By: Hayden Eskridge
Finally! Yes finally, meaningful football has returned to Gillette Stadium as the Patriots kickoff their title defense Thursday against the Kansas City Chiefs. All the hype, throw it out the window. All that matters now is performance, and the Patriots are going to have to perform pretty well if they want to live up to the expectations set for them by fans and media members alike. Their first test, a Kansas City team loaded with young talent that has posted at least 11 wins in three of the last four seasons. No problem for the defending champs right? I mean look how much better they got this off-season. This is the best team they’ve had on paper in years, should be a cake walk. Think again. The Patriots are going to have to play well right out of the gate if they want to start the year 1-0, and with the circus that is the banner ceremony there will be no shortage of distractions. Thankfully this team handles would-be distractions better than any team in the NFL, and if they can handle these match-ups just as well they should hand the Chiefs a loss on Thursday night.
Patriots Defensive Physicality Vs. Chiefs Offensive Speed
New England likes to play a physical brand of defense. Get up tight on the wide receivers, jam them and then use the linebackers to knock off any route run over the middle of the field. However the Chiefs have some burners on that offense and Tyreke Hill scares me in particularly. If he can get a clean release at the line don’t be surprised if he gets behind the safeties quickly. In addition to Hill being able to take the top off the defense, the Chiefs have one of the best Tight Ends in the game in Travis Kelce to attack the middle of the field. I expect the Patriots to employ all three of their safeties playing Mccourty and Harmon up top, with Chung playing closer to the line trying to erase Kelce from the game.
Bill Belichick puts as much emphasis on Special Teams as any coach in the NFL, but if I had to put one coach second it would be Andy Reid. This I think will be the deciding factor in this football game. We all know the Patriots have a question mark in who will fill the punt returner role left void by both Cyrus Jones and Jullian Edelelman and as we’ve seen in the past an error in fielding a punt can cost teams games, I'm talking to you Chris Harper. What i'm most interested in though is the match-up between the Chiefs dynamic return game led by Tyreek Hill and Deanthony Thomas versus the Patriots kick coverage unit which is among the NFL’s best. The hidden yardage in a football game is mostly gained and lost on special teams and when two of the league’s best special teams units are battling it could ultimately change the outcome of the game
Stopping the Zone Running Game
The entire Chiefs offense is based on setting the tone in the zone running game. When they are successful with that it allows them to run Bootleg action passes that get Alex Smith out of the pocket allowing him to make plays in their intermediate passing game. Similar to what we saw in last year’s AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh, the Patriots need their defensive lineman to prevent Kansas City’s offensive line from driving them off the ball and reaching the linebackers at the second level. Fortunately for the Patriots have guys like Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, and Lawrence Guy who are gap cloggers that can keep the Kansas City offensive at bay. The Patriots need to make stopping the run priority number one if they want to keep the Chiefs points total low.
This could be the case with any game, but in this one turnovers will be hard to come by so the team that is able to jump on the most could swing this game. Last season the Chiefs and the Patriots were one and three respectively when it came to turnover differential. One indictment against Alex Smith is that he’s know as more of a “game manager” rather than a play-maker, but one silver lining to this is that he doesn’t turn the ball over. If the Patriots come out sloppy with an early turnover or two it might be hard for them to take a possession back from the Chiefs.
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