As they enter Week 4 of the 2020 NFL season, the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs and 2-1 New England Patriots look like two of the top contenders for the AFC’s top seed — which are familiar circumstances. The Chiefs’ Andy Reid and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick will meet for the seventh time as each team’s head coach. The series is tied 3-3 — although Belichick is 2-0 in the postseason.
So why does a (nearly) annual matchup like this one feel so different?
The answer is obvious: the quarterback taking snaps for New England is no longer the (presumed) greatest player in league history. Tom Brady is off to another team, leaving the Patriots to former MVP quarterback Cam Newton, who signed a one-year, incentive-based deal that maximizes at $7 million for 2020.
Yes... the rest of the NFL sat on their hands while Belichick swooped in to grab one of only eight active players that have won an MVP award — and got him for less money than 39-year old Matt Schaub gets paid to sit on the bench for the Atlanta Falcons.
After leading the league in player opt-outs this offseason, it looks like New England has once again positioned themselves as legitimate threats to the AFC throne.
I have five things to watch in the first-ever matchup between Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Newton:
1. The Patriots’ plan to slow down Mahomes
Belichick is as far from dumb as an NFL head coach could possibly be. So when he sits down to create a way to stop Mahomes and the Chiefs offense, he won’t be stealing much from the Baltimore Ravens’ game plan.
Instead, he’ll be fascinated with the effect that the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense had on Kansas City. The Chargers have blitzed less frequently than any other team; in their Week 2 matchup against the Chiefs, they rarely sent second-level players to get after Mahomes — instead trusting the four defensive linemen to create enough pressure. Their ability to cover with seven players — while also wreaking havoc in the pocket — disrupted Mahomes, forcing the Chiefs to pick up the win with an overtime field goal.
The Patriots will want to try a similar tactic. Their most dangerous pass-rushing threat this year has been second-year edge defender Chase Winovich. He has the 13th-most pressures in the NFL — including four quarterback hits and two other plays where he got in on a sack.
Besides Winovich, the Patriots rely on an interior defensive line consisting of Deatrich Wise Jr., Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy. If tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz can handle Winovich well, the Chiefs’ offensive line should be able to handle New England’s defensive front.
2. Tackling a different type of mobile quarterback
The Chiefs just shut down the quarterback who sees the league’s second-highest number of designed runs. On Sunday, they’ll be facing the only signal-caller who sees more.
So far, Cam Newton has intentionally run the ball 31 times, averaging a measly 2.94 yards per rush. But don’t let that rate fool you: Newton has four rushing touchdowns — and three of them have come from four or fewer yards from the goal line. The Patriots utilize Newton’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame on power runs inside the box.
The tackling by the Chiefs defense improved notably in Week 3 — but tackling Newton is a completely different challenge than tackling Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Jackson may break ankles, but Newton will break a defender’s will as he plows through the line for short-yardage conversions.
The linebackers will have to repeat their performance in Week 3 — and if they want to stifle Newton’s rushing ability, maybe even take it up a notch.
3. The talented New England secondary
After losing key defenders like safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Dont’a Hightower to COVID-19 opt-outs, the Patriots’ defense looked exploitable — even after allowing the NFL’s fewest points and yards last season. But they still have a very talented trio in their secondary.
Safety Devin McCourty — along with boundary cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson — lead a defensive unit that leads the NFL in forced turnovers. Each of the three have nabbed an interception, while Jackson has also recovered two fumbles. Slot corner Jonathan Jones has two pass breakups.
Still, the Chiefs’ receiving corps will be the toughest test they’ve had so far. The Seattle Seahawks’ receivers are a close second — and to them, the Patriots allowed 288 passing yards and five scores through the air, surrendering three touchdown receptions over 20 yards in their only loss so far.
After a big game in Baltimore, Kansas City looks ready to repeat the deep-ball success Seattle had on the Patriots — but the Patriots’ secondary can easily take advantage of a mistake.
4. Containing Julian Edelman
After the 2018 AFC Championship, Chiefs fans were disgusted by the sight of three players: former Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford, Brady and Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. He totaled seven catches and 96 passing yards in the game — but it was the significance of each catch that burned. Edelman four catches for 15 or more yards in the fourth quarter and overtime — two of which came on third down.
But last season, Kansas City’s defense got revenge on Edelman when cornerback Bashaud Breeland deflected his attempt at a game-winning catch, sealing the Chiefs’ Week 14 victory. This will be Edelman’s first go at the Chiefs with his new quarterback — and to start the season, they’ve made a strong connection.
Edelman has hauled in 15 catches for 259 yards. 13 of those have been for first downs. That’s an average of 17.3 yards per reception — the league’s seventh-highest rate among players with 10 or more targets. He’s being used mostly in the slot; 76% of his snaps — and 13 of his catches — have come from there.
Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu has been the team’s main slot defender, allowing a 76.2 passer rating on nine targets. He’ll hold most of the responsibility for containing Edelman.
5. Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s continued role in the passing game
After being shut out in Week 1, rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has increased his receiving production in each of the last two games. He had 32 yards in Week 2 and then accumulated 70 yards through the air against the Ravens. There was one particularly eye-popping play that Kent Swanson pointed out in his weekly Mahomes film review.
Want to know why CEH's skill was such a good fit for the Chiefs? Prime example here. Corner route out of the backfield, excellent tracking the ball over his shoulder.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) September 30, 2020
Outstanding touch throw by Mahomes here to his newest weapon. pic.twitter.com/wyJMma4jXW
The Chiefs have been known to attack the Patriots by throwing to running backs out of the backfield; in last season’s matchup, 10 of Mahomes’ attempts went to a running back. In the 2018 AFC Championship, running back Damien Williams earned 66 receiving yards and two scores on eight targets. In former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt’s two games against New England, he totaled 10 catches, 203 yards and three touchdowns.
So far this year, the Patriots have held running backs to 6.2 yards per target — but Reid’s play-calling should open up receiving opportunities for Edwards-Helaire.