WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
This is now a two-man running game with rookie Sony Michel taking the lead in recent weeks alongside veteran James White, whose best contributions are in the passing game. Michel fell just 2 yards shy of his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game in Week 5 and appears to have found his comfort zone at the right time as the Patriots prepare for a crucial Sunday night showdown against a Kansas City team ranked 28th in the league in run defense through four weeks. The Chiefs all-time leading tackler Derrick Johnson left for Oakland in the offseason, weakening a front seven that got gashed between the tackles on a regular basis in 2017. The Patriots aren’t as deep as they’d like to be, but the injuries to Rex Burkhead and Jeremy Hill may have been a blessing in disguise as they’ve led to more opportunities for Michel. Look for his production to continue.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
The Chiefs lost Marcus Peters, who recorded an NFL-best 19 interceptions in his first three seasons, to free agency and have played the entire season without safety Eric Berry due to injury, so the pass defense has understandably struggled. Through four weeks, Kansas City ranked 26th in points per game allowed and 31st in pass defense. The Patriots struggled with receiver depth for an entire month as Julian Edelman served a four-game suspension, but with Edelman back on the field and the recently acquired Josh Gordon rounding into form, games like the one Tom Brady had in Week 5 (341 yards on 34-of-44 passing) could become the norm, not the exception. This is going to be an uphill battle for the Chiefs, who, aside from their Week 5 win over Jacksonville, haven’t consistently generated enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and it looks like they will be without the dangerous Justin Houston, who is nursing a sore hamstring, as well as starting safety Eric Murray (ankle).
WHEN THE CHIEFS RUN
Last year’s leading rusher Kareem Hunt is off to a slower start this year, but, like his counterpart Michel, appears to be reaching his peak as Kansas City’s predominant rusher. Spencer Ware, whose injury last year opened the door for Hunt to become a full-time starter, is healthy again, but the running game is based on Hunt’s effectiveness. He recorded his first 100-yard rushing game of the season in Week 4, scored again in Week 5 and now faces a defense that has suddenly clamped down against the run after a terrible first three weeks. The Patriots have allowed an average of 70 rushing yards per game over the last two games after getting carved up for 167, 104 and 159 in their first three, but the quality of opponent improves this week after facing the run-deficient Dolphins and Colts.
WHEN THE CHIEFS PASS
In his first full year as a starter, Patrick Mahomes is rewriting the record books. With four touchdown passes in Week 1 and six in Week 2, Mahomes broke the NFL record for most touchdowns through a quarterback’s first three career games, which included the 2017 season finale. He also engineered a tremendous comeback against Denver in Week 4, including a fourth-quarter touchdown to stud tight end Travis Kelce, who joins the explosive Tyreek Hill as Kansas City’s top two receiving threats. The addition of Sammy Watkins in the offseason has also paid dividends as he provides yet another vertical threat for the league’s most explosive offense, which ranked ninth in passing and first in points per game entering Week 5. The Patriots have had coverage issues in recent weeks and will have their hands full Sunday.
This is another tough matchup for New England, which has had some uncharacteristic struggles in coverage in the return game. Now they face the dynamic Hill, who has been the league’s most explosive, dangerous punt returner since he entered the league in 2016. Hill scored three special teams touchdowns as a rookie and then opened the 2018 season with a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown in addition to his two receiving touchdowns against the Chargers. There is no one more capable of single-handedly destroying a game or tilting the field position battle than Hill. The Patriots did get a boost last week with Edelman returning to the field and reclaiming his punt return duties, making Cyrus Jones expendable, but Hill’s ability to swing the pendulum in a hurry could be the difference maker in a game featuring two potentially explosive offenses.
After losing in Week 2 to Jacksonville in a game that could affect potential playoff seeding down the stretch, the Patriots can ill afford another loss to one of the AFC’s top teams if they want a shot at a potential No. 1 or 2 seed. The Patriots are beginning to peak with back-to-back wins following a 1-2 start and finally have the passing game they envisioned with Edelman back in the mix and Gordon looking more comfortable in the Week 5 win over the Colts. But Kansas City has won its last two regular-season games against New England, including a blowout at Gillette Stadium in the 2017 season opener. The Chiefs also enter this one as the AFC’s only undefeated team after throttling Jacksonville at home in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. The Patriots remember last year’s opener and have more to play for after the two early stumbles.