Scouting report: What you need to know about Chiefs-Patriots

January 15, 2016 - 6:48 am
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[caption id="attachment_104700" align="alignright" width="400"]What sort of impact will a healthy Julian Edelman have on the Patriots offense?  (Elsa/Getty Images) What sort of impact will the return of Julian Edelman have on the Patriots offense? (Elsa/Getty Images)[/caption] Here's everything you need to know for Saturday's divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium between the Chiefs and Patriots: WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL Let's be honest here. In this one, New England's fortunes aren't going to rise or fall on the running game. Steven Jackson (21 carries, 50 yards, 1 TD in two games with the Patriots) now is the primary between-the-tackles back, and while he was able to get some good yardage in his chances at the end of the regular season, no one is expecting a LeGarrette Blount-type postseason performance out of the veteran. He'll run the ball just enough to keep the Kansas City defense honest -- in an ideal world, that's somewhere around 15 carries a game, tops. Meanwhile, expect the Patriots to lean on Brandon Bolden (63 carries, 207 yards) in a relief role, as needed. (James White is now a running back in name only, as his 22 regular-season carries trailed even quarterback Tom Brady.) Overall, the Patriots ended the regular season 30th in the league in rushing offense, averaging a total of 87.8 yards per game on the ground. On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs finished the regular season eighth in the league in run defense, having yielded an average of 98.2 rushing yards per game. The educated guess here is that when it comes to the New England offense, the run-pass splits won't be as dramatic as last year's AFC divisional playoff game against the Ravens (when the Patriots ran the ball 13 times and attempted 51 passes), but they'll still skew sharply toward the passing game. WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL This will be the matchup that's going to determine the contest. If Julian Edelman (61 catches, 692 yards, 7 TDs) is able to jump back in at something close to 100 percent, the Patriots passing game -- which has sputtered over the last six weeks or so without him -- should be back to where it needs to be. If he's healthy, New England's quick passing game to the likes of Edelman, Danny Amendola (65 catches, 648 yards, 3 TDs) and James White (40 catches, 410 yards, 4 TDs) should be enough to overcome the Kansas City defense and minimize an occasionally leaky offensive line. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Patriots spread the Chiefs out and go four- or five-wide in hopes of stressing the Kansas City pass defense and forcing the longer Kansas City defensive backs to try and play catch up with the smaller receivers. If Edelman struggles to get separation, that will put more pressure on the likes of Amendola and White, two pass catchers who have done well when serving as third and fourth options in the passing game, but have had occasional problems when they've been asked to punch up in weight class. The Patriots offensive line has had issues when faced with the prospect of protecting quarterback Tom Brady (64 percent completion rate, 4,770 yards, 36 TDs, 7 INTs) when the quarterback needs more than that 3-4 second window when it comes to snap-to-throw, and the prospect of facing even a half-strength Justin Houston (7.5 sacks this year) would be more than a little daunting. (For more on the evolution on Brady's average snap-to-throw time and its impact on the New England passing game, check out this series of stories from colleague Ryan Hannable, who has put a stopwatch on Brady and the passing game all season long.) The other big key here? Rob Gronkowski (72 catches, 1,176 yards, 11 TDs), and how the Chiefs will try and slow him down. A re-watch of last September's game between the two teams revealed that Kansas City often deployed safety Husain Abdullah in single coverage against him. However, Abdullah is questionable after an extended stretch on the sideline because of a concussion, while it's important to note that in that game, Gronkowski was still in the process of returning to full Gronk status after a slow start because of injury. Regardless, the fact remains that the Chiefs are one of the best teams in the league when it comes to slowing opposing tight ends -- Kansas City is second in the league in that department, according to Football Outsiders. That, as well as the fact that Gronkowski was missing for two of the three padded practices this week -- he was listed on the injury report with a knee and back issue -- certainly warrants consideration. His performance, as well as how the Chiefs go about defending him in the early going, will certainly be worth monitoring. WHEN THE CHIEFS RUN THE BALL This might be the most amazing part of the Chiefs and their run this year: They lost Jamaal Charles in October when the All-Pro went down with a knee injury, but they still finished sixth in the league in rushing with an average of 127.8 rushing yards per game. Charcandrick West took over when Charles went down, and the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder has become the leading option on the ground for the Chiefs with 160 carries for 634 yards and four touchdowns. He's not at Charles' level, but runs well with a good pad level. While West is the lead back, it's a modified running back by committee setup, which includes quarterback Alex Smith (his 498 rushing yards were fourth among all quarterbacks in the 2015 regular season) and LSU product Spencer Ware, who has rushed for 143 yards combined in the regular-season finale and playoff opener last week against the Texans. (He averaged 5.6 yards per carry this past season in 11 games with the Chiefs.) On the other side of the ball, the Patriots finished the regular season ninth in the league in run defense, having allowed an average of 98.8 rushing yards per game. WHEN THE CHIEFS PASS THE BALL Smith (65 percent completion rate, 3,486 passing yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs, 95.4 passer rating in the regular season) isn't an overwhelming offensive presence -- overall, the Chiefs are 30th in the league in passing offense, averaging 203.4 yards per game -- but he's been steady. While he doesn't take too many chances (which limits what Kansas City can do offensively), he also doesn't make too many mistakes. If Jeremy Maclin (87 catches, 1,088 yards, 8 TDs) is hindered, it puts a sizable crimp in what the Chiefs can do when it comes to throwing the football, as Maclin is their best and most versatile receiver, and while they do have some good veteran depth at the position, he's far-and-away their best pass catcher. Their other most important option in the passing game is tight end Travis Kelce (72 catches, 875 yards, 5 TDs), who has some elements of Gronkowski in his game. (West is also a possibility as a pass catcher out of the backfield with 20 catches for 214 yards and a touchdown.) One thing to look for on Saturday: in the past, the Patriots have utilized a spy against quarterbacks who have shown an ability to tuck and run, and while Kansas City doesn't necessarily call many designed run plays for Smith, he's one of the best running quarterbacks in the league. Some of it depends on how New England wants to try and slow down Kelce, but the sight of either linebacker Jamie Collins or a safety (Devin McCourty) working with the expressed intent of keeping Smith contained wouldn't be a surprise at all. SPECIAL TEAMS New England's kicking game is one of the best in the league, as Stephen Gostkowski finished at or near the top of the league in most major categories in the regular season, including field-goal percentage (91.7, best among all kickers with at least 35 attempts), extra-point percentage (100, best among all kickers with at least 35 attempts), touchbacks (69, tied for first) and scoring (151 points, best among kickers). Punter Ryan Allen started strong, but faded to the middle of the pack as the year went on -- his 46.6 yards per punt was 13th, while his 39.9 net was 16th. Danny Amendola carved out a nice niche as one of the best punt returners in the league when healthy, as his 12.0 yards per return was best among all qualified returners. And the kick return work is a collective, with Amendola, Keshawn Martin and McCourty all part of a group that averaged a respectable 18.8 yards per return this past year. For the most part, the Chiefs feature a better than average special teams grouping. Kick returner Knile Davis got the postseason started with a bang when he returned the opening kickoff against the Texans last weekend for a touchdown. On the regular season, Davis was 10th in the league in return average (25.1 yards per kick return), while punt returner De'Anthony Thomas (7.8 yards per punt return) is 18th. Punter Dustin Colquitt is 23rd in average (44.4 yards per punt) and eighth in net (40.8 yards). The Chiefs are one of the better coverage teams in the league, as the 6.5 yards per return against is eighth best in the NFL. Kicker Cairo Santos has been occasionally erratic at times this season -- he's 30-for-37 on field-goal attempts -- but had a long field goal of 53 yards. He was also 39-for-41 on extra points, was second in the league in scoring (behind Gostkowski) with 129 points, and his 40 touchbacks were tied for 20th in the league. THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF ... the primary options in the passing game -- namely, Edelman and Gronkowski -- are less than 100 percent. That would force the Patriots to get creative in their approach. New England also needs to be particularly mindful of secondary receivers. Over the last year-plus, the Patriots have done relatively well shutting down top receivers, but have occasionally been burned by under-the-radar types. (Seattle's Chris Matthews and Green Bay's Davante Adams are two that come to mind.) This week, Albert Wilson and Chris Conley are the types of unheralded pass catchers who could have an opportunity to shine if the Patriots lose defensive focus. THE CHIEFS ARE IN TROUBLE IF ... they can't force turnovers, and they can't protect the football. Kansas City has built a rep as one of the best teams in the league when it comes to takeaways over the last year-plus, and that has played a sizable role in their 11-game win streak: Per Hannable, in the Chiefs' 11-game win streak, they've forced 28 turnovers, while only turning the ball over eight times themselves. BY THE NUMBERS (tie): 10.5 -- The difference in points per game for the Patriots when Edelman was in the starting lineup and when he was out. Edelman has missed the last seven games because of a foot injury he suffered against the Giants on Nov. 15. New England averaged 33.6 points in the nine regular-season games he played. The Patriots averaged 23.1 points per game without him. 23 -- Per Hannable, when his opponents score 23 or more points, Alex Smith is 3-41-1 over the course of his career, including the postseason. Since 2000 including the postseason, the Patriots are 171-14 when scoring 23 or more points. 19-1 -- In the postseason, the Patriots are 19-1 when winning the turnover battle. Overall, since 2001, the Patriots are 138-9 when winning the turnover battle. UNDER THE RADAR STAR: As previously stated, the Patriots have occasionally had issues with second- and third-level receivers over the last year-plus. Wilson is probably the closest thing the Chiefs have to that sort of pass-catcher -- the type who might be able to make substantial yards if he's faced with the likes of Leonard Johnson in single coverage. The 23-year-old finished the regular season with 35 catches for 451 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and while there's very little in his game that would necessarily remind you of Maclin, expect the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Wilson to see a spike in targets if Maclin is unable to go. QUOTE OF NOTE: "In the overall picture, you're talking about the best teams in the league playing with everything at stake, nothing to hold back for. There is no 'game next week,' like there is opening day for the loser. So yeah, this is competition at its highest level right here." -- Bill Belichick talking about playoff football. PREDICTION: DraftKings DraftKings has your shot to play for FREE in the $1 Million Fantasy Football Contest THIS SUNDAY! First place takes home $100,000! FOR FREE ENTRY, CLICK HERE.