s top weapons. In last year’s AFC Championship game, the Chiefs’ top receiver, Tyreek Hill was limited to just one reception for 42 yards — and tight end Travis Kelce only managed three catches for 23 yards and a touchdown.
But despite this, the offense was able to score 31 points on the backs of their secondary receiving options. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins had four catches for 114 yards — which included a few crucial plays. Running back Damien Williams was second to Watkins in receiving yards and scored twice.
Watch to see who will step up. With his play in recent weeks, Watkins hasn’t given us much reason for optimism, so wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman will also be players to watch.
3. An important opportunity for the Chiefs cornerbacks
In this game, there is a great opportunity for the cornerback group to be a key part of the Chiefs’ defensive success.
At times, the New England receiving corps has been noticeably slow and ineffective. With the exception of wide receiver Julian Edelman, the unit — including Phillip Dorsett and Mohamed Sanu along with rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers — hasn’t been able to help Brady by getting themselves open. In fact, during Week 13, Brady was caught on camera on the sideline, telling his receivers to play “faster, quicker, more explosive.”
As bad as Brady looked last week, his receivers (besides Edelman) didn't help him out.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 4, 2019
Weeeak slant by Harry. No explosion out of the cut and you have to be able to wall-off the CB pic.twitter.com/HDYQqAHo4Q
This throw to Harry should at least be contested at the catch point. Instead, he is slow out of his cut, allowing the cornerback to easily beat him to the spot.
Pass rush has to win this week.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) December 4, 2019
Texans double Edelman. No one else wins their matchup, forcing Brady into an unwanted decision even though he had plenty of time. The success of 4-man pressures will be crucial. pic.twitter.com/RgC6Q8hKrr
Here, the Texans double-team Edelman and use a defensive back on running back James White.
Against the Texans, the lack of success from their other receiving options led to a very unimpressive performance for the Patriots offense.
If Chiefs cornerbacks are able to handle their assignments against the Patriots’ receiving corps — giving the pass rush time to collapse the pocket — it will be a gigantic factor in the game.
And Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward may be looking for revenge. The pick that was called back after Dee Ford’s offsides penalty in the AFC title game would arguably have been the biggest play in franchise history.
4. Chiefs running backs as receivers
During his tenure, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s offensive game plans against New England have been phenomenal. In the last three meetings, the Chiefs are 1-2 against the Patriots — but have scored an average of 37.7 points per game. In all three contests, Reid has featured running backs in the passing game.
- In last season’s AFC Championship, Chiefs running backs Damien Williams and Spencer Ware combined for nine targets, six catches, 87 yards and two touchdowns.
- In Week 6 of 2018, Ware and running back Kareem Hunt combined for nine targets, seven catches, 114 yards and a score.
- In the 2017 season opener, Hunt and running back Charcandrick West totaled six targets, six catches, 102 yards and a touchdown.
With the Chiefs’ injury-riddled backfield, it will be a prime opportunity for rookie running back Darwin Thompson to show what he’s got in the passing game. It won’t be easy. The Patriots have allowed just 7.6 yards per reception to running backs — and have allowed only one receiving score.
5. Steve Spagnuolo and the defensive staff’s strategy
The Patriots were able to do whatever they wanted against the Chiefs defense last season; it was the main reason the Chiefs defense was overhauled. Sunday’s game will be the first chance for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to show what he can do against them. As you’ll recall, he was instrumental in the New York Giants’ upset win over the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
In that game, he was very creative in getting pressure on Brady — and he will be tasked to do the same in this matchup. Ideally, he and defensive line coach Brenden Daly will be able to do it with only four pass rushers. Brady may not be as physically sharp as he used to be, but he’s still just as smart; his ability to recognize blitzes could prevent Spagnuolo from having success with them. If the Chiefs can get pressure with four pass rushers, it will give the secondary a huge personnel advantage.
It is also important that Spagnuolo understands the threat Patriots running back James White represents in the passing game. White is their second-leading receiver, averaging nine yards per catch. Among running backs with at least 30 targets, he has the third-highest yards per route. In last season’s two games against the Chiefs, White totaled 13 targets and averaged 11.3 yards per reception.
Spagnuolo will need to consider using a secondary player on White as much as possible. Brady will take advantage of any linebacker’s attempt to cover him.