The New England Patriots completed 17 weeks of the 2018 NFL season and then knocked off the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Playoff round to earn a record eighth consecutive trip to the AFC Championship Game. Dwell on that for a second: the last time the New England Patriots were knocked out of the playoffs in the Divisional round Aaron Hernandez started at tight end and Brandon Tate started at wide receiver.
From a off-season filled with locker room drama regarding Tom Brady’s personal trainer’s role with the team, Brady and Rob Gronkowski retirement rumors, Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension, to a 1-2 start including a loss to former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and to the Jacksonville Jaguars (in an “AFC Championship Game Rematch”), it did not look like the Patriots–after losing Super Bowl 52 to the Eagles and Seth Wickersham stories about the professional marriage of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick eroding–would be in this position of being just one game away from the Super Bowl yet again.
However, a six-game winning streak–including a thrilling win in prime-time over the then undefeated Kansas City Chiefs–seemed to quell those fears. However, the Patriots then lost three of five–including an ugly performance on the road against former Patriots great Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans and back-to-back losses in December on the road. That included the “Miami Miracle” on a multi-lateral touchdown to the Dolphins and an ugly performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers which included an atrocious Tom Brady interception.
The season ended on an upswing by outlasting an impotent Buffalo Bills offense 24-12 in Tom Brady’s ugliest game of the season and a good old-fashioned stomping of the Jets 38-3 to make everyone believe everything was all good heading into the playoffs. As the number two seed, the New England Patriots hosted the Los Angeles Chargers last week in Foxboro, MA.
The Patriots on offense scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions and forced five consecutive punts after a defensive breakdown gave the Chargers an early easy touchdown. With New England ahead 35-7 at the half, by the time the Chargers started moving the football in the second half the game was over and New England was playing prevent defense almost the entire second half of the game on their way to victory.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS again on Sunday night at 6:40PM ET and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Evan Washburn, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely will work from the sidelines.
Sunday’s game will be broadcast on Westwood One with Kevin Kugler calling the play-by-play and Tony Boselli as analyst. Ross Tucker will provide sideline 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 and local talk radio personality 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 Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three ended the season ranked fourth in scoring offense with 27.3 points per game and 436 points. They were fifth in yards with 6,295 and averaged 5.9 yards per play (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
The balanced offensive attack showed in the final stats. The offense was eighth in passing yards with 4,258 yards and sixth in net yards gained per attempt at 7.2 (passing yards minus sack yards per pass attempts and total sacks). On the ground, the Patriots rushed for 2,037 yards (fifth in the NFL) their highest total since 2013. However, the effectiveness of their dedication to the ground game was just 20th in the league at 4.3 yards per attempt.
Coming out of week three, the New England offense ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs. The Patriots finished 13th in the NFL converting 40.8% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage was a problem all season and finished 15th in the league at 59.6% (34 of 57 drives).
How does New England get past a Kansas City Chiefs team with a strong pass rush led by Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston (combined 37.5 sacks) and a defensive secondary that held Andrew Luck to just 203 yards passing last week?
RUN, RUN, RUN
The New England Patriots have morphed into a team that leans on the run in 2018. Here’s an easy stat to define the 2018 New England Patriots: When they rush for 100 yards or more they are 9-0 in the regular season and 1-0 in the postseason. Less than 100 yards on the ground and they are 2-5 (and in one of those wins against the Colts they rushed for 97 yards).
Last week the Indianapolis Colts were able to run the ball effectively against the Chiefs as Marlon Mack had 46 yards on just nine carries and Nyheim Hines added 24 yards on three attempts. The problem for Indianapolis was that the Chiefs’ defense held on two third-and-short situations and suddenly the Colts were down 17-0 and they had not converted a first down.
To combat Kansas City’s improved pass coverage and relentless pass rush, New England needs to use all of their many weapons in the running game.
The New England Patriots offensive coaching staff knows full well that the Kansas City Chiefs are not going to stubbornly play the same coverage play-after-play like the Chargers did last week not switching up schemes until they were behind 38-7. What they are going to see against the Chiefs are a mix of complex coverage schemes employing man, zone and hybrid schemes.
Add in an aggressive front four that loves to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback and no team can survive without the run game punishing the front seven for being overaggressive.
Chris Jones is a beast against the run or the pass and he blows up numerous rushing attempts penetrating into the backfield. Dee Ford and Justin Houston are pass-rushers first, but they are not afraid to mix it up with the opposing tackle and set the edge. Big-bodies Derrick Nnadi, Xavier Williams, and Allen Bailey are not household names, but they are a big part of Kansas City’s run defense.
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Linebackers Anthony Hitchens, Breeland Speaks and Reggie Ragland are responsible for cleaning up the ball carries if they get past the front four. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, that happened more often than they would like during the regular season. Part of that is that the Chiefs are often playing with six or seven defensive backs and playing with a lead and not having to worry about an occasional running play.
Kansas City finished 2018 second-to-last in the NFL allowing 5.0 yards per rushing attempt. They allowed 19 rushing touchdowns (29th in the league) and 27th in rushing yards allowed (2,114 yards). Counting the playoffs, the Chiefs only allowed five teams to rush for less than 100 yards and were 4-1 in those games.
The magic formula against the Chiefs is running the ball and stopping the run. The Patriots rushed for 173 yards and held Kansas City to 94 yards rushing. The Chargers rushed for 119 yards and held the Chiefs to just 60 yards rushing in their win. Seattle plowed for 210 yards and allowed 154 yards rushing to the Chiefs. In their only other loss to the Rams (54-51) neither team was doing much on the ground.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots’ offense was at its best in 2108 when first-round draft pick Sony Michel was clicking. When Michel hit 98 or more yards rushing the team was 5-0 in the regular season and 1-0 in the playoffs and scored 38, 38, 43, 27, 24 and 41 points.
Michel finished with 209 carries for 931 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) as a rookie in the regular season despite injuries slowing him in training camp and holding him out at the start of the season. He missed a few games in the middle of the season due to his knee injury. Michel was a beast last week against the Chargers piling up 129 yards on 24 carries (5.4 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns.
Of course, the Patriots will also mix in Rex Burkhead and receiving running back James White should see plenty of action at running back. Burkhead opened the season as the lead back with Sony Michel injured, but a neck/concussion landed him on injured reserve. Burkhead had a limited role with four carries for 12 yards, but he added a touchdown as well bursting around the left end into the end zone.
James White is more of a weapon in the passing game, but he will be counted on to run the ball when necessary. White has been excellent when pressed into service as a runner with 94 carries for 425 yards in 2018. Prior to this season, his highs for carries in a season were 43 and yards were 171. White has shown the ability to carry more of the load on the ground this season and may see more work in that role if the Patriots fall behind on the road against the Chiefs..
The Patriots have evolved into a running offense. Establishing a solid ground game is a must to help the passing offense slow the ferocious Kansas City pass rush. Look for the Patriots to try and take advantage of the aggressive Kansas City front-seven and run the ball out of heavy looks early in the game to control the clock, keep the explosive Chiefs’ offense on the sideline and try to take the crowd out of the game early.
That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must be able to move the ball effectively through the air and convert third downs and extend drives despite the Chiefs’ strong pass rush:
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
The New England Patriots answered any questions that the talking head both nationally and locally raised repeatedly about their passing offense prior to their playoff game against the Chargers. With Tom Brady completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions (106.5 QB rating) New England looked capable of competing against anyone in these playoffs.
The Patriots finished seven of 14 (50%) on third downs conversions against the Chargers, but while it was a game in the first half, the Patriots were five of six as they jumped to a 35-7 lead. They went two of four on their first drive of the second half and were then focused on running the clock and getting out of the game healthy.
The Kansas City defense struggled during the regular season on third down as they were 25th in the NFL allowing 80 conversions on 193 third downs (41.5% conversion rate). However, last week they absolutely dominated the Colts on third down. Kansas City did not allow a conversion on the third down the entire game leaving Indianapolis zero for nine.
The Colts went three-and-out on their first four drives and did not get into the endzone on offense until late in the fourth quarter in garbage time. Even on third-and-short, the Colts did not attempt to run the football on third down. On the third-and-long situations the strong pass rush was able to pressure Luck repeatedly and force incompletions and checkdowns.
The Chiefs played much of the season without star safety Eric Berry. Berry has missed the last two games with a calf injury but is expected to return on Sunday. He missed the Patriots game earlier this season as well. The secondary play has improved with safety Daniel Sorensen, who was on injured reserve earlier in the season and was also out against the Patriots earlier this year.
Those are not the only changes in the secondary for Kansas City. Recently, cornerback Charvarius Ward has become a regular contributor while safety Ron Parker, who was a starter much of the season, was surprisingly released this past week. The Chiefs also released ineffective cornerback Josh Shaw during the season and gave more playing time to veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick. Ward has taken Sandrick’s snaps while Jordan Lucas took the playing time that had been Parker’s.
Last week against the Colts, the Chiefs played much of the game with extra players in the secondary. Cornerbacks Ward and safety Lucas played most of the game along with starting cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Kendall Fuller. With safeties Sorensen and Murray on the field as well, the Chiefs all but dared the Colts to run the football.
It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs go with extra defensive backs like the Chargers did. Kansas City will at least switch their looks playing Cover-1, Cover-2 and Cover-3 and mixing in man coverage and combination coverages (some receivers covered man-to-man and the rest of the secondary playing zone). Also, pass rusher Justin Houston is healthy and he missed the earlier match-up against the Patriots with an injury.
Another consideration with the Chiefs is that they are a different defense at home. During the season they allowed only 18 points per game at home this season,which is sixth-fewest in the NFL. Add in the playoff game against the Colts, and that number improves even more. This pass rush feasts at home–Kansas City led the NFL with 52 sacks and added three more last week against an Indianapolis offensive line which had been a brick wall and barely allowed a defensive player to lay a finger on their quarterback.
The New England offense must continue to get production on the ground and grind out long drives. In addition, the Patriots need to be effective on first and second down and put themselves in position to convert on third down and extend drives. If the offense can continue to take control of the clock and the game, they can take the Kansas City crowd at Arrowhead Stadium out of the game..
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01