We held a round-table discussion with three of our writers — Nora Princiotti, Ben Volin, and Chad Finn — to answer a variety of questions ahead of the Patriots’ game against the Chief Sunday. We discussed the Patriots’ season outlook after five games, impressions of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, if the Chiefs can make a run in the postseason, how Kansas City’s explosive offense will test New England (and why the Patriots’ lack of defensive speed will be a factor), and who is better between Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. Editor Rachel G. Bowers moderated.
Bowers: How have the first five games changed your outlook on how far the Patriots can go this season?
Princiotti: They haven’t changed mine at all, honestly. If anything I’m a bit more impressed with some other teams in the AFC (like, hey, the Chiefs!) than I thought I’d be, which maybe changes the outlook a bit for the postseason.
Finn: Maybe slightly downward for me, but nothing more than that. Figured at the start of the season that they would probably get to the final four in the league, with Jacksonville taking another step forward. Didn’t expect KC to emerge like this. Ask this one again after Sunday.
Volin: I’m more concerned about the Patriots’ mental toughness and ability to win big games on the road than I was at the beginning of the season. Their two road performances have been stinkers so far. They fell behind by too big of a margin in Jacksonville, and were totally non-competitive against Detroit. The Patriots have played much better the past two weeks, but both have been at home and haven’t eased my concern about the team’s road toughness. Six of their final 10 are on the road, and none will be gimmes — Chicago, Buffalo, Tennessee, Jets, Dolphins, Steelers. And the way the season is trending, the Patriots aren’t going to get the No. 1 seed, and might have to go on the road at some point in the playoffs. So while the Chiefs game is definitely a big test, I see the Bears game as an equally big one, if not bigger.
Bowers: What are your impressions of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes? Is he the real deal that can lead this Chiefs team on a postseason run this year?
Princiotti: He’s fun as heck to watch. They’ll certainly make the playoffs, barring some crazy disaster or injury, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they tail off a decent amount.
Finn: I watched his dad pitch for the Red Sox for a couple of years. He must get his accuracy from his mom.
Princiotti: FWIW the Alex Smith-led Chiefs were doing pretty well themselves at this point last season, then they started to come back to earth. Mahomes threw his first two interceptions last week. They’re crazy talented on offense, so I think they stay threatening into the postseason but I’m just not sure they’ll have us knocked as flat on our butts in December as they do now, if that makes sense.
Volin: Mahomes is ridiculously talented, gets top-notch coaching, and has amazing weapons around him. It’s the perfect combination. His arm strength is elite and he’s a great athlete, so his ability to get outside the pocket, throw the ball on the run and fit the ball into tight windows is rivaled only by Aaron Rodgers. Add in receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce, running back Kareem Hunt and great coaching from Andy Reid, and the result is the best offense in the NFL.
Mahomes was a great shortstop in baseball, and he plays quarterback like one. He goes into the hole, throws from different arm angles, has great balance, etc. Oh, and he can avoid the rush, and throw the ball out of the stadium.
Finn: Mahomes is electrifying, and you can see the genesis of the Brett Favre comparisons in terms of his fearlessness and the rocket arm. But this is a player who has started six NFL games, and I wonder if there are flaws there that are yet to be exposed. He threw 25 picks in 25 games over his last two years in college [at Texas Tech]. That’s not terrible by any stretch, but he did have those two picks last week.
Princiotti: It’s been so funny this week to hear the Patriots scout team players talk about everyone trying to mimic those guys. [The Chiefs] stacked on that side of the ball.
Bowers: Yeah, Brian Hoyer said mimicking Mahomes on scout team has pretty much given him the green light to make any throw he wants. Any idea who has been playing Hill or Hunt on scout team?
Princiotti: The only answer I’ve gotten on who’s playing Hill is “a little bit of everybody” among the receivers. Jacob Hollister has been playing Kelce, which makes sense. They just brought back running back Kenneth Farrow to the practice squad, I think he’s doing a little of Hunt, though it’s not a very apt comparison. It actually looked like he was scrambling around as Mahomes for a little bit, too, at practice on Tuesday (I think it was Tuesday).
Bowers: In what ways do you see Kansas City really testing the Patriots? And to go back to mental toughness that Ben mentioned, is this a game where they can sort of get on track on that front?
Volin: I think the Chiefs are a really bad matchup for the Patriots because their top players are their tight end, running back, and speedy jack-of-all-trades, three types of players that always give the Patriots’ defense big problems. The Patriots can always shut down a wide receiver. But having to defend Kelce, Hill, and Hunt with their linebackers and safeties is always a huge problem. The Patriots tried to play a lot of zone last year, and self destructed with blown assignments and communication errors.
Finn: It’s kind of funny looking back, but the Chiefs started 5-0 least year . . . then lost 6 of 7, including to the Jets, Raiders, Bills, and Cowboys. Obviously Mahomes is much more dynamic than Alex Smith, but I’m really curious to see where it goes from here. I’m sure [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick and [de-facto defensive coordinator] Brian Flores recognize some flaw or another with that offense, but relative to what Ben said, how can the Patriots possibly have the speed to exploit anything?
Princiotti: Right, so the speed poses a huge problem because the Patriots defense isn’t fast. It can be overcome (the Dolphins also have a lot of speed on offense) but not when there are communication issues, as Ben said. So this will definitely test the Patriots’ preparation. Chad is smart to bring up Brian Flores, since I think this game will say a lot about how he’s coaching the defense.
Volin: Interestingly, the worst two defensive performances in Belichick’s career came last year: Week 1 against the Chiefs (42 points, 537 yards), and Super Bowl LII against the Eagles (41 points, 538 yards), against Andy Reid and Doug Pederson (aka Andy Reid Jr.), respectively. Same offense, same run-pass option principles.
Bowers: On Monday Night Football recently, ESPN’s Booger McFarland said Kelce is the best tight end in the game, and specifically said he’s better than Rob Gronkowski. Discuss.
Volin: Kelce has way better weapons around him. He’s not getting the consistent double teams that Gronk is. Gronk’s catch numbers are on par with past years, and his catch percentage is a career high. He’s just getting no yards after the catch, because defenses are draped all over him. Let’s see what happens now that Julian Edelman is back. I’m taking Gronk all day, because he also blocks in the run game.
Finn: What Ben said. Beyond that, Kelce is actually as obnoxious as some outside of New England perceive Gronk to be.
Princiotti: If Gronk played in an offense that put the same kind of vertical stress on defenses this wouldn’t be a question.
Princiotti: Did any of you guys watch his reality show, “Catching Kelce”?
Bowers: I did not know he had a reality show, oh boy.
Volin: Could not think of something I would have less interest in.
Princiotti: It was like the bachelor but the bachelor was Travis Kelce.
Bowers: I would watch, but hate-watch.
Princiotti: To be clear and to preserve my dignity, I only saw highlight clips. He’s no Jay Cutler [on E’s “Very Cavallari”], though.