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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Turnovers and health will be the difference

New England hosts the red-hot Chiefs in the Divisional Playoff battle.

There is no doubt that it's been a weird week in Foxborough, nothing like any previous playoff week in Bill Belichick's time in New England.

From the coach's own curious-but-irrelevant black eye through Chandler Jones' situation surrounding a medical emergency all the way to Rob Gronkowski missing practice, there have been lots of events if not exactly distractions for the Patriots to deal with.

This all comes after the defending Super Bowl Champions limped through the final six games of the year with a 2-4 record, a time when Belichick's teams have traditionally played their best football.

Still, the No. 2 seed Patriots (12-4) earned the right to host the red-hot Chiefs (12-5) Saturday evening in the AFC Divisional Playoff at Gillette Stadium.

Kansas City has won 11 straight games, including the dominating 30-0 shutout of the Texans in which turnovers did in Houston the way they have for so many previous Chiefs opponents.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart counts down his 'Top 10' players to watch during the Patriots Divisional Playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Even before this wacky week, the Patriots faced as many questions heading into this postseason as any point in this 15-year run of pretty much annual playoff success. Injuries on both sides of the ball and all across the formation were a major issue down the stretch. The expected returns of guys like Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and others are both a theoretical positive and a relative unknown.

Still, Belichick seemed to be upbeat about his team's week of work and chances heading into yet another Divisional Playoff game in Foxborough.

"Everything is pointing to us being at our best, optimum performance on Saturday afternoon, so that's what we're all pointing towards, that's what we're all working towards, and that's where we hope to be," Belichick said Thursday morning in his last press conference of the week. "We've had a good week of preparation and now we need to tie up some loose ends, some situational stuff and be ready to go."

Whether the team is ready to go and whether any number of players on both teams are really ready to go health-wise will be the overwhelming focus early on as Andy Reid's Chiefs look to continue to roll, while New England attempts to prove once again that championship football in the AFC still very much go through Brady, Belichick and the rest of the defending champs.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on in this battle between one team that limped into the postseason and another that's as hot as any team in the game, the victor earning a spot in next Sunday's AFC Championship game:

Health check - Brady dealt with an ankle injury in the season finale in Miami, but suddenly that is way down the list of concerns. Gronkowski, though, would probably be at the top of that list. Missing two-plus days of practice this time of year, coming out of a bye week no less, is not good. It's even worse that he was reportedly at a hospital to receive some sort of treatment. Still, Gronkowski is listed as questionable and it would be stunning if he didn't suit up. But can he dominate the middle of the field to his usual high standards, especially against a group that includes All-Pro safety Eric Berry? What Gronkowski brings to the table could be a major factor in just how potent the Patriots offense is against a very good Chiefs defense that ranked ninth against the pass and was No. 3 overall in points allowed. The other big factor in that passing potential is Edelman. He sounded pretty confident this week, even if he'll reportedly wear a plate in his shoe to protect his surgically-repaired foot. He's been practicing for a month. But the jump to the playoff game field against a good defense is a big one. It wouldn't be surprising to see Edelman targeted on the first play of the game. Could set a tone and an energy. But is he his usual quick self on the option routes? Can he make yards after catch? Or is he rusty? Important questions that won't be answered till late Saturday afternoon. 

Protection plan - The final key returning offensive player is Vollmer. He should boost the offensive line and pass protection that's key to everything New England wants to do on the day. But his return doesn't mean there are no concerns up front. Brady will try to get rid of the ball quickly, especially with Edelman back in the mix. But a Chiefs team that had 47 sacks this fall will try to get to Brady quickly, too. That group is banged up though, including Justin Houston who led the Kansas City rush with 7.5 sacks on the year. Tamba Hali is also questionable. But New England's line doesn't just have to worry about the edges. Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard are dangerous defensive tackles, with Howard notching 5.5 sacks during the regular season and another in last week's Wild Card Weekend win in Houston. The interior of the line has struggled of late in New England and rookie guard Tre' Jackson will be missing due to a knee injury. Dave DeGuglielmo's line must be better than it was down the stretch in another tough test. Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton comes from the Rex Ryan system, meaning he knows how to get pressure and has also seen the successful way to take away the Patriots short, middle-of-the-field passing attack. It's at least partially on the line to get Brady and the passing attack going.

Ball security- The Chiefs win through the turnover battle. They had the No. 2 turnover differential in the NFL in the regular season at plus-14. They had 29 takeaways, fifth-most in the league. They notched five takeaways in the win over the Texans, including four interceptions. But the Patriots aren't prone to turnovers. New England had just 14 giveaways in 16 regular season games, including just three total in the final four games of the year. Brady's Patriots never had more than two giveaways in a single game all year. The Chiefs need turnovers to win. It's how Alex Smith gets the short field he needs to score points. It's simply how Reid's team survives and succeeds. They don't make mistakes and take advantage of those that other teams make. But the Patriots aren't the Texans. Or anything like many of the other sub-par teams Kansas City beat down the stretch. If the Patriots uncharacteristically turn the ball over with frequency, it will give the Chiefs a lot of life on the road. If New England plays its game and secures the ball, it will make things very tough on the upset-mind squad from Kansas City.

Run of confidence - The Chiefs want to run the football and if Jeremy Maclin can't play (the leading receiver is questionable after missing practice all week with an ankle injury) may need to control the game on the ground even more than usual. Kansas City had the No. 6 rushing offense during the regular season. Charcandrick West led the way with 634 yards, but Smith added another 498 while Spencer Ware had 403. Ware led the way with 16 carries against Houston for 67 yards. But the Patriots have a solid run defense that improved greatly through the second half of the season, finishing the year ranked No. 9 in the league. Rookie Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and a surging Akiem Hicks held five of the final eight opponents of the year to less than 4 yards per carry. Kansas City also has some pretty key issues on the offensive line, as starting center Mitch Morse and starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff will both miss the game with concussions. The edge of the run defense is just as important for New England, though. Jones – who certainly could miss some time in the game as punishment for last weekend's "stupid mistake" – Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard need to set the edge against the backs and Smith. Jamie Collins will need to run sideline to sideline, but should get a boost from the expected return of linebacker mate Dont'a Hightower. The Patriots run defense has been the best, most consistent aspect of the team over the last couple months and if that trend continues it will make life very tough on the Chiefs offense. 

Prediction - Even with all the injuries and questions, the Patriots are very much the favorite at home in Foxborough to open the postseason. Brady and Belichick are the most successful, experienced playoff coach/quarterback combo in history. Something has to be said for that, even with everything that's gone on this week. As much as has been made of the Patriots injuries, they have many guys returning and the Chiefs have just as many key guys out/battling issues. Travis Kelce is the only really scary part of the Kansas City attack, so expect the Patriots to key the defense on taking the tight end out of the equation. Memories of last September's debacle in Kansas City can't be erased, but I can't fathom that everything that went wrong for the Patriots that night could possibly be recreated again. It won't be easy. The Chiefs are a solid football team that plays fundamentally sound and has talent, especially on defense. The Patriots have a lot of questions and it's unrealistic to expect them to just flip some fictional switch and return to September's big points and big wins. But if they don't turn the ball over they have enough to make more plays than the "Smith-led" Chiefs. James White could be an X-factor out of the backfield as one of the more proven playmakers of the last month-plus. Put it all together and I see a 20-10, hard-fought victory for New England to earn a spot in the team's record-tying fifth-straight AFC Championship Game. It won't be easy. But it's playoff time in Foxborough and the Chiefs simply don't appear to have the fortitude and firepower to come to town and pull off the upset. The defending champs are still the team to beat. And they will not be beaten on this evening.

What other things will you be watching for in this Saturday evening as the Patriots look to advance to a fifth-straight AFC title game? Let us know with a comment below!

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