The NFL Divisional Round of the playoffs is here with the second-seeded New England Patriots welcoming the fifth-seeded Kansas City Chiefs for the right to go to the AFC Championship Game!
The Chiefs hammered the Patriots last season 41-14 on "Monday Night Football," leading some to write the obituary of the Belichick/Brady Pats, but New England flipped the script on that narrative, going on to win their fourth Super Bowl. Both teams have significant differences now and this will be a much different game that hinges on a small handful of areas.
We really don't quite know who the 2015 Patriots are. Are they the team that steamrolled its way to a 10-0 start? Or the one that limped to the finish line, losing four of its last six? Injuries finally caught up with the Pats at the end of the year, but with a number of key players set to return, this weekend's game will finally show us who the 2015 Pats are.
The Chiefs have had some key injuries of their own, but that hasn't stopped them from winning 11 straight, including last weekend's takedown of the Texans in the wild card round. The Chiefs feature an outstanding defense and an offense that will throw the entire playbook at their opposition. Read option, misdirection, bootlegs, play action... these are all wrinkles the Chiefs run, testing the discipline and the fundamentals of their opponent.
These are two well-coached teams and it should be a fantastic game.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Kansas City at New England
Kickoff: 4:35 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: New England -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Patriots' Return to Health
The Patriots are expecting a number of their walking wounded to return in this one, but the three key players are Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer and Dont'a Hightower. If all three can return at the level of play we're used to seeing, the Patriots will look far closer to the team that started 10-0 than the one that lost four of its last six.
Edelman and Vollmer are key to re-establishing New England's quick-passing offense, the bread and butter of their playbook and an element that has been missing in recent weeks. Both go hand-in-hand with not only allowing Brady to get the ball out quickly, but also with protecting No. 12 that extra second when there's no one open initially. Simply put, Edelman is the team's best playmaker with the ball in his hands, and how close he is to 100 percent will likely determine the fate of the Pats' season.
Hightower is crucial to the Patriots' run defense, and there might not be a more important key in this game than stopping the Chiefs' ground attack. Hightower is not only New England's most physical linebacker, but he also frees up Jamie Collins to be used in a number of creative ways. Without Hightower playing at his usual level, the Chiefs could establish the run and dictate how the game is played.
2. Chiefs' Ground Game
Most buried the Chiefs after Jamaal Charles went down for the season, but Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have done an admirable job replacing him. With Jeremy Maclin likely out after sustaining a high ankle sprain in last week's win over the Texans, the Chiefs will have to lean on West and Ware even more. The ground attack also includes quarterback Alex Smith, who will chip in with some key carries himself, often out of the read option.
The Patriots will focus their primary attention on tight end Travis Kelce, while primary wide receivers Chris Conley and Albert Wilson will be manned up on the outside by cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. This will mean plenty of eight-man boxes that the Chiefs must navigate to get their rushing attack going. No simple task against New England's physical and underrated front.
If they can't get going, it will play right into the Patriots' hands, setting up third-and-longs where the Chiefs' short passing game and misdirection runs won't be enough.
These two teams don't make a lot of mistakes with the football and feast on opponents who do. The Chiefs ranked second in the NFL in turnover differential, while the Pats ranked fifth.
The Patriots have a fascinating recent history with takeaways in the playoffs. From 2010-13 they failed to produce a takeaway in their four season-ending losses, and it took Malcolm Butler's interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX to avoid a fifth straight exit without one. The Patriots' defense didn't have to rely on turnovers quite as much this season, but the team still hasn't won a playoff contest without a takeaway since 2001's Tuck Rule game against Oakland.
Put this all together and it shows how critical turnovers will be in this game. Just one interception or fumble could be the difference.
The Patriots are extremely tough to beat at home, they've lost just three times in Foxboro in the playoffs under Bill Belichick. Kansas City certainly has the pieces to pull off the upset, but the game must unfold just right. This isn't going to be a shootout. If the Patriots get a significant lead it will be hard for the Chiefs to claw their way back into it.
The first quarter will be vitally important. The Chiefs must establish the run for their offense to be fully operational and if they can get a lead and force the Patriots out of their game plan, it will bode well for Kansas City's chance of victory. Defensively, the Chiefs have the pieces to attack New England's suspect offensive line, but ;they must get pressure on Brady early and often to prevent him from finding a rhythm. That's what they did in 2014 and it worked perfectly. Pressure Brady. Bust some long runs. That's what the Chiefs need.
For the Patriots, re-establishing their quick passing game will breathe new life into an offense that has looked stale and unable to protect its quarterback. The Chiefs have a strong run defense, but expect the Patriots to run Steven Jackson head on into it. Jackson is the biggest unknown (aside from the injuries) for the Pats this postseason. If he gets going look out. Defensively the Pats must play well fundamentally. It's not about getting pass rush pressure. It's about keeping Alex Smith in the pocket with nowhere to scramble, combined with sound tackling on the short passes. If New England does that Kansas City will be punting more than putting points on the board.
The Chiefs need too many things to go right to win the game and will struggle if they fall behind without Jeremy Maclin's presence. The Patriots will remind everyone just how good they really are with Julian Edelman and the rest of their injured players back in the lineup and head to their fifth straight conference championship game.