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Patriots vs. Chiefs: 10 Matchups to Watch

Here's what to keep an eye on as the Patriots take on the Kansas City Chiefs.

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The 3-10 Patriots return home after a long weekend break to face the Kansas City Chiefs, who are fresh off a frustrating loss to the Buffalo Bills where an offensive offsides penalty stole the spotlight at the end of the game. The Chiefs are coming into the game with a bad taste in their mouths, while the Patriots are coming off just their third win of the season after knocking off the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday Night Football.

A strong first half propelled New England to victory as second-year quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for three touchdowns in his second start of 2023, showing signs of growth and leaving Patriots fans a bit more optimistic about the team's offense after season-long struggles to move the ball and score points. Still, one good half of offensive football isn't going to be enough to win most games, especially against an angry Chiefs team that lost four of their last six and are slowly falling down the rungs of AFC playoff seeding.

Here's what to watch as the Patriots and Chiefs renew their rivalry for the first time since 2020.

Zappe Start Three

It was a great start for Bailey Zappe and the Patriots against the Steelers, as they got a hot start, Zappe threw three touchdowns and then they were able to hang on in the second half for the win. Zappe showed a good level of comfort in the pocket, was decisive and stepping into his throws and showed some tangible progress from his first start against the Chargers. Now the Chiefs come to town and they're a talented defense that is hungry for a win. That means Zappe is going to have to be even better and certainly more consistent over the course of the game. It won't be easy, but it's a great opportunity for the young quarterback to show some development going against one of the most aggressive defenses in the league.

"They do a lot of things," said Zappe this week of the Chiefs aggressive defense. "I think a lot of it just comes down to the communication between me and DA [David Andrews] and the offensive line, trying to get all on the same page. As long as we're on the same page, everything will hopefully go well. You're just trying to believe in the offensive line that they're going to pick up the pressures, whatever they bring, and just being able to stand back there confidently and just take care of the football and throw the open guys and let them make plays."

Solving Mahomes

Despite not having developed enough chemistry with his remade receiving core, Mahomes remains the best quarterback in the game. Since losing to the Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship, Mahomes has beated the Patriots twice, once in 2019 and the other in 2020. Neither time did his offense surpass 30 points, perhaps a sign that Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick and the defensive coaching staff have a good idea of how to slow this offense down. Despite very different Patriots teams in 2019 and 2020, New England had a shot in both of those games, but do they have enough pass-rush juice to truly get Mahomes off of his game? They'll need to get after him for 60 minutes.

"Offensively, of course, it all starts with the quarterback," said Bill Belichick on Wednesdsay. "He's a great player, does everything well, can make all the throws, athletic, got a lot of poise. He's a clutch player, can't say enough about what he does for their team."

Receivers Return?

The Patriots got promising news this week with the return of Demario Douglas to practice, as well as DeVante Parker's continued presence despite missing last week's game. They are Zappe's two best weapons outside of Hunter Henry and while their game status could remain in question, there's little doubt how much of a boost the duo could provide. Douglas would get a healthy dose of dangerous cornerback Trent McDuffie while Parker would see a fair share of L'Jarius Sneed, who leads the Chiefs with just two interceptions. It's probably understated what Zappe had to work with last week against the Steelers without Parker, Douglas or Rhamondre Stevenson. Maybe getting a couple of those players back in the mix will be just the boost the offense needs to take things to the next level against a very good defense.

Zeke Keep Doing It All

Ezekiel Elliott did it all last week against the Steelers, turning in his most productive performance since arriving in New England this summer. With Rhamondre Stevenson continuing to battle and ankle injury, it's a good bet that Zeke will be tasked with carrying the load once again this week against KC. The Chiefs have allowed over 100 yards rushing in all but two games this season while ranking 20th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, while the Patriots rushing attack ranks 9th in EPA since Week 10. It will be a tall task for Elliott to singlehandedly run all over Kansas City. Those kinds of bell-cow backs no longer really exist, but with apparently no real desire to get practice squadder Kevin Harris or new signee JaMycal Hasty involved, New England doesn't really have any other options unless they throw some reps to those unproven players. Either way, a big part of this gameplan will be on Elliott.

Covering Kelce

It's one of the hardest matchups in the NFL to defend, as Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes can go off-script and play buddy ball at any moment. That kind of synergy is hard to stop, especially late in downs when chaos reigns. That's when this dynamic duo does some of their most brilliant work and it's almost impossible to plan for because often those plays just come down to instincts and athleticism, and no defense can match what they have.

"When you look at Kelce, this guy is probably one of the best ever at finding space in zones, even though on a piece of paper it could say one thing, but once you cross the white line, it comes down to instincts and things like that," assessed Jerod Mayo this week of the tight end. He has phenomenal instincts in zone and I would also say man-to-man coverage against a guy like Kelce, he's a tough, savvy, tight end who's done it for a long time, and always has been a huge challenge for us."

Pressuring Young Chief WRs

Chiefs rookie Rashee Rice is the team's second-leading receiver behind Kelce, but it's a steep dropoff afterwards, as even Rice has 26 more receptions than third-place receiver Isaiah Pacheco, a running back. The frustration with the inconsistent performers outside of Kelce and Rice appeared to bubble over last week and with a Patriots defense that has often prided itself on taking away an opponent's top option, New England will look to once again frustrate Mahomes by making him win with Kadarious Toney and Skyy Moore. It's much easier said than done, as Kelce and Rice just might be enough if the Pats don't get great play from their second and third cornerbacks, namely J.C. Jackson, who struggled last week, and Myles Bryant.

Pats D Peaking?

By most metrics, the Patriots have the top run defense in the NFL, a testament to their competitiveness and continued fight in the face of a three-win season. That's good news against the hard-charging Pacheco, who missed last week's game but could return for this weekend's matchup in Foxborough despite missing practice earlier this week with his shoulder injury. Pacheco has more than triple the carries of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, as the second-year back from Rutgers has emerged with six touchdowns and 779 rushing yards. If the defense truly wants to put pressure on Mahomes to rely on his second and third receiving options, it all starts with stopping Pacheco and putting Kansas City into long yardage situations on third down. If Pacheco has to miss another game it could be a nice bonus for the Patriots, however, it might force the Chiefs to rely more on the pass which could cause more problems that if they were tempted to lean into the running game.

Blocking the Chiefs Front

Under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo the Chiefs have the 4th-highest blitz rate in the league. Chris Jones leads the team with 20 quarterback hits, nine tackles-for-loss, while George Karlaftis is the team's sack leader with nine. The Patriots pass protection has been better in recent weeks as the unit has gelled and cut down on the blown assignments that littered their performances. Continuity has been a big part of that trend and the team will hope to get a full active Trent Brown, who rotated snaps 60-40 with Conor McDermott last week. The entirety of the Patriots line will be challenged as the Chiefs have disruptive players across the board, while the return of Nick Bolton last week has provided another big boost. "Getting [Nick] Bolten back, that certainly helps him," observed Belichick. "He's a quality player, runs well, very instinctive and kind of their defensive signal caller/communicator, he does a good job."

"Defensively, [Chris] Jones is a major problem, like he always has been," said Belichick. "They have a good scheme, they put a lot of pressure on you with different looks, different blitzes."

Nothing Special

Once again this season the Patriots special teams had a breakdown, this time coming on a blocked punt against the Steelers that Pittsburgh converted into valuable fourth-quarter points, closing the Patriots lead to just three points. It wasn't just that they had another special teams mistake, it was that it came at a critical time in the game and translated directly to points. The Pats remain 31st in special teams DVOA as it seems like a different issue pops up every week with the third unit. If they're to pull off an upset win over the Chiefs, these kinds of self-inflicted mistakes can't happen. New England used to win games with great and heady special teams play, but more and more often special teams are hurting more than they're helping. They've got to turn a corner after two years of having among the worst special teams in the league.

Still the Chiefs "Era"?

Alright, you knew we had to mention Taylor Swift here because let's face it, plenty of eyeballs will be on this game not to watch the game itself but to see the superstar supporting Travis Kelce. Swift has had plenty of memorable concerts here at Gillette Stadium, including last summer's unforgettable rain-soaked Saturday concert that took place in a monsoon. Maybe the matchup between a three-win Patriots team and a Chiefs team that has lost three of four lacks a little juice, but Taylor Swift always brings a level of excitement everywhere she goes.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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