FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ defense is emphasizing all week not to give up big plays to the Chiefs Sunday night, but that’s nothing new. The Patriots emphasize this every week.
But let’s just say it’s taking on a little extra importance this week.
“This week, there’s just a lot of guys that can create big plays and take it the distance,” safety Devin McCourty said Wednesday. “It’s something we know first-hand.”
The last time the Chiefs came to town, it wasn’t pretty. In Week 1 last year, they spoiled the Patriots’ championship-banner ceremony, blowing the doors off the New England defense in the fourth quarter en route to a 42-27 victory.
The 42 points were the most ever scored against the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era, and the 537 yards gained by the Chiefs were the most against Belichick until the Eagles gained 538 in the Super Bowl.
And it’s not as if the Chiefs went up and down the field on the Patriots all night. The Patriots actually led, 17-7, late in the second quarter, and 27-21 entering the fourth. The Chiefs had only five plays over 20 yards all game.
But the Chiefs turned the second half into a track meet — with a 75-yard touchdown catch for Tyreek Hill, a 78-yard touchdown catch by Kareem Hunt, and a 21-yard touchdown run by Charcandrick West that was set up by a 58-yard run by Hunt on the play before. They scored 21 straight points in the fourth quarter and cruised out of town with a blowout victory.
This year, the Chiefs come to Gillette Stadium with a 5-0 record, a two-game lead over the Patriots for the No. 1 playoff seed, and a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the AFC.
The quarterback is different, with Patrick Mahomes taking over for Alex Smith this season. And each team of course has several personnel changes.
But it’s still Andy Reid vs. Belichick. The Chiefs’ main weapons are still Travis Kelce, Hill, and Hunt. And the Patriots are well aware that the Chiefs have the speed to strike at any moment, from any spot on the field. They have the NFL’s second-highest scoring offense (35 points per game), and Mahomes is third among all quarterbacks with 25 completions of 20-plus yards.
“It’s definitely relevant,” McCourty said of last year’s game. “Things that hurt us in that game could always show back up. We know how the game turned with a couple of big plays.”
Last year’s game was a mess for the Patriots as they tried to handle the Chiefs’ speed and bunch formations. Hill’s 75-yard touchdown came on a communication breakdown between Stephon Gilmore and his safeties, who left Hill wide open deep down the seam.
Hunt’s 78-yard touchdown had no deep safety help, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy looked lost trying to cover Hunt out of the backfield.
And the defense appeared to give up late in the fourth quarter, getting badly outleveraged on a toss sweep to Hunt that he took 58 yards. McCourty saved a touchdown by hustling downfield and pushing Hunt out of bounds, but West finished the Patriots off on the next play with his 21-yard inside run.
Belichick said last year’s game was “one piece of the puzzle” as the Patriots prepared for this Sunday’s matchup.
“There’s certainly things that we can learn from that,” Belichick said. “You could watch seven, eight games, 10 games, however many games it is on the team, and each one of them has some degree of relevance, even if it’s to throw it out and eliminate something for a particular reason.”
Reid tried to downplay the relevance of last year’s game, but Belichick and Reid certainly have a history. Belichick is 5-2 all time against Reid, including a win in the Super Bowl. But Reid has taken two of the three matchups against Belichick since going to Kansas City in 2013, including two of the worst losses of Belichick’s career: the Week 1 loss last year, and the 41-14 blowout in 2014 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Reid’s West Coast offense has twice confounded the Patriots with its bevy of shifts, motion, play-action, and double moves by receivers.
“Listen, you look at everything, right? You’ve got to look at everything,” Reid said of last year’s game. “But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same.”
Having Mahomes under center instead of Smith is certainly a big change. Mahomes can move well and throw on the run like Smith, but he has a much bigger arm.
“Their games are different, and Patrick’s just beginning,” said Reid. “Alex has been doing it a long time. I like Patrick, I like his game and what he’s done so far. I like his willingness to try to get better.”
The Patriots will have had 10 days to prepare for Sunday’s game, and Mahomes said he expects their defense to have a new wrinkle or two. The first order of business is not letting Hunt or Hill scamper 75-plus yards down the field for touchdowns.
“They’re going to have ways to take away the stuff that we’ve had success with so far this season, and I expect them to throw some stuff out there that’s unscouted,” Mahomes said.
“But, at the same time, we’re going to keep just working on our game plan and keep doing things that we do well in order to have success.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin