A detailed look at the key players and matchups for the Chiefs-Patriots game at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The game will air on NBC (Ch. 41 in Kansas City).
Coach: Bill Belichick (237-115) is in his 23rd year as an NFL head coach, and his 18th with New England. Belichick, 65, took over in 2000 and hasn’t had a losing season since his first year. Has won at least 12 games a year since 2010 and won five Super Bowls, the most of any head coach in NFL history.
Offense: Josh McDaniels is in his ninth year as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and his sixth year in his second stint following a two-year run as the Denver Broncos’ head coach. McDaniels, 41, relies heavily on the short-to-intermediate passing game and power running to move the ball. The Patriots also use lots of shotgun and ranked fourth in the league in passing last year (269.2 yards per game) and seventh in the league in rushing (117.0).
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Defense: Matt Patricia, 42, is in his sixth year as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. Belichick, a defensive wizard, still plays an active role on defense, but Patricia is his right-hand man and has played a role in guiding one of the league’s best defenses. The Patriots regularly mix fronts and will play a 4-3, 3-4, 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 depending on the opponent and/or situation. The Patriots ranked 12th in the league vs. the pass (237.9 yards per game) and third in the league vs. the run (88.6) a year ago.
Special teams: Joe Judge, 35, is in his third year as the Patriots’ special-teams coach. Judge spent three seasons as the team’s special-teams assistant before earning a promotion in 2015. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is among the league’s best, while punter Ryan Allen will be charged with keeping the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl return man, Tyreek Hill, out of the mix. The Pats ranked near the top of the league in opponents’ kick-return (third) and punt-return averages (second) — thanks in large part to stud special teams ace Matthew Slater — but were in the bottom half of the league in those categories themselves, and their returners struggled with ball security at times.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Take some downfield shots
Belichick has a well-earned reputation for taking away the thing teams want to do the most. For the Chiefs, that means choking off the running game and Andy Reid’s beloved short passing game. The Patriots are good at stopping the former — teams barely averaged 88 yards per game against them last year — so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England force quarterback Alex Smith to beat them up top. Smith has a reputation for playing conservatively, but the Chiefs have diligently practiced the deep passing game for the better part of two years now. For this team to take the next step, it needs to connect on more of those shots. No better time than the present.
2. Secondary options must step up
The last time these two teams met, in the 2016 AFC divisional round, the Patriots put lots of bodies around stud tight end Travis Kelce, chipping him at the line of scrimmage and bracketing him with defenders when it was appropriate. It’s not crazy to think they’ll do the same this year, which means someone else on offense — paging Tyreek Hill — needs to step up Thursday in a big way. Hill offers game-breaking speed and could be a matchup problem for cornerback Malcolm Butler, who is a stud but runs a 4.62 40. It’s more likely Hill sees newly-acquired speedster Stephon Gilmore, a darn good corner himself. If the Pats take away Hill and Kelce, it will be up to the secondary options — like Chris Conley, Albert Wilson, Demetrius Harris and the running backs — to make them pay and outplay the Patriots’ support players. If they don’t, moving the ball could be tough sledding.
3. Win 1-on-1 matchups up front
The key to beating New England is affecting star quarterback Tom Brady. The problem is, that’s easier said than done since the Patriots only yielded 24 sacks last year, the fifth-fewest in the league. However, it is a must if the Chiefs want to win. Brady is so smart and quick with the football, blitzing relentlessly would be a foolhardy endeavor. So that means players in the Chiefs’ front seven — Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Bennie Logan, Allen Bailey and Chris Jones — will need to bring it. If these guys don’t win their individual matchups, it will be a long night in Foxborough. The good news is that all have flashed pass-rush ability, and if Houston is healthy — and he says he is — he’s someone the Patriots will need to account for, which will open up lanes and opportunities for the others. The Chiefs failed to pressure Brady much the last time they met, and they can’t afford to go down the same way again.
4. Stay mentally tough
Here’s the thing about playing great quarterbacks — they’re going to do great things, even when they aren’t supposed to. That means there will be a few instances Thursday where the Chiefs dial up the correct defense, only to see Brady shred it, anyway. The Chiefs will have to stay tough on defense in those moments, but the good news is it seems like their defensive leaders — Houston, Eric Berry and Derrick Johnson — are all on the same page about that, as all embraced the importance of staying tough under fire Thursday.
Four Patriots to watch
No. 12, QB Tom Brady, 40 years old, 6-4, 225, 18th season
Ranked No. 1 on the NFL’s list of top 100 players for 2017. Completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 3,554 yards, 28 touchdowns and two interceptions in 12 games in 2016. Second-team All-Pro in 2016. Team captain. Five-time Super Bowl champion who rarely gets rattled. “He’s like a robot,” Berry said. Is outstanding presnap; identifies defenses with ease. Throws with excellent anticipation and touch. Gets the ball out extremely quick and has the RPMs to get the ball wherever he needs to. Outstanding decision-maker who rarely gets fooled. Does a nice job sliding around the pocket but is not a threat to hurt you with his legs. Can be affected by pressure, but if you blitz him, he’ll make you pay more often than not.
No. 87, TE Rob Gronkowski, 28 years old, 6-6, 265, 8th season
Ranked No. 23 on the NFL’s list of top 100 players for 2017. Recorded 25 catches for 540 yards and three touchdowns in eight games in 2016. Team captain. Missed most of last season because of a back injury, but when healthy is largely considered to be the game’s best tight end. Large target with excellent ball skills. Red-zone threat who can outleap and outmuscle defenders. Doesn’t run past people but does a nice job using his body to block out defenders. Very strong, competitive runner after the catch. Tough, physical blocker who competes and is not a liability in an area where tight ends rarely shine. High-motor player who is largely peerless when on the field.
No. 54, ILB Dont’a Hightower, 27 years old, 6-3, 265, 6th season
Ranked No. 94 on the NFL’s list of top 100 players for 2017. Recorded 65 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and two pass deflections in 13 games in 2016. Second-team All-Pro in 2016. Team captain. Good blitzer who gives good effort and shows a knack for getting home. Strong, disciplined run defender who packs a punch when he gets there. Physical presence who does his best work in the box. Strong vocal leader who anchors the Patriots’ defense. Solid and instinctive in zone. Has good athleticism, but his hips are a little tight, so speedy tight ends can give him issues in man.
No. 21, CB Malcolm Butler, 27 years old, 5-11, 190, 4th season
Ranked No. 99 on the NFL’s list of top 100 players for 2017. Recorded 63 tackles, 17 pass deflections and four interceptions in 16 games in 2016. Second-team All-Pro in 2016. Super Bowl hero from 2014 is a feisty, competitive corner who does some of his best work in press coverage. Loves to put his hands on receivers and plays with an edge. Flashes ball skills and is a willing hitter. Top-end speed is only okay — he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at his pro day three years ago — but is an ideal corner to match vs. bigger receivers.
Prediction: Patriots 27-16
The Chiefs have to contend with a lot Thursday. Not only are the Patriots 3-0 on Thursdays when opening a season, New England will also be raising its fifth Super Bowl banner in front of a frenzied crowd and a nationwide audience. Add in the fact Brady is 52-1 at home since 2007 against AFC opponents and it’s difficult to give the Chiefs the edge here. But don’t completely count these guys out. No one is giving a team that went 12-4 last year a chance to win the game. That’s fertile grounds for the “no one believed in us” win.