The Patriots learned late Saturday night who their opponent would be in Divisional round playoff matchup at Gillette Stadium Saturday. To paraphrase Indiana Jones, “Why’d it have to be Kansas City?”
Of the three teams that could have earned the right to face the Patriots in the second round of the playoffs — Chiefs, Bengals, Texans — the Chiefs are the one team that should make Patriots fans the most nervous.
The Chiefs are riding an 11-game winning streak following their 30-0 shutout over the Texans in the Wild-Card round, and have all the elements to give the Patriots a tough fight — a veteran quarterback who is careful with the football, a fast, aggressive defense that has a physical secondary and an overwhelming pass rush, and an experienced NFL coaching staff that won’t cower at the sight of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady on the opposite sideline.
Let’s also not forget last season’s 41-14 Week 4 thumping at Arrowhead Stadium, when the Chiefs ran for 207 yards and Brady was benched in the fourth quarter after throwing for 159 yards and two interceptions. Yes, that game was a long time ago, but many of the key faces on both sides are the same, and the Patriots have many of the same issues this time — a shaky offensive line, and a lack of continuity because of several key players battling through injuries.
The Patriots have two factors working in their favor this time. This game will be played at Gillette, where the Patriots went 7-1 this season and are 14-3 at home in the playoffs under Belichick. And they might be the healthier squad for a change. Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin’s status is questionable after he suffered a high ankle sprain against the Texans, and pass rusher Justin Houston still is hobbled by a hyperextended knee. Meanwhile, the Patriots used their bye week to get several key players healthy — Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Gronkowski, Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and more.
To get a better feel for the Chiefs, we watched the film of their 30-0 win over the Texans.
■ This is the same Andy Reid West Coast offense we know so well. Lots of short, safe passes to the running backs and tight ends, and a scheme that relies on yards after the catch and smart game management by Alex Smith, who threw a league-low seven interceptions this season. They had a nearly 50-50 run-pass split during the regular season, and use a lot of deception plays (especially the end-around to Albert Wilson in the running game) and substitutions to make up for their limited offensive personnel.
Against the Texans, Reid liberally substituted between three- and four-wide packages to two- and three-tight end packages, also using a fullback-running back combo on eight snaps. Reid likes to call running plays out of his spread formations and passing plays out of his jumbo packages. When the game settled down in the second and third quarters, the Chiefs were mostly a three-receiver offense. But that might change if Maclin (505 yards, six touchdowns in his last seven games) can’t play.
The Chiefs also weren’t very effective. Despite winning 30-0, they should have won 60-0 after forcing five turnovers. The Texans have a good defense, but the Chiefs consistently wasted good field position, scoring just 6 points on six possessions in the first half. The lead was largely aided by a kickoff return touchdown on the opening play of the game.
■ Any discussion about the Chiefs’ offense has to center around tight end Travis Kelce, who is as close to a comparison with Rob Gronkowski as you will find in the NFL. Kelce literally does it all for the Chiefs, much like Gronk does for the Patriots.
Kelce was second on the team in targets this year, catching 72 of 103 passes for 875 yards and five touchdowns, and was the leading target against the Texans, catching 8 of 10 for 128 yards. The Chiefs will line up Kelce as an in-line tight end, a slot receiver, and a boundary receiver. They’ll throw him bubble screens, and short crosses and deep crosses over the middle.
They’ll use him as a wham blocker in the run game, and keep him in for extra protection against the blitz. He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands, with the ability to outrun defenders or plow right through them. Kelce (6 foot 5 inches, 255 pounds) is listed just an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Gronk, and he even wears No. 87.
With Maclin likely hobbled, and star running back Jamaal Charles out for the season, Kelce will be the Chiefs’ only weapon. Their other options are receivers Wilson (2 catches, 9 yards), Chris Conley (1 catch, 9 yards), their trio of running backs and two tight ends who don’t catch the ball much, Demetrius Harris (7 catches all season) and Brian Parker (1 catch all season).
■ The Chiefs have a decent enough offensive line that can pave holes for Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, and give Smith enough time to hit his short throws, although the Chiefs’ 46 sacks allowed were fifth-most in the NFL. Former No. 1 pick Eric Fisher is underwhelming at left tackle, and the Texans were able to confuse the Chiefs’ blocking assignments with a few zone blitzes. The Chiefs will run two or three end-arounds to Wilson each game . . .
. . . and Ware (229 pounds) ripped off some big runs with the fake end-around action — a 23-yarder and a 5-yard touchdown.
■ The Chiefs are at their best when they are controlling the clock and limiting turnovers — like they did in last year’s game against the Patriots, when Smith hit 20-of-26 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns, and the Chiefs won the turnover battle, 3-0. The Chiefs were second in the NFL at plus-14 in turnovers this season, and plus-four against the Texans.
But assuming the Patriots do everything they can to take Kelce out of the game, can Smith protect the ball and put up points while throwing to Wilson, West, Conley and possibly a hobbled Maclin in a hostile environment? It’s hard to see the Chiefs having much offensive success.
■ This is the side of the football that could give the Patriots some real problems. A Patriots offense that depends on timing and precision will try to get back to 100 percent efficiency quickly with Edelman, Vollmer, et al coming back all at once. But the Patriots will be facing a fast, physical defense that has Pro Bowl performers at all three levels and made life miserable for Brady last September.
The Chiefs play a classic 3-4 scheme, and finished third in points allowed, seventh in total defense, fourth in sacks (47) and fifth in turnovers created (29). The Chiefs have been top-five in points allowed in all three years under Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. The Chiefs allowed just 290 yards to the Patriots last year, and 180 of those yards came after the Chiefs took a 27-0 lead in the third quarter.
■ The Chiefs allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards in 11 of 17 games this season, and I’m not sure how much the Patriots are going to try to run given the hobbled state of their running game. The Chiefs stuffed 11 of the Texans’ 24 rush attempts for 2 yards or fewer, and if it’s not defensive tackles Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard fighting through double-teams and making stuffs at the line of scrimmage, it’s inside linebackers Derrick Johnson and Josh Mauga swarming to the football and chasing ball carriers down sideline to sideline.
Safeties Eric Berry and Husain Abdullah also are aggressive in the run game and often play down in the box. Frank Zombo plays outside linebacker on first downs, and Tamba Hali subs in for the nickel package. If the Patriots want to run against the Chiefs, they’ll likely have to do it out of spread formations with James White.
■ The Chiefs’ pass defense is no joke either, at both levels. On the front end, they have two excellent edge rushers in Hali and Houston, who combined for three sacks against the Patriots last year and will be tough matchups for Vollmer and Marcus Cannon (although Hali has lost a step after 10 NFL seasons and Houston’s knee is not fully healthy). Poe and Howard might be even bigger worries, as they were consistently in the backfield against the Texans (Poe’s pressure caused Brian Hoyer to throw an interception on the goal line) and could cause problems for the Patriots’ shaky interior line.
Allen Bailey can cause problems in 1-on-1 situations, and the Chiefs also aggressively blitz their linebackers and safeties (Abdullah and Tyvon Branch).
■ And the Chiefs are solid in the back end, with two big cornerbacks who can play press-man coverage in Sean Smith and rookie Marcus Peters (NFL-high eight interceptions). The cornerbacks mostly stick to a side of the field (Smith on the right, Peters on the left) and rarely match up with a receiver, and will often give an 8-10 yard cushion at the line of scrimmage while dropping back into a soft Cover 3. The Texans had success throwing short routes underneath the coverage, but the Chiefs’ corners also are athletic enough to get back in position to jump the short stuff, too.
■ Like the Patriots, the Chiefs use more safeties than cornerbacks in their nickel and dime coverage. Safeties Berry and Ron Parker don’t come off the field, Branch played 47 of 64 snaps and Abdullah (who had a pick-six against the Patriots last year) played 31 snaps against the Texans after missing five weeks with a concussion.
■ The Patriots’ offensive line will have a tough task with the Chiefs’ front seven, but if Brady can get his timing down with Edelman and Amendola, they should be able to take advantage of their quickness advantage over the Chiefs’ bigger cornerbacks like they did against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.