- The Kansas City defense showed what it's made of against the Colts in the divisional round. Will it put up a similar performance in the AFC conference championship again against New England?
On Monday we examined Bill Belichick’s likely plan for containing Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. Expect the Patriots to show pressure and bring relatively safe blitzes inside, asking their mediocre edge rushers to just keep Mahomes in the pocket. The hope is the blitzers can collapse that pocket just enough to make Mahomes throw into the short coverage areas that the New England defense often crowds by dropping a would-be pass rusher.
Even if this plan works, the Patriots still must score at least 30 points to have a chance. Last week Kansas City’s much-maligned defense, through steadily changing coverages, held the high-powered Colts to 21 yards on 12 plays over the game’s first 28 minutes. That built a 24–7 lead that the Chiefs’ pass rush protected in the second half.
It took this sort of Herculean defensive performance at home for people to notice that Kansas City amazingly allowed HALF as many points at home as on the road this year. And also, as our Albert Breer pointed out, that this Chiefs D behind Dee Ford, Chris Jones and Justin Houston, quietly tied with the Steelers for the NFL lead with 52 sacks (31 of which came at home).
Even if the Chiefs are better at home, the Patriots, who hung 43 points on them in Week 6 at Gillette Stadium, can reason that their offensive approach should generate enough production. That usual approach has two parts, both of which match up well to K.C.
Part 1: The three-receiver passing game. With tight end Rob Gronkowski and especially running back James White, New England’s three-wideout package has five viable receiving weapons. The Chiefs are regarded as a man coverage defense, but their foundation is actually matchup zone, which means man coverage on the outside and in the seams, but zone coverage down the middle.
Last week the Patriots torched the Chargers’ underneath zone defenders by sending vertical routes inside and a wide receiver (often Julian Edelman) on a shallow crossing route underneath. Expect to see that on Sunday. And depending on how the Chiefs’ matchup coverages play out, Brady will also work Gronkowski and White on corner routes and flat routes outside.
Kansas City didn’t have great answers for any of these men, especially if Eric Berry is not on the field. (A heel injury has sidelined Berry for all but 99 snaps this season but he did practice this week.) And remember, Brady executes these dropbacks quickly, which negates the threat posed by Ford, Jones and Houston.
Part 2: New England’s power running game. Fullback James Develin plays about 1/3 of the snaps and has become football’s best lead-blocker. The Patriots also have two fantastic blocking tight ends in Gronkowski (a smasher) and Dwayne Allen (a move-blocker). And last week, New England’s interior O-line of Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason and David Andrews was dominant, particularly on straight zone runs blocking for Sony Michel (a terrific first-and second-down runner). This week, expect to see those interior linemen on pull blocks more than zone blockers. Pull-blocking furthers the burden on Chiefs linebackers Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens to read and react, which both men do inconsistently.
The beauty of New England’s power running game is with Brady’s control at the line of scrimmage, it can flex into a spread passing game, with Develin and Michel aligning outside and Edelman, Gronk and Chris Hogan working inside. From here the Patriots can get into the same quick-strike passes that define their potent 3-receiving aerial assault.
Chance of New England upsetting Kansas City: 48%. Now that weather forecasts are calling for less extreme cold than originally thought, the Arrowhead homefield advantage comes back into play.
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