There's no rest for the weary when you're the Super Bowl champs. Fresh off a dominant win over the Ravens, the Kansas City Chiefs will face another potential playoff preview when they host the New England Patriots on Monday after the game was rescheduled due to positive COVID-19 tests on both teams.
Notably, the Patriots will be without Cam Newton, who reportedly tested positive on Saturday and is perhaps the biggest star to test positive for the coronavirus across any sport. Brian Hoyer will get the start for New England, which was already 7-point underdogs before they had to prepare without their one-time MVP.
Patrick Mahomes and Co. looked nearly unstoppable on the road at Baltimore on "Monday Night Football," which ought to frighten even the Patriots' vaunted secondary. Mahomes went 31-for-42 for 385 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions — good for a nearly perfect 97.7 QBR.
The Chiefs raced out to a 27-10 halftime lead, and even when the Ravens mounted a second-half comeback, head coach Andy Reid reached into his creative playbook to draw up a touchdown catch for left tackle Eric Fisher, who was masquerading as a tight end in a jumbo goal-line formation.
New England, meanwhile, regained its dominant form in a 36-20 romp over Las Vegas when it rediscovered the ground game. Cam Newton didn't have to push the ball downfield much when the team was averaging 6.6 yards per carry on 38 attempts. Sony Michel led the way with nine carries for 117 yards, which was a welcomed development after he opened the season with 17 carries for 56 yards (3.3 ypc). They will need that kind of rushing attack once again to have a shot this week.
When Newton was slated to start, this game was undoubtedly Week 4's premier contest, but now it will merely be an intriguing appetizer to the Falcons-Packers "Monday Night Football" game with plenty of playoff implications. It's not out of the question for these division favorites to finish with the same record, and with only one team receiving a first-round bye in the playoffs, the tiebreaker for the top seed will be even more important than in the past.
New England at Kansas City
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 5 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Patriots bring enough pressure with just four rushers?
One thing that the Chiefs have made clear over their dominant run the last two seasons is that you cannot beat them without generating a pass rush. But you also can't sell out and leave their skill position players in man coverage. Essentially, unless you can generate pressure with just four rushers, Patrick Mahomes is too good and his receivers are too fast to not find an open man.
The Ravens found that out the hard way last week when they blitzed on 45 percent of downs but only generated two pressures, per Next Gen Stats. Mahomes ate Baltimore defensive coordinator Don Martindale's lunch by completing 15-of-19 passes for 191 yards and three touchdowns on such plays. The Patriots can't afford to make the same mistake.
The Patriots have struggled to generate much pressure this season; their 5.9 percent adjusted sack rate ranks 18th in the NFL after they ranked sixth at an 8.1 percent clip in 2019. Bill Belichick did have success running unique "read" Cover 0 blitzes last season, but the key will be finding the same success without big playmakers like Jamie Collins Jr., Kyle Van Noy, and Dont'a Hightower, who are not with the team this season. If they can't, they're going to get burned in a lot of man coverage.
2. The turnover battle: unstoppable force vs. immovable object
New England was able to be so aggressive on defense last season because of how talented their secondary is and was. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore is the standard-bearer for a shutdown corner in today's game, and the unit is deep with the McCourty twins, Adrian Phillips, and J.C. Jackson — even without Patrick Chung, who was one of eight Patriots to opt out of the season.
The Pats' 25 interceptions in 2019 were five more than any team, and their 36 turnovers forced were the most since the 2015 Panthers. The team once again paces the league with seven turnovers thus far, and only the Colts (six) have more than their four interceptions.
Sunday will present their toughest matchup yet, though, since the Chiefs only have one turnover all season — and even that was a Darwin Thompson fumble. Mahomes has faced the Patriots three times (including a memorable AFC Championship Game two seasons ago), and has thrown three interceptions against them. But he's also totaled eight touchdown passes in those games and has beaten New England, a 23-16 win in Foxborough in Week 14 last season). So if the Chiefs can hold themselves to just one turnover, they'll be hard to beat at Arrowhead Stadium.
3. Can Brian Hoyer win you a big game?
The Patriots have used Newton selectively in his first season in New England, but as he showed in Week 2, he is more than capable of stepping up when needed. With Brian Hoyer under center, the Patriots' playbook will be far narrower.
Hoyer, who turns 35 later in October, has only started one game in the last two years and hasn't won one since 2016. In 38 career starts, he has a 58.4 percent completion rate with 43 touchdowns to 29 interceptions and just 6.9 yards per attempt. Those numbers go down even further if you just look at his six starts the last three years (56.2 percent passing, 5:7 TD:INT, 5.9 ypa).
Newton is a huge reason the Patriots have been able to lead the league in rushing, and his absence will make that distinctly harder to continue. Not only is Newton the team's second-leading rusher, but his arm talent also makes other teams have to respect the pass a lot more than they will have to when facing Hoyer.
Making matters harder is how well the Chiefs' secondary has played to this point. They're fourth in pass defense and completely shut down Lamar Jackson to just 97 passing yards. Even Deshaun Watson "only" threw for 253 yards. Even with the return of running back James White, who missed the past two games because of a car accident that killed his father and injured his mother, Hoyer has a daunting task ahead of him.
The Chiefs definitively showed last week that they are the league's premier team, but don't sleep on the Patriots. This defense, which remains strong despite a bevy of departures, has held Mahomes to his second-lowest total quarterback rating of any opponent he's faced multiple times — even if it's still a healthy 68.8 QBR.
The problem is that it's hard to see these Patriots keeping up with the Chiefs' high-flying attack. That might have been possible with a healthy Newton, and perhaps we'll see a rematch in January. But the Patriots' tight path to victory got a lot more narrow with his absence. Without a potent offense, it will take a historic defensive performance to keep the defending champions in place on Monday.