By Sam McPherson
The Kansas City Chiefs are moving on in the AFC playoffs for the first time in decades and their reward for first-round postseason success is a road trip to take on the defending Super Bowl champions. As the Chiefs get ready to face the New England Patriots on Saturday, all eyes will be on Tom Brady's ankle and Bill Belichick's hoodie. Meanwhile, despite a dominant wild-card round shutout win over the Houston Texans for an 11th straight victory, many will underestimate Kansas City's chances simply because the Patriots are the Patriots.
However, New England limped into the postseason after a 10-0 start to the season, losing four of its final six games. The Patriots have dealt with injuries all season, losing 14 players to the season-ending injury reserve this year, including key players like offensive tackle Nate Solder and running back LeGarrette Blount. New England also has six players currently listed as questionable for Saturday's contest, although Brady is expected to start the game.
The Patriots started the season with a 10-game winning streak, but those 10 victories included only two over playoff-bound teams (Pittsburgh and Washington). A Week 12 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos on the road ended New England's perfect season, and the only two games the Patriots won down the stretch were against the Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans. The other three losses came against the Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Jets (also on the road in overtime) and the Miami Dolphins.
Patriots on Offense
It all starts with quarterback Tom Brady for the Patriots offense. Despite numerous injuries to his receiving corps, the four-time Super Bowl champion QB had his usual stellar season with 4,770 yards, 36 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. However, the last four games have been a struggle for the New England offense. Brady has thrown for just 216 yards per game in those four contests. With Blount out and injuries mounting, the Patriots also haven't been able to mount a solid running game recently. This is not an offense that is firing on all pistons right now.
New England basically signed veteran RB Stephen Jackson off the street. With an average of just 75 yards rushing per game over the final three matchups of the regular season, the Patriots aren't scaring anyone on the ground. While tight end Rob Gronkowski (72 receptions for 1,176 yards and 11 TDs) still is the main threat, he may be the only receiving threat Brady has at his disposal on Saturday. Outside Gronk, no other receiver tallied more than 700 yards this season for New England, which means Brady will find anyone he can to catch the ball and move the chains. That's why he's Tom Brady, four-time Super Bowl winner.
Patriots on Defense
Six of those players lost for the season were on the defensive side of the ball and four more defenders are questionable for the game Saturday, including linebackers Jonathan Freeny and Dont'a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones. Overall, the Patriots didn't have a single player make 90 tackles this year, but the team is obviously going to be tough with Belichick on the sidelines. Jones led the team with 12.5 sacks this year, so his health for this game will be a big factor.
Overall, New England averaged more than three sacks per game, so the pressure will be applied to Kansas City QB Alex Smith. The Patriots secondary isn't a weakness, but in comparison to the front seven, it's not as strong. Three of the team's top four tacklers make a living in the secondary; when you're relying on your secondary to make score-saving tackles, that's not good. For the season, the New England defense finished 10th in points allowed at 19.7 per game.
Patriots Players to Watch
Brady and Gronkowski have shown that they can win any game by themselves. If the Chiefs defense isn't able to limit Gronk's freedom off the line of scrimmage, it could be a long day for Kansas City. Brady is Brady, although his ankle injury from Week 17 may impact his mobility somewhat, making him a sitting target for Chiefs LBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. New England is tough to beat, no matter what, and Kansas City has to be prepared for anything and everything on both sides of the ball.
Wideout Julian Edelman is questionable for the game while recovering from a broken foot and the offensive problems for the Patriots seemed to begin when he went down with an injury. The defending champs are not at full strength, while the Chiefs are red hot and ready for more. New England had its two lowest-scoring games of the season in Weeks 16 and 17. Did they heal enough in the last two weeks with the bye? Probably not. Look for Kansas City to pull off the "upset" and end up hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game on January 24.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.
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