4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Patriots -3, Over/Under: 48.5
A potential Playoff Preview is on tap in the Northeast today, as the struggling New England Patriots play host to the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of last year’s classic AFC Championship, this time from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It’s been a unexpectedly difficult season for the Chiefs (8-4, 1st in AFC West), who after last year’s 12-4 finish on the strength of an explosively prolific Offense led by MVP Quarterback, Patrick Mahomes (64.5%, 2,983 YDS, 7.93 NY/A, 20 TD, 2 INT, 79.6 QBR), were pipped by many to advance to their first Super Bowl since 1969. However, they’ve faced their share of hardships, with injuries to key personnel keeping the Offense from reaching the heights of the previous campaign, and a renovated Defense that has spent the term largely trying to find themselves within a new scheme. It’s rather remarkable to think that we’re now well into December and Andy Reid has yet to field a full complement of players, with so many key figures succumbing to injuries, or in the case of some, even suspension. These issues began before the season even kicked off, with former Pro-Bowl Tailback, Kareem Hunt outright released from the club following his infamous assault of a woman in a hotel last Winter, leaving the attack without one of the more dynamic players at his position. Then in the Season Opener, All-Pro Receiver, Tyreek Hill (38 REC, 598 YDS, 15.7 Y/R, 5 TD), suffered a partially broken Collarbone in a 40-26 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, sidelining him for four straight games, robbing Mahomes of arguably the most dangerous vertical threat in the league. And speaking of the third-year Quarterback, he was still doing just fine without the speedster, averaging a whopping 363.3 Passing Yards on 8.65 Net Yards per Attempt, with Eight Touchdowns and Zero Interceptions during that particular stretch, but he too would suffer a malady of his own not long after Hill’s return, a sprained that while initially hindering his mobility within the Pocket, eventually shelved him for consecutive games. Furthermore, the Offensive Line has been racked with injuries of their own, with Left Tackle, Cameron Irving missing four contests, while Right Guard, Andrew Wylie, missed three outings. It’s really a credit to Reid and his Staff that despite all of the moving pieces that this unit has still managed to rank among the league’s finest, averaging 29.0 Points per Game (3rd Overall) on 398.0 Total Yards (4th Overall). When we last saw them, they were busy obliterating the Oakland Raiders for the second time this season, easily besting their AFC West rival 40-9 at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday. With the Offense nearly back to full health, overcoming a semi-slow start to score on four of their final five drives, the last of which was a beautifully executed 14-Play, 62-Yard possession that chewed up over nine minutes of play, proof of that they’re more than just a quick strike outfit. It was a fairly understated performance for Mahomes, who completed just 15-of-29 Passes for 175 Yards and a Touchdown, though he did rush for Twenty-Five Yards and a score on just Three Carries. However, the major takeaway from this affair was the Defense may be settling into a groove, forcing the visitors into Three costly Turnovers, and stuffing them on a Fourth Down in the First Quarter. After costing the Chiefs a trip to Super Bowl LIII, this group has been overhauled with Reid assigning longtime colleague, Steve Spagnuolo, to setting things right. It’s been far from a seamless transition under the veteran Defensive Coordinator, but they have shown signs of improvement of late, particularly in regards to turning over their opponents. Kansas City has logged Seven Takeaways in the last two games alone, which has coincidentally resulted in consecutive victories for the time since Week Four. Free Agent Acquisition, Tyrann Mathieu (51 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 7 PD), has brought his playmaking expertise and versatility to a beleaguered Secondary, leading the team with Three Interceptions, while Defensive End, Frank Clark (27 TKL, 8 TFL, 8 QBH, 5.0 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD), whom the club acquired via trade in the NFL Draft, has fought through injuries to form a solid pass-rushing presence alongside Defensive Tackle, Chris Jones (27 TKL, 5 TFL, 13 QBH, 6.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 PD). After meandering through their schedule for nearly a month, there is a general feeling that this team has returned to health at the right time, with the remaining schedule hardly daunting. Apart from the Patriots, Reid’s charges will play host to the Denver Broncos, hit the road to face the Chicago Bears, before facing the Los Angeles Chargers in the Finale from Arrowhead. Though all four teams possess solid Defenses that are sure to test Mahomes and the Offense, the latter three are a combined 14-22 (.389), with Kansas City having already defeated their two division rivals earlier this season. Furthermore, none of them can be branded as powerhouses on the offensive side of the football, allowing Spagnuolo and his troops to continue to build the requisite chemistry that will become vital come the Playoffs. Memories of last year’s 31-37 loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game must still haunt this unit, which spent the affair at the mercy of one Tom Brady; the Chiefs were eviscerated for 524 Total Yards, Thirty-Six First Downs, 348 Passing Yards and 176 Rushing Yards, didn’t register a single Sack, allowed a maddening 13-of-19 on Third Down, and saw them possess the football for a staggering 43:59.
Meanwhile, it’s rare that you can associate hitting the panic button with a team a that’s 10-2, but if you’ve paid attention to what’s been going on in Foxborough, something doesn’t feel quite right with the Patriots (10-2, 1st in AFC East). Last Sunday’s 22-28 loss at the Houston Texans was revealing on multiple levels for New England, who despite their lofty position within the hierarchy of the AFC, have been lacking the necessary ingredients that we’ve come to associate with them for the better part of two decades. The defeat at NRG Stadium wasn’t indicative of the game itself, for the visitors managed to score consecutive Touchdowns within the final four minutes of play to make the affair appear far more respectable than it actually was. Before that desperate flurry in the final stanza, New England had mustered just 191 Total Yards, with their first seven drives of the night reading as follows: Field Goal, Interception, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, and Turnover on Downs. Three-time MVP Quarterback, Tom Brady (61.1%, 3,268 YDS, 6.15 NY/A, 18 TD, 6 INT, 52.1 QBR), was visibly frustrated throughout the contest, largely due to a Receiving Corps that simply hasn’t consistently gotten open, completing 24-of-47 Passes for 326 Yards and Three Touchdowns, though a large portion of that work (10-of-16, 138 YDS, 2 TD) came within the final ten minutes in which the hosts were much more lax in their coverage. The tilt continued a troubling trend for the future Hall of Famer, who has had to fight for everything he can get within an Offense that has simply lacked playmakers of any sort; over the last five games, Brady has completed a pedestrian 54.9% of his Attempts for 255.2 Yards per Game on just 5.63 Net Yards per Attempt, with Seven Touchdowns opposed to Two Interceptions, a span in which the Patriots have gone 3-2. To give you a clearer idea of his struggles, the 42-Year Old has opted to throw the football out of bounds twenty-nine times thus far, which is already seven more than he tossed away in 2018 in its entirety. Furthermore, his targets have suffered Twenty-Four Drops, which equate to a Drop Percentage of 5.3%, a clear increase over the 4.6% last season. In the end, yes, he’s absolutely a 42-Year Old Quarterback navigating the twilight of his career, but he’s also suffered from a dearth in personnel; perennial All-Pro Tight End, Rob Gronkowski, is enjoying his retirement, while habitual knucklehead, Josh Gordon (20 REC, 287 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 1 TD) and his supreme athleticism, were released to make way for the acquisition of Mohamed Sanu (17 REC, 122 YDS, 7.2 Y/R, 1 TD) in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons, with the Antonio Brown (4 REC, 56 YDS, 14.1 Y/R, 1 TD) experiment lasting just one week before the polarizing Wideout’s ousting form the club. Their First Round Pick, N’Keal Harry (4 REC, 28 YDS, 7.0 Y/R, 1 TD), missed the first nine games of the term with an injury to boot, leaving Brady with a Receiving Corps comprised of Slot Man extraordinaire, Julian Edelman (82 REC, 915 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 5 TD), the injury-prone Phillip Dorsett (28 REC, 347 YDS, 12.4 Y/R, 5 TD), and the unheralded Jakobi Meyers (22 REC, 299 YDS, 13.6 Y/R), while the 39-Year Old, Ben Watson (12 REC, 147 YDS, 12.3 Y/R), holds down the fort at Tight End. With so many new faces coming and going, there simply hasn’t been enough time for this group to build the proper chemistry with Brady, which is something that he has openly lamented on a number of occasions this season. Further compounding these issues is the Offensive Line, which has been ravaged with injuries; promising Left Tackle, Isaiah Wynn, their First Round Pick from 2018, missed nine straight games on Injured Reserve, while Starting Center, David Andrews (Lung) hasn’t played at all this year. As a result, the Rushing Attack, which was so important last season, has struggled gain much traction, averaging just 96.3 Yards per Game (21st Overall) on a disappointing 3.5 Yards per Carry (29th Overall), which hasn’t been a lack for trying, as New England has rushed the football 27.6 times per contest (8th Overall). And this may be the most revealing statistic of all: New England punted the football on sixty-six occasions thus far, which is the third-most in the league in 2019. This team has been VERY fortunate that the Defense has been arguably the best in the league thus far, with Bill Belichick continuing to exhibit his genius on that particular side of the football. On the season, the Patriots lead the league in a wealth of categories including Points allowed (12.1), First Downs Allowed (182), Passing Touchdowns Allowed (8), Interceptions (20), Third Down Defense (21.7%), and Average Starting Position (24.3), Time (2:11) Length (20.4), and Points (0.79) per Drive. Granted, before we put them into the annals of history among the greats, it needs to be stated that while this unit has been absolutely, fantastic this season, they have largely feasted on much lesser competition, particularly during the first half of the campaign; of their first eight opponents, only the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) and Buffalo Bills (9-3) can claim winning records, with the rest of the opposition posting a dreadful 17-43 mark (.283), with a number of those teams starting Backup Quarterbacks to boot. This latest stretch saw the Defense get abused by the surging Baltimore Ravens in a 20-37 drubbing that saw Lamar Jackson & Co. roll up 210 Rushing Yards against them. Similar problems arose against Houston last weekend, with the Texans easily converting on Third Down (6-of-11), and Deshaun Watson (18-of-25, 234 YDS, 3 TD) finding his targets for big plays downfield. With Kansas City back to full strength, today’s matchup will likely reveal just how special this group is; in two meetings with the Chiefs last season, the Pats allowed an average of 35.5 Points on 368.0 Total Yards.