By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- We're into December, 12 games deep into the NFL season. The playoffs are just a few weeks away. It is very much this season.
Yet ... still ... it's very challenging to look at this weekend's Chiefs-Patriots matchup without looking back to last year.
That's in part due to human nature, but it also because both of last year's games between these two teams were just so massively memorable.
We all remember how the Tom Brady-Rob Gronkowski deep connection led to the game-winning field goal in the regular-season meeting at Gillette, but a whole smorgasbord of action took place before that. Patrick Mahomes missed an easy touchdown pass to Kareem Hunt. Dont'a Hightower tricked Mahomes into an interception. (Trey Flowers destroyed Eric Fisher on the INT return.) Julian Edelman had time to adjust his gloves before hauling in a touchdown pass. Mahomes threw an awful end-zone pick before halftime (while getting harassed by Hightower). Hunt caught a 67-yard bomb. Brady oddly escaped a sack and ran in for a touchdown. Tyreek Hill caught a 75-yard bomb. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, all leading up to Gronkowski beating single coverage for a 39-yard gain that basically won the game.
Turns out, that was just the warmup act for their meeting in frigid Kansas City in mid-January. To quote the legendary Stefon ... this game had everything. Phillip Dorsett touchdown catches. One-thousand Patriots rushing touchdowns. Near muffs from Edelman. An end-zone pick from Brady. Mahomes missing another easy touchdown. A monstrous Trey Flowers sack. A bomb to Sammy Watkins. A failed fourth down for New England. A near-imaginary roughing the passer. A Chris Hogan Superman catch. A missed OPI on KC. An Edelman-deflected interception. A Dee Ford offsides. Gronk over Brady. A game-tying Chiefs drive. Three third-and-10 conversions (two to Edelman, once to Gronk). Rex Burkhead turning into Gale Sayers. Brady going nuts. History.
Bananas times two.
So, you understand, when you see these two helmets and these two jerseys, it's almost impossible to not be consumed by all of those recent memories.
Alas, it is 2019, and this year's meeting likely won't resemble those two instant classics. How sad.
Nevertheless, it's a big game for all involved parties, so here are the areas we'll be most closely watching come Sunday afternoon.
Offensive Awakening: Take Two
Against a terrible Texans defense, Tom Brady's and Josh McDaniels' offense was supposed to rise from its weeks-long slumber and explode last week in Houston. They didn't do it ... and then they kind of did.
Thanks to a late offensive explosion, the stats all looked great for the Patriots' offense last week. But anyone who watched the game knows that when it mattered, the Patriots' offense was dead as a duck. After driving 69 yards on the opening drive, the Patriots stalled and had to settle for a field goal. Their next five possessions went: Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Downs. That's not what you're looking for.
On the flip side, the Patriots gained 244 yards and scored touchdowns on all three of their final drives. A pessimist would say that it came against a prevent defense, that the game was decided, and that it really didn't matter. An optimist might say that something clicked.
Come this Sunday, opinions and perspectives won't matter, as the Patriots' offense will get a second chance to compete against a defense that is not exactly elite. The Chiefs rank 25th in yards per game, 21st in yards per play, 30th in rushing yards, and 17th in points allowed.
This time, they're at home. This time, they're coming off a loss. This time, they're facing a team with a defense that rolled over for them twice last year. The Chiefs' D has undergone major changes since then, of course, but the results have not exactly been perfect.
Pretty early on in this one, we'll find out whether last week's fourth quarter meant anything.
This is about as fundamental and basic as it gets, but here goes: It's a whole lot easier to win a football game when you build yourself an early lead.
Now, of course, we learned twice last year that building early leads against Mahomes and Andy Reid can be proven meaningless rather quickly. But. The Patriots have made it a habit of digging themselves some early holes lately. Against an offensive as potent as Kansas City's, they'd be wise to do their best to buck that trend this weekend.
Last week, the Patriots did take a 3-0 lead early, but they then fell behind 14-3 by halftime and 21-3 early in the third quarter. They managed to establish and keep a lead vs. Dallas the week prior, but the week before that, they fell behind 10-0 in Philadelphia. In their loss in Baltimore, they fell behind 17-0 and failed to climb out.
Just like against Baltimore and Houston, the Patriots will face long odds of winning the game if they can't get off to the start they want. That means entering the game with the better game plan and being able to execute. Considering Belichick owns a 7-2 head-to-head record against Reid, the odds are in the Patriots' favor.
Do you remember last year, when the Patriots gave up a 67-yard touchdown bomb to Kareem Hunt, and they thus knew that no matter what, they simply had to protect against the deep ball. Yet they nevertheless gave up a 75-yard touchdown bomb to Tyreek Hill not long after?
And do you remember in the playoff meeting, when the deep ball remained an explosive threat, and yet the Patriots' defense came out of halftime and allowed a 54-yard bomb to Sammy Watkins on the third play of the half? Or how earlier in the game, Hill got behind everyone for a 42-yard catch?
Of course you do. We've been over this. Everything from last year is memorable.
Well, lessons were learned last year. Namely, the defense -- full of defensive backs who pride themselves on their speed -- learned that Tyreek Hill is among the fastest people alive. Ergo, it's rather important to cheat an extra step or two if needed in order to prevent Mahomes from chopping more than half the field down with one mighty deep chuck.
Every Chiefs receivers has at least one deep reception this year. Rookie Mecole Hardman has an 83-yard reception, Watkins has a 68-yarder, Hill has a 57-yarder, and Demarcus Robinson has a 44-yard reception. Running back Darrel Williams (who was just placed on IR) has a 52-yard reception, and tight end Travis Kelce has a 47-yard reception. Those are game-changing types of plays, and the Patriots' defense has to be constantly aware of the threat. One slip-up, and it can look real bad real fast.
Run, Run, And Then Run Some More
The game will be hyped as Brady vs. Mahomes, because that's what we do. But the Patriots' best path to victory will more likely depend on the running game taking another step forward.
And they should have plenty of opportunity.
As mentioned earlier, the Chiefs' defense is bad, but the run defense is by far the biggest weakness. They're allowing 141.3 yards per game and 5.11 yards per rush, both of which rank third-worst in the NFL. They've given up 12 touchdowns on the ground, tied for seventh-most, and they're preventing touchdowns on 32 percent of goal-to-go drives, which ranks 16th in the league.
Clearly, it's a weakness, and it's proven too much for Kansas City to overcome numerous times this season. In their five worst games as a run defense, they've gone 2-3. They allowed the Titans to rack up an absurd 225-yard rushing total, they let the Texans march for 192 yards, and they let the Colts rush for 180 yards. (In their other loss, the Packers still had a productive day on the ground with 118 yards, but it was a decidedly less obnoxious total.)
On the whole, the Patriots' running game is nowhere close to the well-oiled operation that powered the team to a Super Bowl last winter. Inserting James Ferentz into the middle of the offensive line to replace Ted Karras should throw another curveball at the unit. Yet with Isaiah Wynn continuing to settle back into his role at left tackle, things have been looking up. They're coming off a game in Houston where they rushed for 145 yards on 29 carries, good for a five-yard average. That came a week after they ran for 101 yards on 27 carries (3.7 YPC) vs. Dallas, making it just their second stretch of back-to-back weeks with 100 yards rushing as a team.
Making that three would go a long way toward putting points off the board and keeping Mahomes on the sideline, two of the most important things the Patriots can hope to accomplish come Sunday afternoon.
Tune in to Sunday's Patriots-Chiefs clash on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m., and after the game switch to TV38 for full analysis and reaction on Patriots 5th Quarter!
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