The New England Patriots held serve at home on Sunday Night Football last week against young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes and the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots built a 24 to nine halftime lead before the Chiefs came storming back in second half to take a 33-30 lead.
The Patriots struggled on third down having to settle for a field goal on three of their first five drives on the second half (including one Tom Brady turnover). When the Patriots needed to score, it came down to Brady turning back to the much-maligned Chris Hogan for two big completions before Brady scrambled in the out of a sure sack and ended up inn the end zone to give the Patriots the lead back.
Another field goal–a quick-strike touchdown by the Chiefs too tie the game–and a final drive highlighted by Rob Gronkowski’s clutch 500th career reception set up the Patriots’ game-winner by Stephen Gostkowski. The Patriots prevailed 43-40 in one of the most entertaining games of the 2018 NFL season. The schedule-makers do not make it easy for the Patriots after defeating the AFC West’s best, they face the NFC North’s first-place Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston and WPRI 12 in Providence. Ian Eagle will handle play-by-play duties with Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts as the color analyst. Evan Washburn will work from the sidelines.
On the radio, Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Sports USA. Larry Kahn will call the with game with Doug Plank 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 Kansas City bumped the Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three to fourth (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 eighth in the league converting 43.8% of third downs for the season. The Red Zone scoring percentage of 68.2 (15 of 22 drives) is good for seventh in the NFL.
RUN! RUN! RUN!
The New England Patriots come into week seven facing off against the Chicago Bears with their offense in gear running the football. In the past three weeks the Patriots have rushed for 175, 97, and 173 yards while rolling to three consecutive victories and the offense scoring 38 points or more in three consecutive games.
The running game kicked into gear with the return to health of rookie first-round draft pick Sony Michel after missing all of training camp and the preseason games and week one. After being worked into the offense slowly in weeks two and three, injuries to Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead have forced bigger role for the rookie.
With Rob Gronkowski on the injury report and possibly not playing due to a back injury in addition to his lingering ankle injury, the Patriots may be short a big weapon on Sunday afternoon. That makes it even more critical to run the football effectively.
Chicago’s defense had been bearish against the run up until last week in Miami. Part of that problem may have been the heat in Miami, but the Bears were shredded through the air by Brock Osweiler and on-the-ground by Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake. After allowing less than 75 yards rushing in each of their first four games, the Dolphins pounded out 161 yards against Chicago.
Chicago is strong up front with former Patriots defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, recently resigned nose tackle Eddie Goldman and third-year end Jonathan Bullard. With All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack and 2016 first round draft pick Leonard Floyd on the end of the line the Bears are difficult to run against inside or on the edge. Even getting past the three big bodies inside leaves 2018 first round pick Roquan Smith and former Denver Bronco Danny Trevathan to clean things up on the inside.
Despite getting run over by the Dolphins, the Bears are still fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and have yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Even with Khalil Mack banged up there is enough talent in Chicago to get pressure on New England quarterback Tom Brady consistently if the running game is not there too slow the pass rush.
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This is a matchup that New England must win in the trenches to get Sony Michel and James White space to pick up yards against the tough defensive front of Chicago. If the Patriots cannot run the ball on the road, it could be a long afternoon for the offense.
Edelman Back into a Groove
With the Chicago Bears pass rush which has been causing so much trauma for opponents, the Patriots are going to have to protect quarterback Tom Brady and have him get the football out of his hands as quickly as possible on Sunday afternoon. Look for the Patriots to get back to that quick passing offensive attack.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski not traveling with the team to Chicago, it seems doubtful he will be able to play or contribute against the Bears on Sunday. That requires more snaps for tight end Dwayne Allen, who is best as a blocker than a receiver.
It is no coincidence that the offensive Revival in New England has coincided with the addition of the dynamic Josh Gordon on the outside and the return from suspension of slot receiver Julian Edelman. In the first three weeks, defenses took away Gronkowski and were able to neutralize Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan.
Look for Brady to use Edelman as an extension of the running game, with short passes near the line of scrimmage to neutralize the pass rush and 4 missed tackles and bigger plays. With the defense having to account for Gordon, there may be more opportunities closer to the line of scrimmage for Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.
Another weapon in the short passing game if Gronkowski is unable to go, is Jacob Hollister. The tight end had flashed in limited action before an injury slowed his progress in 2018. Hollister is a sneaky good receiver who may be able to carve out a role getting off the line of scrimmage and getting the football in his hands in a hurry this week.
To counteract that Patriots short passing game the Bears secondary will have to be on their toes. Kyle Fuller is their top corner and he is joined by Prince Amukamara (who was limited this week at practice with a hamstring injury). With cornerback Marcus Cooper unlikely to play due to injury, the Bears lack proven talent in the third cornerback role and look at that as a match up the Patriots try to exploit with Edelman.
The Bears have been forced to use Bryce Callahan as their third cornerback with Cooper out and Callahan has struggled mightily in that role. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will try to get Callahan in coverage of Edelman as often as possible. The Bears may be forced to play undrafted rookie free agent cornerback Kevin Toliver more than they would like to if Callahan struggles.
Heavy Dose of James White
While the Chicago Bears have frustrated opposing defenses with their “Mighty Mites” Tarik Cohen and Taylor Gabriel this season the Patriots have a smaller shiftier receiving running back of their own in James White. White has a team-leading 37 receptions on a team-leading 51 targets for 323 yards through six games.
The Patriots would love to get white open in space with just a linebacker such as Roquan Smith or Danny Trevathan in coverage. Look for the Bears to counter that plan by having a safety in coverage spying on White. With free safety Eddie Jackson likely manning the deep middle, it will put pressure on Adrian Amos to play Closer to the line of scrimmage and account for James White.
Amos emerged last season with the recognition as an elite strong safety for Chicago in his third year in the NFL. The fourth-year free safety was a fifth-round draft pick in 2015 and immediately moved into the starting lineup for the Bears. His game has continued to evolve as he is improved in coverage while always being strong in run support.
If Gronkowski cannot play, that will free up Amos to focus more on James White. Having to account for the All-Pro tight end with a linebacker and a safety allows White the space to slip out of the backfield unnoticed and make plays in space. With Amos accounting for White, that is the domino effect taking away one more passing weapon from Brady.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01