The New England Patriots dropped to 10-2 following a loss to the Houston Texans 28 -22 on Sunday Night Football on the road. Despite a literal plane carrying the flu-addled players to the Lone Star State, the Patriots fell behind early and could not overcome the deficit despite a strong push in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots return home this week but the match-up is a rematch of the 2018 AFC Championship game. The Kansas City Chiefs and their Pro Bowl triplets on offense of Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill invade Foxboro intent on gaining a measure of revenge after New England went into Kansas City last January and walked away with a third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl.
This week’s game will be broadcast nationally at 4:25 PM by CBS and can be seen locally in the Boston area on WBZ-TV Channel 4 and on WPRI-12 Channel 12 in the Providence market. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from the sidelines.
On the radio, Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN Radio. Marc Kestecher will call the game with former Chicago Bears nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek providing analysis. Jeff Darlington will work from the sidelines.
Locally, the game will be broadcast on 98.5 The Sports Hub is the flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network and all of the network’s 38 stations carry the game live. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak, who provides his own unique color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious.
Chiefs’ C Austin Reiter vs Patriots’ DT Danny Shelton:
This offseason the Kansas City Chiefs let center Mitch Morse leave in free agency. The Buffalo Bills scooped up the young veteran and his steadying veteran presence and intelligence have been a key part of the resurgence of the Bills in 2019 as they sprint into the playoffs. For the Chiefs, center Austin Reiter has been a step backwards.
The Chiefs’ offense has taken a step backwards from their dominating play in 2018 in a large part to struggling to finish drives in the red zone, a reduction in explosive plays, and additional pressure allowed up front. Having left tackle Eric Fisher out hurt the offense, but he is back at full strength. It is the interior which has struggled.
Reiter has struggled with holding up in pass protection forcing quarterback Patrick Mahomes to take deeper drops leaving him vulnerable to outside pass rushers crashing down on him from the edge. Guards Andrew Wylie and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif have just been average. Without Morse holding things down in the middle, the Chiefs have struggled to run the ball on the inside and hold up in pass protection.
One of the biggest surprises of 2019 has been the play of nose tackle Danny Shelton. Shelton was ignored in free agency this offseason, but he has played a huge role this year in New England. Losing a little weight and improving his conditioning has brought back the explosiveness that Shelton had while starring at Washington and becoming the 12th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Patriots are likely to be in nickel and dime packages to slow down the numerous weapons the Chiefs have in the passing game. Shelton (and Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler) will be expected to stuff the running game of the Chiefs and collapse the pocket on passing downs. With three sacks, six quarterback hits and 43 tackles he is already out-performing his past two seasons combined (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
Shelton has been winning one-on-one match-ups and holding the point of attack against double teams in 2019. Although he does not get headlines, he needs to dominate Austin Reiter at the line of scrimmage and may be the most important player on defense on Sunday afternoon.
The Chiefs’ offensive line is improving, but the interior of the offensive line and especially center Austin Reiter a weak spot . The Patriots should remain disciplined in the pass rush and push the pressure up the middle keeping Mahomes from extending plays outside the pocket. If they can generate interior pressure, it could be a long day for the Houston offense.
Chiefs’ RBs LeSean McCoy & Darwin Thompson vs Patriots’ LBs Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy & Jamie Collins:
Remember all those big games Shady McCoy had in Buffalo against the Patriots’ defense over the years? Yeah, me neither. But he was great before that in Philadelphia, right? He must have stomped the Patriots’ defense then, right?
McCoy’s been on the field for one win in eight games versus the Patriots (the Jacoby Brissett game in 2016) and has just 458 yards on 114 carries. Last year in Buffalo, he rushed 18 times for 22 yards in two games against the Patriots.
The Chiefs are without top running back Damien Williams (ruled out already with a rib injury) and his backup, Darrell Williams, landed on injured reserve this week. That leaves the 31-year old McCoy and sixth-round draft pick Darwin Thompson. The Chiefs also brought back Spencer Ware who has been out of football and is a “break glass in case of emergency” player.
The Patriots defense has had their struggles against the run against Cleveland and Baltimore, but were much improved since the bye week. They slowed the Eagles, Cowboys and Texans on the ground and are in great position to do the same against the Chiefs.
Linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy have been rocks all season at the linebacker position for the New England Patriots. The trio has combined for over 150 tackles, 11 passes defended, three interceptions, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 16.5 sacks.
All three linebackers missed practice due to illness last week. A big part of the defenses’ struggles last week were getting off the field on third down. Houston converted six of 11 third downs and were able to mount two long drives that found the end zone (nine or more plays and 70 or more yards).
Collins, Van Noy and Hightower also have the tough task of covering McCoy and Thompson in the passing game. Neither is Kareem Hunt in the passing game (although McCoy has soft hands). Both lack the explosiveness to be big play threats and will likely be used as outlets rather than receivers down the field on wheel routes against the linebackers.
The Chiefs have struggled to find consistency in the running game all season with injuries at running back and up and down the offensive line. With just LeSean McCoy and rookie Darwin Thompson likely to get carries, the Patriots’ linebackers should be in position to clamp down on the running game and make Kansas City one-dimensional.
Chiefs’ TE Travis Kelce vs Patriots’ S Patrick Chung:
The New England Patriots did not cover Travis Kelce with Patrick Chung in the AFC Championship game. New England matched cornerback J.C. Jackson on Kelce for the first three quarters and then moved Stephon Gilmore on him for the final quarter of the game (where Gilmore shut down Kelce).
Expectations are that Jackson, Gilmore or even Jason McCourty will be covering at some point of the game. Travis Kelce is basically an oversized slot cornerback. He aligns off the line, is not a productive blocker (like George Kittle in San Francisco, who is a beast in the running game) and who is too athletic for linebackers and too big for safeties.
Chung is not the biggest safety in the league and is actually undersized for the strong safety role he plays. However, he has excellent coverage skills and has been used as a slot cornerback in packages in the past. Kelce may have the size advantage over Chung, but Chung is a pit bull in coverage and can keep Kelce uncomfortable in his routes.
At some point of the game, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy are going to find formations or packages that get Kelce matched-up with Chung. Both saw in 2018 what a cornerback could do to slow Kelce and have had a full season to find ways to force a mismatch.
Kelce remains the favorite target of Patrick Mahomes in the offense with a team-leading 100 targets resulting in 68 receptions for a 923 yards through a dozen games. While Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman are the deep threats and Sammy Watkins is paid an ungodly amount of money to be the third or fourth option in the offense, the offense runs through Kelce.
The Chiefs have continued to light up the scoreboard in 2019 with only injuries slowing their offense. They face their toughest test against the New England secondary on Sunday. A heavy dose of the tight end Travis Kelce is in the game plan and expect schemes and formations to get him in man-coverage against safety Patrick Chung. If Chung can neutralize Kelce when matched-up with him, it is a huge win for the New England secondary.
The game plan on defense is the same as it has been for the Patriots for 2019: take away the running game early and have the pass coverage force Patrick Mahomes to hold the ball deep in the pocket and allow the pass rush to get pressure. The Patriots will have to mix their coverages and pressure looks to try and slow the reigning MVP.
If New England’s defense remains strong on third down and keeps Kansas City from extending drives it can allow New England to control the ball on offense. The best defense against Patrick Mahomes is to keep him standing on the sidelines for as much of the game as possible. The defense has a golden opportunity to make a huge statement on Sunday.
NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS ALLOWED: 21
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01