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What To Watch For When Patriots Host Chiefs In Divisional Playoffs

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- At long last, it's finally time for the Patriots to once again play some meaningful football.

Sure, the games in the final month of the season counted, but after losing the undefeated record in Week 12 in Denver, there wasn't a whole lot on the line for the Patriots. And they played like it.

In that process, though, they lost out on the chance to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which could potentially come back to bite them next weekend if they have to travel to Denver for the AFC Championship Game.

Of course, in order to advance to next week, the Patriots must handle the Kansas City Chiefs at home this Saturday, something that should be no easy task.

Here's what to expect when the two teams kick off Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

All On Brady?

Tom Brady
Tom Brady (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Patriots have leaned heavily on their 38-year-old quarterback this year, which resulted in Tom Brady throwing 624 passes over the course of 16 games. That was the third-highest total in the league, and the third-highest single-season total of Brady's career.

A major reason for that likely had to do with the fact that the Patriots were working with three rookies on the interior of the offensive line, and they lost starting left tackle Nate Solder in Week 5. It would have been difficult for the Patriots offense to employ too many complicated commands for the offensive line on rushing plays, and so the team was content to take their chances with keeping the ball in Brady's hands.

If that trend continues for this game, it'll be interesting to see how Josh McDaniels and Brady game-plan against the swarming Chiefs defense. The Chiefs can get to the quarterback, as evidenced by their 47 sacks, and they can make plays in the secondary, as evidenced by their 22 interceptions. The K.C. defense ranked fourth and second, respectively, in the NFL in those two categories.

So if the Patriots do go with a pass-heavy attack, the pressure on Brady to be perfect will be immense.

Likewise, keep a close eye on Sebastian Vollmer, who was carted off the field after several bodies rolled up on his legs on Dec. 27. As a key protector of Tom Brady, Vollmer can't afford to show any signs of rust against the likes of Tamba Hali and Co.

Can Edelman And Gronkowski Resemble Edelman And Gronkowski?

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski high-fives receiver Julian Edelman as they both hit the practice field on Friday, December 11. (WBZ-TV)

He hasn't played since Nov. 15. He's coming back from a broken foot. He relies a great deal on his quick feet and sharp cuts.

By now, of course, you know all of this. What nobody knows is how all of it will affect Julian Edelman when he's actually out there at full speed in a full-contact playoff game.

And what seemingly nobody knows is what exactly is going on with Rob Gronkowski. He missed Tuesday's practice, participated in Wednesday's practice, and missed the practice session on Thursday. Adam Schefter and Mike Reiss reported late Thursday afternoon that Gronkowski received treatment at a hospital and received and injection for pain. The Patriots then made a late addition to the injury report, including a back ailment for Gronkowski to go with his knee injury. The injection report was later refuted by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, but then confirmed (re-confirmed?) by the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe.

Considering Gronkowski was not on the injury report at all to end the season, to see so much activity and the two missed practices coming after a bye week is bizarre, to say the least.

And, as it relates to item No. 1, if the Patriots rely heavily on a pass-first approach on offense, then nobody will be more important to that process than No. 87 and No. 11. The best guess as to how either will perform can only be made with exactly that -- a guess. If either Gronkowski or Edelman -- or both -- is playing significantly below 100 percent, the New England offense could be in for a very long day.

Ball Security

Akiem Hicks
Akiem Hicks recovers a fumble. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

It is a football cliche to uncreatively state that "the team that protects the ball will win the game." But for this particular game, it actually applies.

The Chiefs and Patriots are similar in that they both thrive on their ability to limit turnovers and force their opponent to turn the ball over. The Patriots ranked No. 1 in the NFL with just 14 total giveaways. The Chiefs were right behind in second place with 15.

On defense, the Chiefs were able to come up with 22 interceptions -- the second-most in the league behind only Carolina. That helped Kansas City rank second in the NFL with a plus-14 turnover differential. The Patriots were fairly far behind in terms of numbers, as their turnover differential was plus-7. That was still good enough to rank fifth in the league.

And the Chiefs certainly showed what they could do in terms of forcing turnovers last weekend, when they intercepted Brian Hoyer four times and recovered a Hoyer fumble to decidedly win that turnover battle by a 5-1 margin. That included a goal-line interception when the game was very much still undecided, with the Chiefs holding a 13-0 lead late in the second quarter. Kansas City would go on to win 30-0.

The Patriots are always careful with the football, but they'll need to be extra vigilant this week. On the flip side, if the Patriots can force Kansas City into a rare turnover, it could throw the Alex Smith Safe & Smart System off its planned course.

The Ground Game

Alex Smith, Spencer Ware
Alex Smith hands off to Spencer Ware. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

This is where things get interesting, for as dangerous as the Chiefs' defense can be, there is still the small matter of moving the football to worry about. And that could be a major issue for the Chiefs.

Jeremy Maclin is almost assuredly not going to play. That's based entirely on the visual of Maclin going down last week and expressing anguish on the sidelines. After not practicing this week, it's difficult to imagine he'll be able to suit up on Saturday.

And that will be a tremendous loss for the Chiefs, as Maclin was the most-targeted receiver on the roster and led the team in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns. His (presumed) absence will leave Travis Kelce as the only real threat, and it stands to reason that Patrick Chung and either Jamie Collins or someone else can work to manage Kelce's effectiveness.

And if the Chiefs can't pass, they'll be forced to run. Though they've found success on the ground even without Jamaal Charles (K.C. ranked third in yards per carry and sixth in rush yards per game), running the ball would play into a major strength of the Patriots' defense. The Patriots ranked in the top 10 for both yards allowed per carry and rushing yards allowed per game, and the stout defensive line (namely Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Jabaal Sheard, Akiem Hicks, Sealver Siliga) along with the explosive and athletic linebacking corps (Collins, Dont'a Hightower, in particular) will be up to the task of stopping Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West.

Essentially, if the Chiefs end up getting stuck running the ball too much, they'll likely find themselves in a game they cannot win.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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