A look at the key matchups for the AFC Divisional Playoff game between Chiefs-Patriots at 3:35 p.m. Saturday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 5 in Kansas City).
When the Chiefs run
EDGE >> PATRIOTS
The Patriots have the league’s ninth-best run defense for a reason. Their defensive front is stacked with smart, versatile players with complementary skills. Start from the inside out, where tackles Malcom Brown (6-2, 320) and Alan Branch (6-6, 350) can be disruptive. Brown, a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, has a promising future. Brown, 21, year-old flashes quickness and plays with power that should only improve as his body matures. Branch uses his girth and length to win vs. the run, while the Patriots also mix in end Akiem Hicks (6-5, 324) and Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325). On the edge, the Patriots rotate three players — Jabaal Sheard (6-3, 260), Chandler Jones (6-5, 265) and Rob Ninkovich (6-2, 260) — who can hold their own in the running game.
At linebacker, Jamie Collins (6-3, 250) excels at shooting gaps and slithering through creases to make plays in the backfield. He is undersized, but is the Patriots’ leading tackler. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (6-1, 250) still packs a punch, but he’s working his way back into being the same player he was before the patella tendon injury that ruined his 2014 season. This unit will receive a lift with the potential return of inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (6-3, 265), a thick, instinctive linebacker who is rock-solid vs. the run.
Chiefs’ top rusher
When the Chiefs pass
EDGE >> PATRIOTS
The Patriots know how to get after the quarterback — they rank second in the NFL with 49 sacks. What makes them difficult to prepare for is their ability to bring it from different levels.
On the edge, both Jones (12 1/2 sacks) and Sheard (eight sacks) must be accounted for, while Ninkovich — a try-hard type who hasn’t missed a game since 2009 — has also chipped in with 6 1/2 sacks. The Patriots’ interior tackles have also teamed up for nine sacks this year, but their star linebackers are perhaps an even bigger worry, as Collins (5 1/2 sacks) and Hightower (3 1/2 sacks) are adept at getting home, as well.
Collins, who has forced five fumbles this year, is also a nuisance in coverage. He’s a versatile weapon, someone who excels in space — a new-age linebacker, if you will. Hightower, meanwhile, lacks Collins’ man-coverage ability, but is solid in zone.
The secondary is led by safety Devin McCourty (5-10, 195), a former cornerback with very good coverage ability and instincts. He’s flanked by safety Patrick Chung (5-11, 215), another versatile player who is a willing tackler.
At cornerback, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler (5-11, 190) also earned his first Pro Bowl berth. Butler is a confident player in coverage who will talk to you after the play. He’s one of the league’s best young corners. He’s flanked by Logan Ryan (5-11, 195), who is a good cover corner and very willing tackler. These two make up one of the best young duos in the league. There is a drop off from there. Third corner Leonard Johnson (5-10, 202) has a good feel for the game but is speed deficient — he ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the 2012 Combine — and can be beaten deep. If the Chiefs can get one of their top receivers matched up on him — Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson or Chris Conley — they should take a shot at him.
Chiefs’ top QB
Chiefs’ top WR
When the Patriots run
EDGE >> CHIEFS
The Patriots lost their top backs, Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, for the season due to injuries, so veteran Steven Jackson (6-2, 240) and youngsters Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) and James White (5-10, 205) are sharing the load now. The 32-year-old Jackson, who signed with the Patriots in late December, actually got the start in the Patriots’ last game. The three-time Pro Bowler has fresh legs, but he is still past his prime. At this point, he’s a one-cut, one-speed guy who lacks explosiveness, but he’s got some power and he always falls forward. He can still run you over, and the Patriots like to occasionally get him going downhill behind pulling guards. When the Patriots want a back with a little more quickness, they’ll call on Bolden, who can make you miss with his burst, while White is the best receiver of the bunch — he has 40 catches this season and has earned the trust of quarterback Tom Brady.
The Patriots have also been banged up along the offensive line, and they struggled to generate much movement at the point of attack in the regular-season finale against Miami, when they rushed for a mere 70 yards in 27 carries — an average of 2.6 per carry. The Patriots rank 30th in the league in rushing, so this is a clear advantage for the Chiefs, who boast the league’s sixth-best run defense.
Patriots’ top rusher
When the Patriots pass
EDGE >> CHIEFS
Any conversation about the Patriots’ passing game begins with star quarterback Tom Brady (6-4, 225), a 16-year veteran who was second in the NFL in quarterback rating (102.2) and first in touchdown passes (36). Brady is beyond battle-tested, at this point; he’s started six Super Bowls, something no other quarterback in NFL history has done, and won four. Brady has the ability to lift his teammates with his competitiveness and skill, and is a threat to lead a comeback victory, no matter the score. But he’s also battling an ankle injury, which could potentially impact his effectiveness. Keep an eye on his velocity and mechanics — Brady struggled with his accuracy and started throwing off his back foot after tweaking the ankle in the regular-season finale against Miami.
His favorite target is hulking tight end Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 265), while his next favorite target is diminutive receiver Julian Edelman (5-10, 200). Edelman is battling a foot injury, but when healthy, he uses superb quickness and route-running ability to make up for his lack of size. He’s similar, in that way, to Danny Amendola (5-11, 190), who actually has the second-most catches on the team (65). The Patriots went 0-3 this season when neither played. Brandon LaFell (6-3, 210) is the deep-ball guy, while Keshawn Martin (5-11, 194) is a quick, slot-type who has flashed during the absences of Edelman and Amendola.
However, the Patriots’ offensive line has been beat up by injuries, its performance uneven. Brady has been sacked 38 times, the ninth-most of any quarterback, and all five of the players who started the Patriots’ Super Bowl win last February have missed games due to injuries.
Patriots’ top QB
Patriots’ top WR
EDGE >> PATRIOTS
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is one of the league’s best kickers. His field-goals made (33), field-goal percentage (92), touchback percentage (68.3) and extra-point percentage are all superior to the Chiefs’ Cairo Santos. The punt edge, however, goes to the Chiefs, as Dustin Colquitt has dropped 37 punts inside the 20, compared to 31 for Ryan Allen. New England has also surrendered a punt return touchdown, while the Chiefs have not. The Patriots have done a better job covering kicks and have a better punt-return unit, but the Chiefs’ kick return unit is superior, as Knile Davis’ 106-yard kick return touchdown got the Chiefs off to a great start last week against the Texans. So yes, this is very close. But the slightest of edges goes to the Patriots, largely because of the kicker and their familiarity with home-field wind patterns.
EDGE >> PATRIOTS
There aren’t many NFL coaches with better resumes than the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, but the Patriots’ Bill Belichick is one of the few. With four Super Bowl titles — including one over Reid in Super Bowl XXXIX — Belichick is the league’s most accomplished coach. He’s also assembled a bright, young staff led by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. McDaniels, 39, oversees the league’s sixth-best offense, while Patricia, 41, does the same for the league’s ninth-best defense. The Chiefs, meanwhile, rank 27th in total offense and seventh in total defense.
EDGE >> CHIEFS
The Patriots are way more banged up than the Chiefs, as key players like Brady and Edelman are banged up while the offensive line — which has used 39 different line combinations, according to ESPN — is a mess. So there’s that. But the situation surrounding Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones, who sought medical attention this week after reportedly smoking synthetic marijuana, is a distraction. It could not have come at a worse time, either. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have been diligently going about their business largely drama-free as winners of 11 straight games.
Bottom line: Patriots 13-10
First of all, the red-hot Chiefs are fully capable of winning this game. They’ve won 11 games in a row, they’re healthier and they haven’t had the distractions the Patriots have had this week. Throw in whatever motivation Reid has to have for wanting to topple Belichick, and the upset is in play. But the rule of thumb in the playoffs is to always pick the team with the best coach and quarterback, and while Reid and Smith are darned good, Brady and Belichick are elite. Of course, that certainly doesn’t guarantee a Patriots win. However, it does mean the defending Super Bowl champs should get the benefit of the doubt, at least from any unbiased observer.