Here’s a basic outline of what’s going to happen 60 or so times on Thursday night, when the Chiefs open the season against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
The Patriots, led by star quarterback Tom Brady, will walk to the line of scrimmage. Brady will survey the Chiefs’ defensive alignment and, thanks to copious film study and 18 NFL seasons under his belt, he will probably know what defense they’re in.
This will allow Brady to deliver the ball quickly and with anticipation, which he does better than anyone, and put the ball accurately into the hands of his target, which he also does better than anyone. The 40-year old completed nearly 67 percent of his passes last year with 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
If any of this sounds daunting, it should. It is. Brady is 52-1 at home against AFC opponents since 2007.
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“It’s really hard,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s got the answers to the test, because he’s played in so many games. How many guys have played in 261 games? That’s a hell of a lot of games, now.”
Sutton’s message to the Chiefs this week has been simple. He knows that if they’re going to win Thursday, and somehow find a way to stop the Patriots’ offensive juggernaut, there’s four things they must do.
The first, obviously, is stay mentally tough. The Patriots will make their share of plays, even against the perfect coverage or defensive call. The effort cannot change for the Chiefs defensively after such plays.
“You’ve got to play hard and sustain it and take some body blows,” Sutton added.
The second key, which is also simple, is to execute. Since Brady knows what’s coming before the snap, the Chiefs have to keep mental mistakes to a minimum and simply outplay the Patriots.
“If you’re counting on winning the game by confusing Tom Brady, that’s not a good plan,” Sutton said.
The third key, however, is rarely talked about. One of the reasons Brady is elite is because of his ability to spot defensive tells before the snap. This can be a stunting defensive lineman, for instance, who falls into the habit of tilting, ever so slightly, in the direction he plans to knife, or a blitzing linebacker who shifts his weight to his toes right before the snap in an effort to build a head of steam.
All these things and more, Brady sees. It’s why it only took Brady an average of 2.49 seconds to deliver the football last year, the quickest in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s way different than most quarterbacks,” outside linebacker Dee Ford said. “He can sniff everything out.”
That’s why eliminating those things — which will only make it easier for Brady to decode their defensive plan — is paramount.
“Most of the time, before the ball is even snapped, he knows,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “He’s probably going to figure it out, but we can make it hard for him.”
One of the ways the Chiefs can do that is by taking advantage of his perceptive nature. Perhaps Johnson will feign a blitz here or there, or a defensive lineman will give him a false tell.
“Just play some games with him,” Johnson explained. “But still do your job.”
All this, however, is secondary to the Chiefs’ fourth and final defensive key, which is generating defensive pressure in any and all situations.
“(We have to) hit him,” outside linebacker Justin Houston said.
The easiest way to do that is by blitzing. But Brady gets rid of the ball so fast, the blitz cannot be the sole way the Chiefs get after him. The fewer players they put in coverage against a surgeon like Brady, the worse off they will likely be, considering the Patriots’ cast of versatile playmakers at running back, receiver and tight end.
“You only get a certain amount of opportunities,” Ford said. “The only way to the quarterback is to win 1-on-1s.”
Even when he’s being hit, however, Brady will likely remain poised. He never panicked in the Patriots’ iconic Super Bowl win over the Atlanta Falcons in February — despite a 28-3 second-half deficit — so it’s highly unlikely that anything that happens Thursday will rattle him in a significant way.
But if the Chiefs do all these things, there’s a chance they can force enough incompletions or mistakes to win the game. Sure, the Patriots are 3-0 in Thursday night openers, and yes, they will likely get a lift from raising their fifth championship banner before the game.
But while Brady might be considered part cyborg at this point, it’s worth remembering that every NFL team – other than the 1972 Miami Dolphins – has lost at least once in a season, and the Chiefs — who went 12-4 last year — won’t be intimidated by the spectacle of it all.
“The best thing about football is you’re never perfect,” Johnson said. “Even the greats.”