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Scouting the Matchup: Patriots have too many targets to cover

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Chiefs, a top 10 scoring defense in each of the last four seasons, gave up a whopping 121.1 rushing yards per game as injuries and age affected their front seven. The return of a healthy Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson at linebacker, plus defensive end Allen Bailey, could help improve those numbers in 2017. New England’s running game begins a new era with LeGarrette Blount, the all-time single-season leader in rushing touchdowns, now in Philadelphia. The Patriots are relying on newcomer Mike Gillislee to shoulder the load, with Dion Lewis as the wild card in the rotation. A healthy Lewis is a potential every-down back, but injuries have limited him in each of the past two years. It may take a few weeks to sort out roles, and this is a tough first test by any measure. Advantage: Chiefs

WHEN THE CHIEFS RUN

The loss of Spencer Ware in the preseason due to a season-ending knee injury has forced rookie Kareem Hunt to shoulder the workload in the running game. A third-round pick out of Toledo, Hunt is an accomplished power rusher who can shed tackles but doesn’t offer much in the passing game. The Patriots don’t have a surplus of traditional off-the-ball linebackers, with the exception of perhaps Elandon Roberts. Their linebacker corps is built with hybrid run-stuffers/pass-rushers who offer the team enough versatility to play an unorthodox 5-1-5 front that allows them to be stout against the run, especially with Dont’a Hightower expected to assume more of a pass-rushing role in 2017. Linked with a deep defensive line anchored by tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, the Patriots should be able to contain the Chiefs. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Led by veteran safety Eric Berry and shutdown corner Marcus Peters, the Chiefs boast a dangerous, ball-hawking secondary adept at forcing turnovers and putting its offense on a short field. With a healthy Houston anchoring the pass rush, this is a tough matchup for the New England passing game, which is still sorting out priorities in the wake of a season-ending injury to Julian Edelman. Nonetheless, the Patriots are still loaded, thanks to the offseason acquisitions of Brandin Cooks and Dwayne Allen, plus the return of a healthy Rob Gronkowski, big-play receiver Danny Amendola and deep threat Chris Hogan, not to mention the versatility out of the backfield by pass-catching running back James White. The Patriots have too many targets to cover, even for a defense with as many solid vets as the Kansas City secondary.* Advantage: Patriots*

WHEN THE CHIEFS PASS

Incumbent starter Alex Smith is entering a contract year at 33 with rookie Pat Mahomes breathing down his neck, so an uptick in performance this year wouldn’t be out of the question. Tight end Travis Kelce is poised for another All-Pro season, and second-year pro Tyreek Hill could be the league’s breakthrough star in 2017, but the Chiefs also need a third receiver to step up in the aftermath of Jeremy Maclin’s release. The Patriots added to last year’s top-ranked defense by adding cornerback Stephon Gilmore opposite Malcolm Butler. The retirement of Rob Ninkovich stings, but defensive end Trey Flowers has developed into a strong presence, and Hightower should be ready for a full workload in Week 1. The Chiefs don’t take a lot of chances down the field and will have a steep hill to climb if they fall behind early. Advantage: Patriots

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Chiefs and Patriots are trending in opposite directions in the return game. The dynamic Hill, a jack-of-all-trades weapon in both the return game and passing game, scored an NFL-best three touchdowns and led the league with an average of 15.2 yards on punt returns. The Patriots were hoping for an improvement out of second-year return man Cyrus Jones, who struggled mightily as a rookie, but a knee injury has sidelined him for the season. With Edelman already out, the Patriots have a huge hole to fill in the return game. The good news is that kicker Stephen Gostkowski looks as sharp as ever following a solid preseason, but the issues in the return game will take a while to sort out. The presence of Hill can help balance whatever Kansas City lacks offensively by providing a short field for Smith and Co. Advantage: Chiefs

OTHER FACTORS

The Patriots open the 2017 season at Gillette Stadium, where Brady is 51-1 against AFC opponents since 2007, poised to unveil their Super Bowl LI championship banner in front of what is expected to be a raucous crowd with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in attendance at his first regular-season game in Foxborough since the Deflategate scandal three years ago. That’s a lot of emotion for any visiting team to take in, even one with as much big-game experience as Kansas City. The biggest problem for the Chiefs is they haven’t won in Foxborough since 1990, long before developers drew up a blueprint for Gillette Stadium, and it’s hard to imagine them dethroning the defending champions on Thursday night, a prime time stage on which this team has excelled time and time again. Advantage: Patriots

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