New England hosts the undefeated Chiefs in an October Sunday night battle that could have postseason seeding ramifications.
Until proven otherwise, the Patriots (3-2) remain the team to beat in the AFC.
It's a reputation built over years and years of consistent success, including seven straight trips to the conference title game.
Despite some early-September doubts, it's a reputation that's been rekindled thanks to consecutive wins that included the offense scoring 38 or more in back-to-back games for the first time since the record setting days of 2007.
But this Sunday night a red-hot Kansas City (5-0) team that currently paces the standings in the AFC comes to Gillette Stadium with a chance to send a message not only to New England but the rest of the NFL.
It's a new-look Chiefs squad under the leadership of first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes, though many of the rest of the particulars remain from Kansas City's season-opening shocking win over the Patriots last fall.
Andy Reid, Mahomes and the rest of the Chiefs weapons have come together to form a wagon that's rolled out of the gates in 2018, but a win in Foxborough this weekend would take the hype to a new level. It would also give Kansas City a big advantage in the race to a potential No. 1 seed and home field advantage in the postseason that's still well off in the future.
But a Patriots win to thwart off another would-be challenger would once again stamp Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the New England roster as the measuring stick in the AFC.
It's a matchup that pits the aging GOAT quarterback with the next big thing at the position. It's a battle of two teams built around high-octane offenses and questionable defenses.
So, it's sort of the perfect modern NFL battle for the massive audience and attention of Sunday night football.
And it should be fun.
Leading up to Sunday night's kickoff, here are a few keys to what now looks to be one of the more important battles on the 2018 schedule.
Start fast – All teams in all sports want to start fast and play well early. But it matters more in certain games and certain matchups. This is one of those times. Both of these teams are led by their offenses and are far more effective when they play from ahead. Kansas City has done that all season, outscoring its opponents a combined 59-9 in the first quarter and playing basically even football over the rest of the five games on the way to their undefeated record. Brady made it clear that things go much better for his team when it plays from ahead. Will the team that wins the toss take the football and look to jump on the early lead? It probably should.
Tackle – The speed that the Chiefs bring to this matchup is not overhyped. Tyreek Hill may be the fastest guy in the NFL. Travis Kelce is as quick/fast a tight end as there may be. Sammy Watkins, Kareem Hunt, the list continues and includes the quarterback, Mahomes. It's a major challenge for the Patriots defense. The athletes on that side of the ball have taken their lumps and criticism at times this season and now may face their biggest test to date. They aren't going to shut down Mahomes and Co. But they do need to avoid allowing big plays. If the yards start coming in big chunks so, too, will the points. Hill, Kelce and the rest are going to get their catches. But the gains need to be limited. That means tackling. Missed tackles against K.C. can leads to TDs. Trying to slow and limit the Chiefs starts with the simple fundamental of tackling. Easy for me to type, though, I'm not the one who has to try to take down Hill, Kelce or Mahomes.
Punt game a sneaky key – It's fun to say going into the game that there is a chance that neither team punts. But that's not too likely. Even if a shootout unfolds, there will be a handful of punts. The funny thing is that's actually a strong area for the Chiefs, who rank No. 1 in the NFL on both punt returns and punt coverage. Hill is as dangerous a punt returner as there is in the league. Julian Edelman's return last week brought life to the Patriots punt return game, but K.C. has been solid keeping opponents in check all year. It may only be a handful of snaps, but a key play or mistake in the punt game could be significant. On paper, that's another area that favors the visitors.
Middle it – The Chiefs have a bad defense. No. 32 in the NFL based on yards. The unit is also extremely banged up. Eric Berry has yet to play and is doubtful for Sunday night. His replacement, Eric Murray, is already out. Justin Houston is also doubtful. Kansas City isn't quite as banged up as the Colts a week ago, but it's close. It's so bad in the middle of the defense that wide receiver Marcus Kemp was being prepped for possible emergency duty at safety. Oh, by the way, Brady has Edelman back and Rob Gronkowski rolling. Sounds like a game where the Patriots passing game will challenge the middle of the field early and often, likely to find success.
Run for fun and results – As much as everyone wants to talk about a possible passing game shootout between Brady and Mahomes, New England should also be able to run the ball against the Chiefs. Kansas City has allowed opponents to average 5.8 yards per carry on the season, worst in the NFL. Sony Michel has rushed for more than 200 yards combined the last two weeks and seen his per-carry-average grow each game for a month. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has made a pretty strong commitment to the running game for a month now and it seems to be paying off. That ground attack could be put to good use again in this battle with a banged up Chiefs defense that just hasn't been up to the task on the ground this fall.
Loose ends – There's been plenty of focus on the tight ends this week, as two of the game's best in Gronkowski and Kelce hit the field together. Everyone knows that Edelman brings a unique comfort to the Brady-led passing attack, as the duo has never lost a regular season game at Gillette in which both guys played. Hill is a stud as a production machine all over the field. And we know there is a good chance that Michel/James White and Hunt will get their touches and yards. But it could be one of the complementary weapons on these two star-studded offenses that sways the game. Josh Gordon is getting more comfortable and active, coming off his first touchdown in a Patriots uniform. Phillip Dorsett has settled into a role a bit lower on the list of targets. Sammy Watkins is a big-money addition to the Chiefs who has his ups and downs but certainly must be accounted for. The stars will get theirs, but which of the rest of the offensive options will fill out the attack for these teams? The answer to that could decide the game.
Turnovers – It's cliché. It's boring. It's true. Winning the turnover battle is huge in the NFL. The Chiefs are plus-5 on the season, thanks mostly to Blake Bortles. Kansas City has eight takeaways and a mere three giveaways in five games. The Patriots actually have more takeaways with 10, but sit at plus-1 thanks to a relatively high number of giveaways at 9, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. The Chiefs are too good offensively these days to give them extra chances. If Brady, who has six picks in just five games, and the offense don't secure the ball it's kind of hard to envision them securing the win.
Prediction: History and numbers and statistics in similar situations all favor the Patriots in this one. New England's record against young starting quarterbacks is almost impeccable. Vegas favors the home squad. But none of those things really matter once the ball is kicked off and men start running around on the Gillette Stadium turf on Sunday night. Then it's up to competition and execution. It's really hard to imagine either offense being slowed down by either defense. It's not hard to imagine both offenses rolling up and down the turf. New England has scored 38 points in consecutive weeks. Kansas City has topped that number three times in five games. Points, they will be scored. I've gone back and forth on this prediction all week long. Now that time is up, I'm going to go with what will almost be a shocking 35-31 victory for the Chiefs. Reid's team has proven it can beat the Patriots in the past, including in New England. And in the end I just see too many weapons and too good a scheme right now on the Chiefs offense for the Patriots defense to deal with.
What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!