8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Patriots -9, Over/Under: 48.5
Has there been a void in your soul for the past seven months? Did the tease of Free Agency and the Draft fail to fulfill your desires? Has the Preseason served as nothing more than a sample of what you’ve been longing for? Well, wait no longer, folks, for the National Football League is officially back in all it’s glory as the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The NFL potentially struck gold here, with a potential AFC Championship Game preview, for these two teams occupied the top two seeds in the conference a year ago, with both looking formidable enough to contend for the Lombardi Trophy. When last we saw the Chiefs (12-4 in 2016, 1st in AFC West), Andy Reid’s charges ended up on the short end of a frigid battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a matchup that featured nary a touchdown, only a slew of Field Goals. It was indeed a disappointing end to an impressive campaign for a Franchise that has been nothing short of consistent since Reid arrived four years prior; Kansas City has gone 41-21 (.661) since 2013, advancing to the postseason on three occasions. The keys to their success lie with a conservative (but at deadly efficient) Offense led by steady veteran Quarterback Alex Smith, and one of the most opportunistic Defenses in the league. Though oftentimes derided for what has been perceived as overly conservative play, Smith has been nothing short of one of the most consistently efficient Quarterbacks in the league over the years; the twelfth year veteran completed 67.1% of his Passes last year for 3,502 Yards (6.50 NY/A), fifteen Touchdowns and eight Interceptions, while also threatening opposing Defenses with his feet, rushing for another five scores. While admittedly those numbers may not come off as impressive at first glance, then this statistic might: since 2011, Smith 60-25-1 as a Starter, owning a sterling .698 Win Percentage in the Regular Season, second only to the man he will be facing tonight, Tom Brady. With that said, don’t be fooled by his perennially meager stat lines, for this guy (and by extension) the Chiefs’ Offense, can create huge plays when needed, and that has been made entirely possible by the emergence of Tyreek Hill. The Fifth Round Pick exploded as proverbial Swiss Army Knife for Reid and Co. making splash plays in the receiving, rushing, and return games; the speedster earned a Pro Bowl nod as a Rookie in 2016, 860 Yards from Scrimmage and nine Touchdowns, while leading the league in both Punt Return Yards (592) and Touchdowns (two), and adding another 384 Yards and one more score on Kick Returns. Furthermore, of the team’s seventeen scoring plays of twenty yards or more, Hill accounted for eight of them, or in other words, nearly half of them. With a weapon like this in his arsenal, you can bet the house that Reid will be developing a plethora of ways to get the dynamic youngster more involved. Speaking of returns, let’s get into the Chiefs’ Defense, for it would be difficult to find a unit that helped out their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball more than them. Kansas City’s Defense forced an NFL-best thirty-three turnovers last year, leading the league in both Interceptions (eighteen) and Fumble Recoveries (fifteen), returning five of that number for six points. As you can imagine, all these big plays led to some rather favorable Field Position, with Reid’s charges starting their Drives from their own 30.5-Yard Line, (4th Overall). First Team All-Pro Defensive Backs Eric Berry and Marcus Peters were extremely opportunistic, combining for ten Interceptions and five Fumble Recoveries between, with, Berry returning a pair of picks for scores. Add the prospect of a healthy Justin Houston, who after leading the NFL with twenty-two Sacks in 2014 but missed all but five games last year, to the mix and there is no reason to believe that this group can’t be every bit as imposing as was a year ago. These guys will have to ramp up the pressure if they are to enjoy their first victory at Gillette Stadium, and their first in five meetings in New England since 1998. These teams last met in Foxborough back in the 2015 Playoffs, where the visiting side pushed the Pats for virtually the entire contest, but couldn’t convert in the Red Zone, falling in defeat 27-20.
Meanwhile, for the fifth time since 2001. the New England Patriots (14-2 in 2016, 1st in AFC East) enter a new campaign as reigning Super Bowl Champions. Last February’s remarkable overtime comeback over the Atlanta Falcons (34-28) in Super Bowl LI put the partnership of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick into a stratosphere unto themselves, with the pair hoisting their fifth Lombardy Trophy together in seven tries, the most in NFL History for any Quarterback or Head Coach. So with history made, what is left for the Patriots? Well, you wouldn’t get the sense that they’d succumb to something as simple as complacency based on how they attacked the Offseason with a slew of trades that netted them playmakers on both sides of the ball, including the likes of Brandin Cooks (78 REC, 1,1173 YDS, 8 TD in 2016), one of the premier deep threats in the NFL, and Stephon Gilmore (42 TKL, 5 INT, 23 PD), a Pro Bowl Cornerback for division rival Buffalo. Oh, and did we fail to mention that perennial All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski (25 REC, 540 YDS, 3 TD) is back healthy after missing eight games including the entire postseason) with an injured back? Surely, this team will be unstoppable with the addition of such playmakers, right? Well, as has been their mantra for over a decade, Belichick’s charges consistently refuse to get ahead of themselves (even if the media is typically quick to crown them prematurely), for after all, there hasn’t been a repeat Super Bowl Champion since 2004, when the Patriots pulled that feat. Repeating is a very difficult thing to do in the NFL these days, and there are surely a number of obstacles standing in the way of Brady and Co. in 2017. Despite the high-profile additions, there has been quite a bit of attrition in Foxborough over the past seven months, with the likes of Tailback LeGarrette Blount (and his league-leading eighteen Rushing Touchdowns), Tight End Martellus Bennett (55 REC, 701 YDS, 7 TD), and Cornerback Logan Ryan (2 INT, 11 PD) all departing via Free Agency, while Pass-Rusher Rob Ninkovich (4.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD) decided to retire altogether. However, that was just the departures, for during the second week of the Preseason, veteran Julian Edelman completely tore his ACL against the Detroit Lions, leaving Brady without arguably the game’s most productive Slot Receiver. Needless to say, this dude is a very large part of the Patriots’ short-passing attack; since 2013, Edelman has accumulated 356 Receptions on a whopping 532 Targets, for 3,826 Yards (10.7 Y/R), and twenty Touchdowns. He’ll be missed most on Third Down, where his chemistry with Brady has been absurd, with the pair hooking up twenty-five times for First Downs, more than any other QB/WR duo in the league in 2016. So is it any wonder that New England pulled off yet another transaction, shipping Third String Quarterback Jacoby Brissett to Indianapolis for the services of Wideout Phillip Dorsett, a speedster with potential? Like many of the Colts’ recent First Round Picks, the 24-year old struggled to make an impact in Indy, but should find a niche in New England’s multi-layered Offense. Of course, Brady tends to bring the best out of his teammates, no matter their pedigree, and unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, shows no signs of slowing down even at the ripe old age of forty. Father time coupled with a (controversial) four-game suspension couldn’t slow down the two-time MVP in 2016, as Brady looked better than ever, completing 67.4% of his Passes for 3,554 Yards (7.76 NY/A), twenty-eight Touchdowns and just two Interceptions. One of the true all-time greats, No. 12 continues to age like a fine wine, running his tab at home to a ridiculous 101-17, where he has thrown a staggering 220 Touchdowns in comparison to fifty-nine Interceptions throughout his career. Furthermore, Brady is 4-2 all-time against Kansas City, with an undefeated 4-0 record in Foxborough.