When the schedule came out in April, this weekend's game between the Patriots and Chiefs was the first one circled. The teams had two epic games last season, with the Patriots overtime win in the AFC Championship earning a spot as one of the most impressive victories of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
Both teams have had their ups and downs this season, as the Patriots have had to rely on defense and special teams for the first time in over a decade. The Chiefs lost their star quarterback to injury and experienced some surprising defeats, already hitting their loss total from last season. Despite their respective drama, both teams arrive at this game needing and wanting a win every bit as much as we thought they would when the schedule was first released.
For the Patriots, this is a turning point game. Win and they'll be firmly in the AFC's second seed and re-establish their position as a team who can beat anyone, especially in their home stadium. Lose and they'll have just a one-game lead on the Chiefs for the second seed and even the division title could be in question with the 9-3 Bills nipping at their heels. A loss would also mean the Patriots will have lost to all three AFC division leaders and call into question if they have any hope of making another playoff run.
So yes, this game is every bit as big as you'd expect it to be and it will be a defining moment of the 2019 season. Here's what the Patriots need to do to get back on track with the Keys to the Starting Lineup!
Weather the Storm
The Chiefs are the best first half offensive team in the NFL, ranking first in yardage and second in points but in the second half things drop off for them, falling all the way to 18th in fourth-quarter yardage and 14th in second-half points. They've raced out to plenty of leads but sustaining their early offensive production has been difficult for Kansas City. They were up 17-3 in the first quarter against the Texans and lost 31-24. They went up 10-0 on the Titans and held a 29-20 lead early in the fourth quarter and still lost. Even without Mahomes, they led the Packers at halftime 17-14 but lost. This is a departure for the Patriots because in last year's two games with the Chiefs it was actually the second-half scoring that was the big problem.
Devin McCourty spoke about the Chiefs ability to adjust, so it will be a 60 minute game, but the Patriots must be prepared to weather an aerial assault right out of the gate. If they get the kind of start like they got last year, holding the Chiefs to nine and zero points in the first halves, they'll be on their way.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 14 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 8, 2019.
Move the Ball on First Down
The Chiefs own the 30th-ranked run defense in DVOA, and are giving up the 5th-most yards-per-rush on first down with the 9th-most rushes against. If there's a clear statistical trend for Kansas City's defense it's that stopping the run on first down is their biggest weakness. Can the Patriots finally have a breakout running game? New England's 18th-ranked DVOA rushing offense is no sure bet, but in recent weeks the Pats ground game has shown some sparks.
The bigger reason to run the ball on early downs is that the Chiefs defense quickly ascends near the top of the league on third down, where they're fourth in turnover percentage and 3rd in sacks despite being 14th in third down conversions. The new-look defense is starting to find their stride. Steve Spagnuolo's unit wants to get upfield and attack just like his 2007 Giants defense did and getting into third-and-long situations will play right into their strengths. Not to overstate it but New England's chances in this game might correspond directly to how well they move the ball on first down, which doesn't just have to be straight-up runs, but include a combination of screen passes and jet sweeps.
Bend Don't Break (again)
The Chiefs are at their best when they're scoring explosive touchdown plays, but when faced with extended execution, especially on shorter fields, they're not the same unstoppable offense. The shorter fields can mitigate their explosive downfield speed. KC leads the league with 18 touchdowns of 15 yards-or-more but their red zone offense is 19th. They're 16th in red zone touchdown percentage.
The big plays are going to happen but if there's one thing the Patriots defense had traditionally excelled at, it's bending but not breaking. When the Chiefs put up 31 points the second half of the AFC Championship game it was largely fueled by explosive plays, with scoring drives that included just five plays inside the Patriots 20-yard-line. Limiting the explosive plays is important but not as much as buttoning up inside the red zone and holding the Chiefs to field goals.
It seems like the Patriots have gotten inside their own heads a little too much in a recent stretch that has seen them go 2-2 in their last four games. The rookie receivers are overthinking and slowing down. The defense has been getting caught in no man's land. The offense seems to ping pong between complicating and simplifying, failing to find a happy medium that plays to their best player's strengths. And then there's Tom Brady, who continues to expect perfection from an imperfect collection of weapons. As Brady himself said on the sidelines during the Houston loss, they're too "robotic."
The Patriots need to get back to just relaxing and playing their game. That goes from the coaching staff all the way down to the role players. Playing uptight against the Chiefs can make for an ugly result because this one has the feel of track meet, where early leads can diminish and mistakes will need to be overcome. Being at home is a nice advantage, especially to be in manageable conditions. It was Week 3 in September the last time it wasn't rainy and miserable for a Patriots home game. The crowd should be ready to go and the team should feed off that energy, get out of their heads and just play football like they're capable.
The Patriots usually respond with their best football when it's all on the line, especially in December, but even their best game might not be enough to match scores with the Chiefs. Kansas City is unlikely to hand over this game on a silver platter to the Patriots like so many teams have done this year, so this will be a victory New England must earn. They have the defense and special teams to do it, but no one knows for sure if they have the offense, though the Chiefs defense is not an impenetrable fortress.
Never rule out Tom Brady no matter how things have looked to this point. The Patriots get a season-defining win and get on track for the playoffs.
Patriots 28, Chiefs 27