The day is finally here. After the Patriots won the most rewarding and fulfilling game of my life since Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, we were just waiting for the next Pats postseason game. The seeding, the opponent, and the health of the team were all unknown, but the Pats’ presence in this game was a given. And finally, here we are.
Given that Vontaze Burfict and other members of the Bengals defense would have missed this game, and given Antonio Brown’s concussion and Ben Roethlisberger’s arm that is held together by dental floss right now, the Pats clearly drew the worst of the possible AFC opponents. Make no mistake about it, the Pats clearly cost themselves by losing the 1 seed, drawing the Chiefs, and maybe having to go to Mile High, which is their worst stadium. They would have rolled over the ailing Steelers, but instead, they got the team with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston during the year when Nate Solder is gone for the season.
The obvious — and true — narrative of this game is that it depends on the Patriots’ health. Rob Gronkowski went to the hospital this week for a knee injection, and that fact unequivocally terrifies 95% of Pats fans… and the other 5% are lying. Gronk is likely to play on Saturday afternoon, but he won’t be 100%. That being said, his health might not be the most important of any non-Brady offensive player for the first time in a long time. Julian Edelman will be the key to the Pats offense, as Gronk’s effectiveness might be limited with a strong Chiefs’ pass rush, anyway. They’ll need Gronk to block on some plays, and he won’t have time to get open for the really dangerous routes if KC is rolling through New England’s offensive line. Edelman, however, is the security blanket that Brady needs for those quick throws when he’s pressured.
Edelman will likely draw Chiefs rookie stud cornerback Marcus Peters, but you should feel far better about the matchup than you probably do. Peters is much better as a vertical cornerback than a horizontal one, and Brady and Edelman should be able to connect on crossing routes. Think of what Brady and Edelman did to the Legion of Boom last February. The LOB is an incredible secondary, of course, and they play zone far more than anyone else, Chiefs included. However, they also were much weaker at covering horizontal routes than vertical ones, and Brady picked them apart in those situations. The Chiefs’ top cornerback can’t cover the horizontal routes as well as the vertical ones, and that connection to SB49 bodes well for the Brady Bunch.
The Pats offensive line scares me, of course, especially with Tre Jackson out for the game. Only Josh Kline finished with an above average rating on the team’s offensive line according to Pro Football Focus, and given that he wasn’t exactly 2007 Logan Mankins in 2014, it would shock absolutely nobody if he gets beat all game. Sebastian Vollmer should play tomorrow, but that doesn’t make Justin Houston and Tamba Hali vs. the Pats O-line a fair matchup.
If you’re looking for a few relative dark horses to step up for the Pats, look for James White and Danny Amendola. Brady will need to check down a ton in this game, and hopefully White can do a good enough impersonation of Dion Lewis. If White can be a reliable option for Brady when he’s rushed, then he’ll add a huge element to the Pats’ ability to avoid sacks from Houston and Hali. And if he starts breaking long gains off of check downs, then the KC pass rush will lighten up and wear down over the course of the game, just like Michael Bennett and Seattle’s pass rush finally wore down in the 4th quarter after 50 passes from Tom Brady that included mostly quick throws and a ton of short completions to Shane Vereen.
As for Amendola, the analysis is simple. Peters might get some help on Edelman or Jules might not be 100%, and Amendola can capitalize off of Edelman’s presence and get some space in the open field. Amendola is also huge for quick passes to beat the Chiefs’ potent pass rush, and having 2 shifty slot receivers instead of 1 will be a tremendous advantage to Brady.
On the other side of the ball, the Pats are finally lucky that the opponent’s offense might be more banged up than theirs. Jeremy Maclin is questionable (So are Justin Houston and a few other guys, but they’ll almost certainly play), and he won’t be close to 100% after suffering a high ankle sprain last week. Gronk had a high ankle sprain in the 2011 AFCCG and then was hobbled 2 weeks later in SB46. Even if Maclin does play, I have no doubt whatsoever that Malcolm Butler can stick the 6 ‘0″ Maclin. Travis Kelce will be a headache, but the Pats should be able to devote enough attention to him since Butler will take a hobbled Maclin out of the game and the Chiefs’ don’t have another scary wide receiver.
Maybe even more important than Maclin’s status is that Chiefs center Mitch Morse and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif are both out for the game tomorrow. The Chiefs shockingly have the top ranked rush offense in the league even after Jamaal Charles’ injury, but the running game is way more about offensive lines than people realize. The Pats have their full core of Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Jerod Mayo at linebacker, and their presence coupled with the absence of Morse and Duvernay-Tardif will be a huge advantage to New England.
Ultimately, I’m more confident than most Pats fans, even with the Gronkowski injuries that snuck up on us. Why? Because I don’t see the Chiefs being able to move the ball. Who’s gonna beat the Pats on offense? Maclin is hurt, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West won’t be as effective with missing linemen, and Travis Kelce isn’t exactly a healthy Gronk. Alex Smith is a fine QB, but he isn’t at the level where he can beat a good team with little help.
The Pats’ biggest problem could be turnovers and special teams that give the Chiefs free points. Kansas City had the 7th best special teams according to Football Outsiders, and the Pats, while ranking 5th, have had some horrible meltdowns on the 3rd side of the ball this year. And if Brady throws a Brian Hoyer-esque interception in his own territory, then you never know, the Chiefs might combine that with a big special teams play to steal 10 or 14 points from the Pats. But I’ll never bet on a Belichick team failing in those types of ways in a big game, and that’s why you still have to pick the Patriots. The spread of Pats -5 makes it tempting to take the Chiefs, but I’ll pick the Pats to cover in an ugly 10 point game.
Pick: Patriots win 20-10. The game will be either the least or 2nd least exciting game of the weekend.