This week’s edition of ‘Sunday Night Football’ features two of the inner-circle contenders in the AFC going head to head. Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots play host to Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night (8:20 p.m., NBC, stream on FUBOTV), and who wins this one could go a long way toward determining who gets home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
A Patriots win puts them right back in the mix for a No. 1 seed over the rest of the season, while Kansas City jumping out to a 6-0 record while holding the tiebreaker against the most likely contender for the spot would give them a whole lot more than just a leg up in the race. These two teams squared off in a night game in New England last year, and it was then that the Chiefs’ offense announced itself as a force to be reckoned with and one of the most creative units in the NFL. Things have only gotten more creative and more explosive since then, as the transition from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes has gone about as well as could possibly be expected.
Belichick and company will be ready for the Chiefs’ trickeration this time around, though, and won’t be caught off guard. And you can be sure Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady, and the New England offense will have some new wrinkles for the Chiefs’ defense to contend with on the other side of the ball.
Which of these dynamic offenses will win out? We’ll see on Sunday night.
New England’s offense has gotten back on track in a big way over the past several weeks. When we covered the Patriots’ offense in this space ahead of their game against the Miami Dolphins a few weeks ago, we detailed two major struggles: running the ball and throwing downfield.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Patriots’ backfield has been much better since losing Burkhead. Narrowing down the backfield options to only Sony Michel and James Whitehas been beneficial, as the roles are now much more clearly delineated and the Pats are much more focused in attacking opposing defenses. Michel has rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries over the past two weeks, while White has essentially operated as Brady’s de facto No. 1 receiver, moving all over the field to create matchup issues and smoke linebackers and safeties on option routes. He has 18 catches for 145 yards and two scores in the past two games.
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Kansas City’s pass defense has struggled badly this season against running backs out of the backfield, so White could be in for yet another big game. Opposing backs have 39 catches for 454 yards and three scores against Kansas City so far this season. The Chiefs have also struggled badly against tight ends, which is definitely not a sentence you want to read when you’re about to go up against Rob Gronkowski. Opposing tight ends have 33 grabs for 453 yards and a touchdown against KC, with players like Jesse James (5-138-1), George Kittle (5-79), and even Jeff Heuerman (4-57) and Niles Paul (7-65) having big games against them. Gronk has been somewhat quiet so far this season, averaging the second-lowest yards per reception figure of his career and scoring just once in five games. This is a blow-up spot for him against one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
Having Julian Edelman back on the field to work the underneath zone areas should benefit the New England passing game. Brady and Edelman have mind-meld type chemistry, and he fits much better in that role than did Chris Hogan, who has just been dreadful this year. Using Edelman underneath with Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, and even Cordarrelle Patterson stretching the field vertically on the perimeter should open things up for Gronkowski inside, and the Chiefs are unlikely to be able to deal with that.
And we know how the Pats operate. Once they start stretching you vertically, they can work Edelman and White to the perimeter, and then gash you up the middle with Michel and the power running game. The Chiefs’ run defense is even worse than their pass unit, and they don’t particularly stand much of a chance of slowing New England down.
The Chiefs have already appeared in this column a few times this season. In the most recent edition, written before they played the Denver Broncos, we detailed the relative struggles of the Kareem Hunt-led running game.
Hunt then broke out in a big way during the Chiefs’ stunning comeback win over Denver on ‘Monday Night Football,’ rushing for 121 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. He followed up that performance with 22 carries for 87 yards and a score against the Jaguars last week. Hunt’s now on pace to rush for over 1,200 yards despite his slow start. If he gets there, he’d be just the 14th player since the AFL-NFL merger to reach 1,200 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons.
Hunt seems at least somewhat likely to continue rolling against New England. The Patriots’ run defense has allowed 4.4 yards per carry this season, 21st in the NFL. The Pats have stuffed only 14 percent of opponent rushing attempts in the backfield, per Football Outsiders, 27th in the league. They’ve also allowed conversions on 80 percent of rushing attempts on third or fourth downs with two or fewer yards to go, 27th in the league again. Hunt’s ability to break tackles (11 in the run game so far this season, fifth in the NFL per Sports Info Solutions) will be tested against a Patriots defense that is a strong tackling unit, but if he can get to the second level untouched, yards are there to be gained.
It will be interesting to see whether Bill Belichick and company prioritize shutting down Hunt or Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ dynamic passing game. Hunt destroyed New England in last year’s season opener, running wild for 148 yards and a touchdown on the ground and catching five passes for 98 yards and two more scores. Mahomes, meanwhile, has arguably been the league’s MVP through the first five weeks of the season, throwing for a league-high 14 touchdowns while averaging 8.6 yards per attempt and leading the league in QBR.
It is arguably “easier” for the Pats to concentrate on taking away Hunt and forcing Mahomes to beat them through the air, simply because the design of Kansas City’s passing game allows them to throw the ball to any area of the field, in any matchup, with ease. Plus, Belichick’s Patriots have routinely dominated young quarterbacks like Mahomes in games played at Gillette Stadium.
Since 2001, the Patriots have played 32 home games against a quarterback who was in the first or second year of his career. The Patriots are (seriously, I swear) 31-1 in those games. The lone win came from former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick back in 2012. Combined, that group of players has completed 581 of 1,070 passes (54.3 percent) for 6,676 yards (6.2 per attempt), with 31 touchdowns and 44 interceptions. That works out to an absurdly low 65.9 passer rating, which is essentially the equivalent of turning every quarterback into JaMarcus Russell. In other words, Mahomes has his work cut out for him.
But the Kansas City passing game has been damn near unstoppable this season. Mahomes just easily marched the Chiefs up and down the field against a Jacksonville defense that is far better than this New England unit. The smart money is on both teams racking up a ton of points in this one, with the team that gets the ball last coming away with a victory.