The New England Patriots have bounced back after a 1-2 start to the 2018 season by crushing the Miami Dolphins 38-7 in week four and cruising past the Indianapolis Colts 38-24 and moving into first place in the AFC East. The Patriots jumped out to a 24-3 lead over the Colts on Thursday night behind a solidly balanced rushing and passing attack.
There was nervousness in New England after the Patriots lost two straight after defeating the Houston Texans 27-20 in Gillette Stadium in week one. In weeks two and three the Patriots struggled on offense and defense as the Jacksonville Jaguars coasted to an easy 31-20 win followed by Detroit cruising to a 26-10 win completely shutting down the offense. The addition of wide receiver Josh Gordon, the return of Julian Edelman from suspension and the emergence of rookie running back Sony Michel has sparked the offense these past two weeks.
This week the New England Patriots have had a mini-break with ten days between games and all day Sunday to rest before their prime-time showdown. They will need it with the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs coming to Foxboro. Andy Reid’s squad has been a wrecking ball going through the Chargers, Steelers, 49ers, Broncos (in Denver), and the Jaguars averaging 35 points per game over that span.
This week’s game will be broadcast by NBC and can be seen locally on NBC10 Boston in the greater Boston area and on WJAR NBC-10 in the greater Providence area (just put the television on channel 10). If not near a television Sunday night, you can watch the game on your Desktop or Mobile Device by using the NBC Sports App. Al Michaels will handle play-by-play duties with Cris Collinsworth as the color analyst. Michele Tafoya will work from the sidelines (with the dreadful Carrie Underwood Sunday Night Football theme song “Game On”–go back to “Oh, Sunday Night” already).
On the radio, Thursday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. The bad news is Kevin Kugler will call the with game instead of Ian Eagle. The good news is that the best color man in any medium, Mike Mayock, will be providing analysis. Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win over Indianapolis bumped the Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three to ninth (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). Coming out of week three ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs, the Patriots care now up to 11th in the league converting 41.7% of third downs for the season. The Red Zone scoring percentage of 68.8 (11 of 16 drives) is good for sixth in the NFL.
QUICK PASS ATTACK:
While there is a lot of talk about the Kansas City defense, the Patriots are not going to be able to move down the field without any opposition. Yes, there are injuries on the defense with safety Eric Berry and edge rusher Justin Houston both doubtful to play. Add in safety Eric Murray being out and the Chiefs are a bit thin in the secondary.
The secondary–even before being hit by injuries–has allowed 1,715 yards passing in just five games. That is second-worst in the NFL. As a minor caveat, the Chiefs are often ahead early and often and opponents are throwing the ball. That said, they’ve allowed the most total yards, the most first downs and the most average plays and yards per drive.
Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has always done well against the Patriots offense. Although a base 3-4 defense, it can be challenging due to the different fronts and alignments they throw at opponents (think those Rex Ryan “amoeba” fronts). Just as Andy Reid likes to bring a few new wrinkles when facing a Bill Belichick defense, he also will have a few new wrinkles for the defense when facing Tom Brady.
For Brady, his best weapon will be Julian Edelman. Getting Edelman back from suspension has revitalized the offense by bringing back the short passing game allowing Brady to spread the field horizontally. Having Edelman sit down in his route in the middle of the field forces the defense to leave a linebacker or safety in the intermediate middle of the field.
Having that safety there to account for Edelman keeps one less defender accounting for tight end Rob Gronkowski or running back James White. With more playing time for deep threat Josh Gordon and a handful of plays involving gadget receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, defenses have to leave a safety deep to account for deep strikes downfield.
All this means that the Patriots have more space underneath for Edelman, White, Gronkowski, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan (if he plays). Long drives keeping the potent Kansas City offense on the sidelines is a must. The Patriots need their defense rested and not spending a lot of time on the field.
Using the revitalized short passing game to dictate the tempo of the game and extend drives is a must if the Patriots are going to beat the Chiefs.
TURN ON THE SONY:
Three games into the 2018 season the most jittery of New England Patriots fans (and nincompoop sports talk radio hosts) had already written off Sony Michel. After missing all the preseason and game one with a knee injury, the first round draft pick rushed for just 84 yards on 24 carries in his first two NFL games.
Since then, Michel has been the workhorse in the backfield piling up 43 carries for 210 yards in the last two games. Not coincidentally, the offense scored 38 points in each of those two games.
The Chiefs have allowed a staggering 5.8 yards per rush, easily the worst in the NFL. While Chris Jones and Allen Bailey contributing in the pass rush, they and nose tackles Xavier Williams and Derrick Nnadi have struggled against the run. Most the work in the running game is done by inside linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland well past the line of scrimmage.
As part of the game plan against Kansas City, the Patriots can keep that potent offense off the field by controlling the clock and gaining positive yardage in the running game. Michel is on the injury report this week with a knee injury but should be able to go Sunday night.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE:
One statistic that jumps out for the 2018 New England Patriots is turnovers: nine turnovers in their first five games of 2018. Even more surprising, Tom Brady has accounted for six of those turnovers via interceptions with two more against Indianapolis in the second half of their 38-24 win. Last season he had only eight interceptions in 16 games. In 2016 he had just two interceptions in a dozen games.
For Brady, those two interceptions against Indianapolis were not his fault. He hit Chris Hogan between the numbers and Hogan missed the ball. Ditto on the second interception as he led Gronkowski away from contact but still the ball came out and counted against Brady.
Some of the early interceptions were due to unfamiliarity with his primary receivers but all of the turnovers have hurt the offense. Brady had one fumble and so did Rob Gronkowski. The other two fumbles were from Rex Burkhead (now on injured reserve) and Riley McCarron (released) with Chris Hogan recovering one of the fumbles.
Most surprising was the Patriots had just two turnovers in their two losses and seven in their three victories. Last year the Patriots had just five turnovers in their first ten games. It is strange to watch a New England Patriots team so sloppy with the football.
This week, there is no margin of error with handling the football
Kansas City has forced eight turnovers so far with six interceptions and two fumbles recovered. They are tied for third in the NFL with a plus-five differential. In addition, they have 15 sacks in five games as they’ve taken advantage of forcing opponents to be one-dimensional.
For the Patriots to win at home against a tough opponent, the offense has to take care of the ball. This aggressive and opportunistic defense of Kansas City’s is going to try and help their offense by making a big play to get the ball back.