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Sunday Night Football Preview: How the Patriots Will Defend Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs

Watching the tape to see what Bill Belichick might do to try to slow down the Kansas City Chiefs' offense in a marquee Sunday night matchup.

Patrick Mahomes has looked even better on film than he has on paper or from his highlight reels alone. Mesmerizing playmaking is wonderful, but only if it’s a quarterback’s Plan B. Sustained success stems from orchestrating a well-designed offense on schedule, snap after snap. Mahomes, for the most part, has done that, and at a higher level each week. He works through his progressions more fluidly now than he did in September. He already has some feel for identifying defenses before the snap, especially when Andy Reid helps him by using the spread formations that Mahomes directed in college. When Mahomes has struggled, it’s been more with his accuracy than decision-making.

That’s encouraging because there’s no reason to think Mahomes’s accuracy will be a long-term issue. From a talent standpoint, Mahomes is in the Aaron Rodgers class of gunslingers. He has a quick, compact release, he can throw from different platforms and arm angles, and his ball absolutely hums. Assuming he continues to play with discipline, his accuracy will inevitably become more consistent.

And so for Bill Belichick, the smartest mission is not to try to stop Mahomes, but to stop those around him. Ruin the star QB’s infrastructure. The Patriots are not an overly complex defense. They focus on sound execution, making their opponent mount long, mistake-free, drives. They use aggressive man coverage to disrupt a passing game’s timing, and they usually keep two safeties free, either with both back deep or, more often, with one rotating down into the middle of the field as a “robber.”

This is a great formula for defending the Chiefs because it puts defenders’ eyes on specific players, rather than on the backfield or ball, where you have to deal with the myriad misdirection and decoy actions that define Andy Reid’s cutting-edge offense. The problem is the Patriots, aside from Stephon Gilmore, don’t have great corners. That’s partly why Belichick keeps two safeties free to help. But against elite talents like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, those safeties aren’t free to help because they must become dedicated double-teamers, especially around the red zone.

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A year ago the approach here would have been simple: Gilmore and a safety cover Hill, Devin McCourty and another safety cover Kelce. Whoever is at No. 2 corner—with New England, it changes based on each week’s opponent—would take No. 2 receiver Chris Conley. But this year, the No. 2 receiver is Sammy Watkins, who is a much greater threat than Conley. Does Belichick consider doing with Gilmore what he did at times with Darrelle Revis in 2014, putting him in iso coverage on the No. 2 receiver and doubling WR No. 1 with different guys?

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What makes this dilemma trickier is how diversely Kansas City uses Hill and Kelce. They align all over the formation (including the backfield) and, especially in Hill’s case, cross the formation off designed motion. Also, out of the aforementioned spread sets that Mahomes likes, the Chiefs almost always present a “trips” receiver look. In “trips” Hill often aligns in the slot closest to the QB, nearest the middle of the field. A receiver there has the entire field to work with, which is one reason Belichick believes it’s the hardest location to double-team. The fact that Hill is football’s fastest player makes it even harder. From the “inside slot” in trips, he can quickly attack deep on either side of your defensive backfield.

Despite the challenges posed by playing reactive man coverage against the likes of Hill and Kelce, it’s still New England’s best course. The other options are to play zone (which the Patriots struggled with when they lost 47-27 to the Chiefs in Week 1 last year) or to blitz (which the Patriots rarely do).

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But there’s still the last part of the man coverage equation: what to do with Mahomes? He’s mobile enough to gobble up the scrambling yards that man-to-man defense can present. Spying the young QB would make sense—not just because it curtails the scrambling, but also because it keeps a defender in Mahomes’s line of vision when he gets outside the pocket, where he’s lethal. And, early in the down, when the ball is still in the pocket, a spy crowds the middle of the field, which combats the intersecting crossing routes that Kansas City hurt the Pats on last year. If the Patriots do spy, it’ll be behind a three-man rush and likely with jack-of-all-trades linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

Prediction: Mahomes passes for 300-plus yards, but they’re hard-earned, with Kansas City’s points coming at the end of long drives, like last week against a stellar Jaguars D. The difference this week is the Chiefs are facing Tom Brady, not Blake Bortles. Even a small dosage of turnovers and miscues like Kansas City had against Jacksonville could spell defeat. Reid and Mahomes must assume that Kansas City’s defense, with its inconsistency against the run and questions in coverage at safety and linebacker, will surrender points on almost every Brady-led drive. They can ill afford to make mistakes.

Score: Patriots 34, Chiefs 30

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