It’s finally here. The NFL regular season starts tonight with the defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots against the AFC West winner, the Kansas City Chiefs. This game features the two current winningest head coaches, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, and two extremely talented football teams.
The Chiefs have, arguably, one of the best rosters in the NFL. The Patriots, who already have possibly the greatest QB of all time, got BETTER this offseason ... after winning a Super Bowl. They added Brandin Cooks, Stephen Gilmore, Dwayne Allen, and get back a healthy Rob Gronkowski.
No Edelman, no problem?
In 2016, New England had an explosive offense. The Pats were in the top five of most offensive categories, led by Brady who finished the regular season, in only 12 games, with 28 touchdowns and two interceptions, completing 67.4 percent of his passes. However, Brady’s favorite target, Julian Edelman, tore his ACL in the preseason and is out for the year.
Edelman was Brady’s go-to weapon on third down, leading the NFL with 431 receiving yards. Since 2014, with Edelman in the lineup, the Pats are 34-6 and Brady’s passer rating is 106.9. Without Edelman, the record drops to 4-5 and the passer rating is 86.4, and Brady’s completion percentage drops seven points.
Luckily for Brady and the Patriots offense, Cooks was added in the offseason. The lightening-quick receiver from New Orleans can fill into the Edelman role, and with a healthy Gronk, I don’t see any slippage in the passing game.
2016 also saw the return of a Patriots running game, after years of being stagnant. The Patriots have quietly built an above-average offensive line, another reason I see no decline in the offense.
In 2014-15, the Chiefs defense was beastly: sixth in yards per game, second in third down conversions and first in sacks. Last year was a step back for it, finishing in the bottom third in most defensive categories. However, the defense tended to rise to the occasion, going 7-1 against teams with top 10 offenses.
Injuries played a role in the defensive slip, as did the decline of some interior defensive tackles. The Chiefs couldn’t stop the run last season.
How did they fix that? Well they added Bennie Logan from the Eagles, a solid run defender to clog up the middle. They got back stud defensive end Allen Bailey, who only played in five games last season. They get a healthy Justin Houston and continued improvement from Dee Ford on the other side.
Eric Berry is playing at a high level, as is cornerback Marcus Peters, who leads the NFL in interceptions with 14 over the last two seasons. The Chiefs defense excels at forcing and creating turnovers, leading the league with 33 takeaways last season.
When the Chiefs beat the Patriots in 2014, they got after Tom Brady, sacking him three times, plus another 12 pressures. This is always the key against New England. You must get Tom Brady off his spot.
I expect New England to try two different things to slow down the pass rush. First, run the ball early and often. Second, plenty of empty formations. It will help eliminate the Chiefs’ complex blitz schemes. It should also force mismatch opportunities for Gronkowski. Hard to double him when you’re in an empty formation.
The Chiefs MUST run the ball
The Chiefs run a traditional West Coast offense under Reid, with lots of formations and personnel groups. They emphasize short to intermediate passes that feature getting the ball into their playmakers hands and a solid run game. At times, the offense does call for deep passes, something Alex Smith either isn’t comfortable with or just doesn’t see guys when they are open.
Smith helps win football games because he doesn’t make mistakes and manages Reid’s game plan. However, for the Chiefs to take the next step, they need him to throw the ball downfield more. Since 2013, he’s had the fewest air yards per pass attempt.
This preseason, the Chiefs offense made a habit of taking deep shots when they were available, thanks to the emergence of outside playmaker Tyreek Hill. Last season Hill was primarily used for short passes that turned into long gains and gadget-type plays. This season, he’s being asked to play a traditional wide receiver role. I’m skeptical he’ll succeed at that the way he did as a gadget-type player.
In the passing game, the Chiefs also get the ball to Travis Kelce, their playmaker at tight end. He is an elite talent and someone the Patriots will need to cover. Kelce can turn short passes, like screens, into touchdowns while also dominating the middle of the field, like a typical tight end.
When the Chiefs offense is clicking, their run game is solid. In Reid’s first three seasons in Kansas City, the Chiefs had a top-10 rushing attack. Part of that is Smith’s ability to use his legs, but they’ve also had excellent backs and offensive lines.
The run game fell off last season with Smith rushing less, no Jamaal Charles, and the line starting to jell together. Heading into this season, the bulk of the carries were going to Spencer Ware, one of five players with 900+ rushing yards and 400+ receiving yards in 2016. Unfortunately, Ware is out for the season after suffering a preseason injury.
Insert rookie Kareem Hunt. I liked Hunt coming out of Toledo. He has the skill set to play in Reid’s offense. He can run it and catch it. The Chiefs must run the ball this season.
The offensive line is spending its second season together, which will be helpful. There is a question mark at left guard, but otherwise, the line is solid. Plus, I heard the right tackle is good.
New England’s 2016 defense was eighth in total yards and third in scoring. It excelled against the run and was seventh on third down.
The Pats added to their defense by signing defensive back Stephen Gilmore in the offseason to replace Logan Ryan. The Patriots now have a trio of Pro Bowl defensive backs in Gilmore, Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty. This is the strength of the unit.
What New England does better than any team is mold its defense to its weekly game plan. For example, if a team is a primarily 4-3 Cover 2 team, it’ll run that no matter who it faces. New England doesn’t rely on one scheme. It will run a 4-3, 3-4, 5-2, man, and zone. It’s impressive. Everyone buys in.
However, the Patriots need to find a pass rush this season. Eight of their 34 sacks are gone, and one of their primary replacements, rookie Derek Rivers, is out for the season. They don’t have a playmaker upfront.
This matchup between Kansas City’s offense and New England’s defense comes down to the Chiefs running the football. In their 2014 win, the Chiefs ran for 207 yards and controlled the clock and tempo. In their 2015 playoff loss, they rushed for only 135 yards, with Smith accounting for almost a third of those.
In the Patriots playoff win, they decided to shut down Kelce by doubling him. I expect the same game plan here; however, the Chiefs now have another weapon in Hill who could give New England issues. I’d expect the Chiefs to stay in 12 personnel, with two tight ends on the field, to keep New England in base and hopefully keep the double teams away from Kelce.
The Chiefs will have to be creative with their formations and their run package to pick up yards on the ground. If New England can’t muster a pass rush, that will allow Kelce and Hill to work to get open.
Don’t forget the little things
Two more factors, staples of both teams: turnovers and special teams. The Chiefs have had excellent special teams under Dave Toub. They know their assignments and have players who can break runs to the house. Likewise, a Belichick-coached team will always be solid on special teams.
As for turnovers, Kansas City was first and New England third in the league last season in turnover margin.
On the road, opening night, raising a Super Bowl banner, the crowd and vibe in Foxborough will be intense. To win this game, the Chiefs must play their brand. They need big special teams play, a big turnover, and they have to run the ball. Their margin for error is slim.
If the offense is struggling, can Alex push the ball downfield to spark it? Last season, in various games, the Chiefs offense would start fast, then stall for long stretches of the game. This can’t happen against New England.
Brady will be on top of his game Thursday night. You can feel that the Patriots have gone all in on winning with Brady’s end coming soon. Player for player, the Chiefs are more talented, but the Patriots play better than individual talents.
Prediction: The Chiefs will keep the game close, but the Patriots will win.