After being eliminated from playoff contention, the Patriots are playing the spoiler role against the defending champion Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
It would be fun to upset the Chiefs. However, most fans would probably rather see the Patriots lose to get the best possible pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Following a feel-good win over the Steelers for New England, the Bears, via the Panthers, are running away with the number one overall pick. Luckily, the Pats still have the best odds of selecting second overall. According to ESPN Analytics, the Patriots have a 41% chance at a top-two pick in next April's draft, down from 60% due to beating Pittsburgh in Week 14.
Although it behooves them to keep losing, that doesn't mean the Patriots can't be competitive in their last four games. Ideally, New England loses four entertaining, close games where the roster continues to show promise for future seasons. During their five-game losing streak, it was hard to highlight any players or areas of the team as positives. In recent weeks, there have been bright spots defensively, while the offense showed promise in Pittsburgh with Bailey Zappe at quarterback.
With the Patriots projected to start Zappe for the third consecutive week, it becomes a game of player evaluation. For the Pats current QB1, the final month of the season allows the team to evaluate Zappe's role moving forward. With all due respect to Zappe, it's hard to envision his performance being so good that it convinces the Patriots to hitch their wagon to him. The second-year quarterback is competing for a job next year, but that role is as a good backup who can bridge the gap to what's likely to be a highly-drafted rookie quarterback. That role has enormous value, with backups playing all over the league while allowing the Pats to stay patient with another young quarterback.
This week, upsetting the 10.5-point favorite in the defending champion Chiefs would certainly be a big moment for Zappe. Kansas City is looking to shake it off after losing three out of its last four games. The Chiefs still have the best quarterback in the world (Patrick Mahomes), arguably the best offensive architect of all time (head coach Andy Reid), and a Hall of Fame tight end (Travis Kelce), but there's something off about their offense. Despite being fourth in DVOA, it feels like KC is a playmaker short offensively, making everything more difficult on a frustrated Mahomes.
Although the Chiefs issues are more about them winning another Super Bowl than beating the three-win Patriots, comparing how the new NFL powerhouse sustains success is still interesting. New England was a Super Bowl favorite for nearly 20 years with Brady, and Kansas City could dominate this era with Mahomes, a two-time Super Bowl champ at only 28 years old. The Patriots teams of old would take care of business on the road against an inferior opponent. Locally, the main storylines will be whether head coach Bill Belichick can still shut down an elite quarterback and whether Zappe can go toe-to-toe with Mahomes. But, nationally, this game is all about the slumping Chiefs.
Here are our keys to victory for the Patriots in what should be a fun check-in on the defending champs at Gillette Stadium on Sunday:
Offensive Key - Use Motion and Misdirection to Manipulate a Very Aggressive Chiefs Defense
Before we get into the Chiefs defensive system, this matchup on paper screams for the Patriots to run the ball against the 30th-ranked rush DVOA defense to keep Mahomes on the sideline.
With the ninth-ranked defense in DVOA this season, Kansas City is playing the best defense ever in the Mahomes era under veteran defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo has won Super Bowls coordinating defenses for two different franchises, one against the Patriots with the Giants in Super Bowl 42 and two with the Chiefs. Although KC's weaknesses defensively is on the ground, there are two reasons why running the ball effectively could be challenging.
First, we have too much respect for Spags to think he'll allow offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien to call run plays to Ezekiel Elliott all day without putting the game in Bailey Zappe's hands. Spagnuolo will find ways to stop the run, then he'll come after Zappe, plain and simple. The other reason is the Patriots will need to score in this game to have a chance against Mahomes. Although the Chiefs offense is going through some ups and downs, they're still averaging 22.5 points per game, and it feels inevitable that Mahomes will find ways to put up points.
New England will need to throw the ball on a Chiefs defense that ranks fifth in DVOA against the pass, with the fourth-highest blitz rate (38.8%). Along with exotic blitz schemes under Spags, the Chiefs defense plays more split-safety coverages than any defense in the NFL (56.7%), specifically majoring in cover and two-man, playing the second-most drop-backs in those two coverages of any defense in the league (138).
However, how the Chiefs get into their cover-two schemes varies, with Spagnuolo putting a lot on the plates of his defensive backs to execute post-snap coverage rotations and add to the rush in their blitz schemes. Their DBs need to be smart and sound tacklers in an exotic scheme.
For starters, the Chiefs play a more traditional cover-two zone while disguising their safety shells in the backend. Here, they use a drop-eight scheme to take away Josh Allen's targets in a HOSS Z Juke call by the Bills. In HOSS, the read for the quarterback against a two-high shell is to the juke route on a linebacker. But the Chiefs take that away by dropping nose tackle Derrick Nnadi into a short zone. Nnadi's help allows linebacker Nick Bolton to cheat the return route after baiting the receiver that way with inside leverage, forcing Allen to hold the ball.
Then, the Chiefs will show their two-high safety shell pre-snap before spinning into something more aggressive. This time, it looks like a cover two, but it's actually cover zero. The deep safety to Allen's left rotates down to take the number two receiver in man coverage, while the weak-side safety has the running back out of the backfield. The well-executed disguise gets an unblocked blitzer through the line of scrimmage, and Allen has to make some magic happen.
Spags's blitz schemes are very effective at creating unblocked rushers while confusing quarterbacks into holding the ball. But we noticed on film the Chiefs defense struggles when the offense uses motion and misdirection.
For example, this was an excellent play design by the Bills, where they used jet motion to force the deep safety to come down to play the motion. With the slot blitz in a six-man pressure, the linebacker has to respect the tight end's release until he runs underneath him, then he can pass it off in a match coverage to the opposite deep safety. By the time that exchange happens, James Cook is already running the seam from out of the backfield. The motion occupies the safety, the linebacker can't fall off the crosser in time, and Cook is wide open for six.
Later, the Bills gain another chunk with a fake pitch concept using orbit motion. By putting a faux lead blocker in motion, Buffalo gets the linebacker level to bite when Allen fakes the pitch out to the back, leaving the tight end wide-open on the crosser in the middle of the field.
Here, the Bills run a bluff screen where the defense bites on the fake again. This time, the Bills faked a bubble screen into the trips side of the field. When the "blockers" release upfield, they switch release, and the Chiefs secondary has a tough time sorting them out, but Allen throws to the route wrong vertical with the inside vertical to Davis being wide open. Although the play designs are different, the concept is the same as Hunter Henry's 24-yard TD vs. the Steelers.
As a huge home underdog, O'Brien needs the same aggressive play-calling mindset as the first 23 minutes against Pittsburgh last Thursday night, when the Pats had a 68% pass rate. However, they don't have the personnel to play the Chiefs defense straight up, especially with Spagnuolo likely turning up the blitz pressure on Zappe. Instead, the Pats game plan offensively should be to use that aggressive nature against Spags with motion, fakes, and misdirection, things we've seen the Patriots do before against the Steelers and Bills this season.
With a quarterback of Mahomes's caliber on the other side and the Chiefs defense likely loading up to stop the run, the Patriots need to come out swinging offensively.
Defensive Key - With Chemistry Issues With Current Group of Receivers Playing a Role, There is a Blueprint Now vs. Mahomes and the Chiefs Offense
After watching the last two Chiefs offense tapes in losses to the Bills and Packers, there are consistent themes that explain why they're struggling by their lofty standards.
Kansas City's offense also has commonalities with down years for the Patriots during the dynasty. The main one is that their All-Pro quarterback isn't on the same page with receivers who are now playing larger roles as the Chiefs turn over their roster around Mahomes, which was commonplace for New England when they did the same with Brady. For years, Brady had a tight circle of trust; if he couldn't trust you to be in the right places, then Brady would often phase certain receivers out of the offense. It wasn't one of his best characteristics as a teammate, but it's understandable, and nobody is complaining about Brady here.
For Mahomes, you see many of the same Brady-like frustrations with his receivers' route-running. For example, in a 27-19 loss to the Packers in Week 13, two glaring instances led to costly missed opportunities where Mahomes expected the receiver to do one thing, but the intended target ran the route differently than the QB anticipated, leading to issues.
Here, the Chiefs are running a pick-wheel RPO concept, trying to get second-year WR Skyy Moore open against man coverage. Moore reads the man coverage defender going over the top of the outside corner, so he looks for the ball on his back shoulder. Instead, Mahomes throws it like Moore will finish the wheel route, and the pass is intercepted. In this instance, it's a rare mistake by Mahomes, as Moore read the coverage correctly from this perspective.
Earlier in the game, the Chiefs missed a big play opportunity to speedster Marquez Valdes-Scantling. This time, the Packers rotate into a post-safety cover three scheme. Mahomes sees Valdes-Scantling splitting the deep coverage on a vertical route. However, he wants Valdes-Scantling to level off after releasing inside so Mahomes can keep him away from the post-safety ranging over the top. Instead, MVS continues to bend inside, the pass goes outside, and Kansas City misses on a potential chunk play.
Although their struggles were few and far between, the Patriots offense had similar details that were off between the quarterback and receivers. Mahomes is the guy, so it's on the receivers to see the game like he does. When your margin for error is thinner due to the ebbs and flows of roster building, these chemistry issues can be killers. It could be the difference between a ring or a playoff exit in big moments.
Along with getting everyone on the same page, there's also a blueprint forming to slow down the Chiefs passing offense, which has been highly effective. According to NextGen Stats, Mahomes has faced the sixth-highest rate of split-safety coverages this season (45.6%). Among 31 qualified quarterbacks, Mahomes is 16th in EPA per drop-back vs. two-high safeties (-0.06). Any time he's losing EPA, it's surprising with Mahomes, who is still one of the most efficient passers in the NFL against single-high coverages (+0.14 EPA per play, fourth-best in the NFL).
Kansas City's superstar quarterback is a mere mortal when teams play two-high safety shells. But how and when defenses go to those looks is key, which is why Packers defensive coordinator Joe Berry's plan two weeks ago was most impressive. Berry mixed up his coverages based on the Chiefs situational tendencies and core concepts.
For example, the Packers went to split-safety zones when they anticipated the Chiefs would hunt for explosives. Above, it's second-and-short from about midfield. The Packers play cover two with the flat corner at the bottom of the screen playing the smash concept perfectly, mid-pointing the hitch and corner route to force Mahomes off the read. Eventually, Mahomes has to settle for a check-down short of the sticks.
The other area of the field where the Packers protected against shot plays was the high red zone. With the Chiefs running a scissors concept here, the four-deep zone allows the defense to leverage the intersecting deep routes, and Mahomes has to take a sack on third down.
Green Bay then sprinkled in eight drop-backs in man coverage, with four coming on first down. The Packers anticipated run-pass options schemes, which are still a big part of KC's offense, on first down. We already showed you the interception on an RPO concept where GB was in man coverage. In this example, Mahomes throws incomplete on a slant-flat RPO. Man coverage is a good RPO answer because it takes the conflict out of the play for the defenders in the box; let the outside cover guys play pass while the box plays the run.
The Chiefs have an offensive formula that teams are starting to figure out, and without a cheat code on the perimeter like Hill, they've become easier to defend. Really, the only ace up their sleeve at this point is Mahomes improving, which he still does as well as anyone.
Although it can be easier said than done, there is a blueprint for slowing down this iteration of the Chiefs passing attack that Kansas City is still working on finding solutions to. Eventually, Reid and Mahomes might figure it out. But, until they do, the Patriots should follow the plan.
Pats Entire Defense vs. Chiefs TE Travis Kelce - Kelce is a fantastic route-runner who is the best zone-buster in football. But it still amazes me how wide-open he gets in between zones sometimes. Opposing defenses don't do enough to re-route him, allowing Kelce to manipulate zone coverages with his multi-breaking routes. If you slow him down off the line, those post-corners and snag routes into soft spots will take much longer to develop. It will take great team defense to slow him down: jams, great awareness in zone, double coverage in man. It wouldn't surprise me to see one double No. 87 or even using the post-safety to double Kelce in what's essentially cover zero. Kelce is trouble, trouble, trouble.
Pats Gs Cole Strange/Sidy Sow vs. Chiefs DT Chris Jones - Jones is the one pass-rusher on this Chiefs front that scares you one-on-one. Spags likes to move him around, lining him up outside both guards as a three-technique at times, while he'll also occasionally rush over the right tackle in their base fronts. KC's coaches make it difficult to double Jones with their alignment and simulated pressures, so this will be the ultimate test for the Pats two young guards.
Pats LBs Josh Uche/Mack Wilson vs. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes - Only Bills QB Josh Allen has generated more EPA+ plays than Mahomes this season on extended plays. Mahomes's ability to improvise and scramble when necessary are back-breaking plays for a defense. Mahomes will draw zone defenders toward him to get receivers open, and he can put the ball anywhere with the flick of a wrist. He'll also routinely scramble for first downs against man coverage, with just enough speed to scamper away from pursuing defenders. It's obnoxious how good he is at stressing defenses with his mobility. Uche and Wilson will likely be deployed as spies/arm-side contain players. They must close Mahomes's space down as fast as possible to make him rush playground decisions. The secondary can't cover forever.