Here are five key objectives the Chiefs need to execute to defeat the New England Patriots in their AFC Divisional Playoff game Saturday. The game kicks off at 3:35 p.m. on CBS (Ch. 5 in Kansas City).
1. Pressure Tom Brady
In the Patriots’ regular-season finale against Miami — a 20-10 loss that cost them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — the Patriots were down to their backups at both tackle positions, and were particularly vulnerable on the edges. That’s a bad sign against a Chiefs’ defense that rotates four edge rushers and has racked up the fourth-most sacks in the league (47). While one of their two best tackles, Nate Solder, is out for the rest of the season, the other — Sebastian Vollmer (6-8, 325) — could return this week, which would give the line a boost.
“They do a nice job with the pass rush as far as chip-and-goes or ball-out-quick,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, explaining how the Pats typically counter strong pass rushes.
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Still, the interior of their line, which consists of right guard Josh Kline (6-3, 300), center Bryan Stork (6-4, 310) and left guard Shaq Mason (6-1, 310), could struggle to match the physicality of the Chiefs’ interior linemen, though Kline — a classic try-hard offensive lineman — has emerged as a very capable starter. The Chiefs’ Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey are all big, quick and disruptive vs. the run and pass, and will need to win the trench battle to give the Chiefs a chance.
2. Contain Gronkowski
Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s combination of size, athleticism and ball skills make him an impossible matchup. He’s too athletic for linebackers, and too big for defensive backs, so he routinely commands double coverage. Still, he’s caught 72 passes for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. What’s more, Gronkowski is also a good, competitive runner after the catch, someone who routinely steamrolls potential tacklers, and he’s also a plus blocker with a nasty streak.
His only drawback is that he’s injury prone — he missed practice Thursday due to knee and back injuries and was limited on Friday — so it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be Saturday. The last time he faced the Chiefs — a 41-14 Kansas City drubbing in 2014 — Gronkowski was rarely granted free releases and was limited to two catches for 31 yards and a touchdown. Safeties Husain Abdullah and Ron Parker and a variety of outside linebackers drew the assignment last time, and this time, the Chiefs can throw another body at him in Eric Berry, who missed the last showdown with an injury.
3. Press the receivers
Outside of Gronkowski, the Patriots’ primary receivers are small and quick. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola both stand about 5-11 and 195 pounds, and are quick and precise route runners who thrive as runners after the catch. The Patriots like to use a lot of motion to force teams to play soft coverage, which allows them to play pitch and catch underneath and gain yards after the catch.
That said, the Chiefs’ big corners might be wise to press the Patriots receivers the same way they did in 2014. With a banged-up offensive line facing a strong Chiefs’ pass rush, the Patriots might not have enough time to complete the deep passes that would make the Chiefs pay for being so aggressive on the outside.
“No quarterback wants to just stand back there and avoid sacks with guys getting pressed,” Smith said. “That’s a lot going on.”
4. Establish the running game
The Chiefs seemed to find a good run-blocking offensive line last week, when left tackle Eric Fisher, left guard Jeff Allen, center Zach Fulton, right guard Jah Reid and right tackle Donald Stephenson played with some nastiness and imposed their will on the Texans’ defensive front while rushing for 141 yards in 37 carries.
Also, since Jamaal Charles’ season-ending injury on Oct. 11, the Chiefs have actually averaged more rushing yards per game — 135.9, fifth in the league — in 11 regular-season games with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware handling the load than they did in the previous 37 under coach Andy Reid (122.2).
So yes, they’ve got a chance to again make some hay on the ground this week. They’ll likely find the Patriots are stouter and more gap sound against the run than the Texans were, but playoff football is won in the trenches, and the Chiefs should not abandon the ground-based formula that served them so well during their 11-game winning streak.
5. Get other players involved on offense
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has done a nice job assembling a defense that features many smart, versatile players, which allows him to alternate between plenty of defensive looks. One week the Patriots will use the 4-3 as a base; the next week they’ll use a 3-4, all the while using a blend of coverages.
But Reid who is in his 17th year as an NFL head coach, knows Belichick’s roots.
“We’ve prepped for a little bit of two-deep zone, that’s where his roots are — you go back to the New York Giants — so they do a nice job with that,” Reid said. “And they play a little bit of man coverage, that’s how they roll. We’ll be ready for all of the above.”
That will also mean having a plan lined up to counter Belichick’s uncanny ability to take away what a team likes to do best. If Jeremy Maclin can’t play — or if he plays and isn’t his usual dynamic threat — that plan could center around taking away Alex Smith’s scrambling lanes and shutting down tight end Travis Kelce, their second-leading receiver. It will be interesting to see whether safety Patrick Chung, who has also done a nice job on tight ends this season, or star linebacker Jamie Collins — the rare second-level player who excels in coverage‚ gets first crack at stopping Kelce.
Regardless, Smith’s other options in the passing game — receivers Chris Conley and Albert Wilson and running back West — likely will be called upon to make a big play at some point Saturday. Whether they do or not might determine whether the Chiefs’ Super Bowl dreams remain alive next week.