In Week 15, it will be a different feeling than some past matchups between the (8-5) Kansas City Chiefs and (3-10) New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The game is set for a Noon (Arrowhead Time) kickoff on Sunday. It had previously been scheduled as this weekend’s “Monday Night Football” matchup before being flexed into Sunday’s early slate.
That — plus DraftKings Sportsbook picking the Chiefs as eight-point favorites — tells you all you need to know. New England has already been eliminated from postseason contention, bottoming out with a 6-0 home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago. There is a report that the team will be moving on from head coach Bill Belichick after the season.
But New England has also had 10 days rest after its 21-18 road win against the Pittsburgh Steelers on “Thursday Night Football.” Kansas City has lost four of the last six games, so there is pressure on the Chiefs to take care of business.
I have five things to watch in this contest:
1. Another game without Isiah Pacheco
For the second straight week, the Chiefs’ starting running back will be sidelined due to the shoulder injury he suffered in Week 13.
Against the Buffalo Bills, running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon were solid in place of Pacheco, pacing the offense on the ground and making important plays in the passing game. Buffalo, however, had a susceptible run defense; New England is much stronger against the run.
The Patriots allow a league-low 3.2 yards per rushing attempt, which is significantly lower than any other defense. Over the last four weeks, the group has allowed fewer than 60 rushing yards per game.
So for Kansas City, this could be a tougher game on the ground — leading to a greater reliance on quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the passing game.
2. ‘Killing the engine’
When he’s previously discussed defending against the Tennessee Titans’ running back Derrick Henry, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has used the phrase ‘killing the engine.’ This week — with former Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott on deck for Sunday’s game — Spagnuolo used it again.
“We’re always talking about ‘killing the engine.’ The engine — to us — is the running back,” Spagnuolo explained to reporters on Thursday. “We’ve got to make sure they don’t get [Elliott] going. They won’t give up on trying to do that, we understand that... If we don’t show up and play a physical game to match their physicality, they will make it tough.”
New England’s starting running back Rhamondre Stevenson will miss his second straight game with a high-ankle sprain. While Stevenson is the better back, Elliott has made plays in his absence: against Pittsburgh, Elliott finished with 140 yards from scrimmage on 29 touches.
Watch for a concentrated effort to attack the Patriots’ early-down usage of Elliott, forcing longer third downs.
3. A complete Chiefs’ linebacker group
Kansas City’s linebackers will be bouncing back from two shaky games — boosted by the return of Drue Tranquill, who has cleared concussion protocol. He was missed in Week 14, when the Buffalo Bills took advantage of Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton in coverage. Bolton looked rusty — and during the past week, Spagnuolo acknowledged that he was still playing through ailments.
Tranquill’s presence will be vital, as it will help the Chiefs ease Bolton back. That will be significant against the Patriots, whose quarterback Bailey Zappe is most comfortable targeting their coverage areas. According to Spagnuolo, New England tight ends Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki are “as good of a twosome” as the team has faced all season.
“To me, when they’ve got either of those running backs going, I think their quarterback becomes really pretty good,” noted Spagnuolo on Thursday. “Those two tight ends — now that they are both healthy — I think they can be a little bit of a stress on us. We’ve got to be cautious of that.”
4. Starting the game stronger
In each of the Chiefs’ last three games, the team has fallen into a two-score deficit in the first half. A stronger start should be a focus point on each side of the ball — especially against a New England defense that is playing better than some of the units Kansas City has faced recently.
“Their defense is terrific,” declared Spagnuolo. “We need to match (or be better) than their defense to help our team win. A lot of that is early in the game because we just don’t want Patrick having to go out in the middle of the second quarter down 14 points. That’s tough on any offense.”
The Chiefs’ defense can come out with more energy early in the game — but the burden also falls on the offense, which must execute ITS opening script better; Kansas City hasn’t scored an opening-drive touchdown since its win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 9.
5. Bill Belichick with nothing to lose
Despite an AFC-worst 3-10 record — and suffering through some blowouts early in the year — New England’s last five games have each been decided by six points or less.
Spagnuolo is refusing to overlook the Patriots. He insisted that the Chiefs are never in a mode to “go play someone and get healthy [or] get good.”
“With a New England Patriots team, I would never think that way,” he asserted. “I don’t really care what their record is... We have too much respect for the coaches there, the players there and what they do.”
With Belichick in spoiler mode, watch for creativity on special teams — like the blocked field goal his team schemed up against the Dolphins in Week 2.
“They have a lot of creativity,” observed special teams coordinator Dave Toub on Thursday. “It starts with Coach Belichick. They have all kinds of stuff that they do... You never know what you’re going to get; you have to be ready for everything. That [blocked field goal] was certainly a good, well-designed play that ended up working out for them.”