The Patriots return to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs on Monday night, one of the marquee AFC matchups that suddenly has a very different look from recent years, with Brian Hoyer reportedly expected to now make the start. New England pulled off one of the greatest wins of their six Super Bowl dynasty the last time they travelled to Arrowhead but fell short in last year's rematch at Gillette Stadium.
Though Cam Newton is now out for the Patriots after testing positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, some of the key pieces from the big 2018 win remain and provide hope that New England could pull off the upset again, but it will be no easy task. The Chiefs have shown no sign of letting up after winning Super Bowl 54, cruising to a 3-0 record with largely the same team.
What do the Patriots have to do to slow down Patrick Mahomes and an offense that is dripping with speed? Here are the Keys to the Game presented by Carmax!
Limit Big Plays
Former Charger Adrian Phillips, a veteran of many AFC West battles against the Chiefs, stressed that not allowing Kansas City to put up quick-strike scores from long range is perhaps the biggest key to the game. The Chiefs have speed across the board and every play has the chance to go the distance, but if the Patriots make them work for every first down and force continued execution, it should be enough to keep the game close.
The key is the Patriots secondary, which looks even deeper than they were in the last two seasons of matchups against the Chiefs. Phillips has fit right into the defense, while JoeJuan Williams is carving out a tight end coverage role. Meanwhile, Kyle Dugger has elements of both those players and continues to make weekly strides in his development.
Those new additions complement Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson and the McCourty twins, all battle-hardened veterans who know how games against the Chiefs go. Together, those eight players must be on the same page and limit the big plays.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Ride the Run
The Patriots last victory in Kansas City came largely on the shoulders of a dominant run game that put up 176 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Even more important, New England controlled the time of possession 43:59 to 20:53. That still wasn't enough to prevent the Chiefs from putting up 24 fourth-quarter points to force overtime.
Last season, the Patriots put up 94 rushing yards on 22 carries and lost the time of possession battle by almost 10 minutes, yet they were still able to keep it a one-score game with a strong second half defensive performance. Keeping pace with the Chiefs is largely tied to limiting their opportunities.
With the same running back group intact, the Patriots have some intriguing ground possibilities to throw at the Chiefs, an even more important factor with Hoyer expected to be under center. We're still learning what the 2020 Patriots strengths truly are, but one thing that seems clear through three games is the strongest part of their game is on the ground and they must produce there to meet the challenge Kansas City poses, especially without the additional threat Newton provides.
Weather the Storm
The Chiefs are going to make plays and put up points. Their Week 2 game against the Chargers was a sloppy exception, but they still managed to put up 11 fourth-quarter points to force overtime and then kick the game-winner. The second quarter is especially of concern, half the Chiefs total points this season have come in that time frame.
Even last year's game between these two teams looked bleak for the Patriots, including a 23-7 deficit late in the third quarter. But the Patriots held on, got a couple stops and made things interesting down the stretch. Had N'Keal Harry correctly been ruled in the end zone in the fourth quarter, the Pats would've closed the lead to just three points.
The Patriots defense should be well-aware of what to expect from this game and can't let any big plays break their will or concentration. Despite often looking unstoppable, KC can go cold at times as well and New England must be ready to take advantage.
Make the key crunch time plays
Like we saw against the Seahawks, the Patriots always seem to have close battles with the Chiefs and despite the Chiefs looking like a juggernaut and the Patriots going through a new offensive evolution, that shouldn't change much between the two well-coached teams that won't blink for 60 minutes.
Even if they're able to execute the previous three keys, it will still boil down to making the key plays down the stretch, as it did in the 2018 AFC Championship. The Patriots fell one play short to the Seahawks, but took confidence from the fight they showed down the stretch. They'll need every bit of that fight in this game.
Whether it's a game-winning drive or clock-killing first down for the offense, or a game-sealing interception or fourth-down stop for the defense, this game is likely to come down to one final critical play. The team that makes it will get the win.
Despite prognostications of doom, the Patriots hardly ever get blown out on the scoreboard, even in games where they're mostly outplayed. Early in the season everyone thinks they have a sense of how things will unfold, but there's still much unpredictability and sloppy play that are major factors.
The Patriots have avoided beating themselves thus far and if they can simply continue to do so, they'll stick around in this game. If they put together the best elements from their first three games, they'll have a serious chance to win it and that's what we're envisioning. The Pats make the last play and hand the Chiefs their first loss of the season.
Patriots 31, Chiefs 29