Scouting the Matchup: Surging Patriots head to K.C.

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

Advantage: Patriots

The Patriots only finished 20th in rushing in 2018 but were exceptional over the final two months of the season, anchored by rookie Sony Michel and a blend of creativity that featured receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as a threat on end-arounds and sweeps. New England rushed for 100 or more yards in four of its final six games, including 200-yard performances against the Jets and Bills, and missed out on a fifth 100-yard performance by only 4 yards against the Steelers in Week 15. Despite missing three games, Michel finished with a team-high 931 yards while scoring six touchdowns. The ground attack was solid once again last week against the Chargers as Michel racked up 129 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots lack a prototypical short-yardage running back to get the tough yards on the interior, and it’s been a recurring problem throughout the season, but the Chiefs are woeful against the run and allowed 5 yards per carry on the season.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Advantage: Patriots

Losing Josh Gordon to suspension late in the season was a big blow to New England’s passing game, but his absence has forced Tom Brady to spread the wealth among a handful of capable receivers. Veterans Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan will have an opportunity to make plays against a defense that finished 31st in pass defense despite the interior presence of Chris Jones and linebacker Anthony Hitchens. With enough time to throw, Brady could be lethal Sunday. He completed 69 percent of his passes against the Chiefs in October and now has a healthy Rex Burkhead to complement James White out of the backfield. Most importantly, Julian Edelman has returned to full strength and is coming off by far his best game of the season when the caught nine balls for a151 yards against the Chargers. Teams also tend to lean on their best weapons at this time of year, which might mean some action for Rob Gronkowski, whose 97 yards against Kansas City in Week 6 was his third highest total of the season.

WHEN THE CHIEFS RUN

Advantage: Chiefs

The league’s No. 1 offense absorbed a major blow in late November when video surfaced of Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt assaulting a woman during an offseason incident at a hotel in Ohio. The Chiefs released him later that day. Without Hunt, their running game wasn’t as productive over the final month of the season but still produced. Kansas City rushed for 154 yards against the Seahawks in Week 16 and averaged 4.6 yards per carry with Hunt and without him as a team. Spencer Ware has been banged up recently but Damian Williams emerged last weekend with 129 yards against the Colts, a huge lift heading into Sunday’s conference championship. Like New England, the Chiefs will get creative with multi-faceted receiver Tyreek Hill on end-arounds and toss plays, which could be problematic for a Patriots defense that has struggled to set the edge in the running game at times.

WHEN THE CHIEFS PASS

Advantage: Chiefs

Led by second-year pro Patrick Mahomes, who became just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season, and superstar tight end Travis Kelce, who broke the single-season record for yards by a tight end, the Chiefs boast the league’s No. 1 passing offense. Kelce finished with 1,336 yards, a total surpassed later that day by San Francisco’s George Kittle, while Hill led the team with 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns. This is a tough matchup for any defense. The Patriots ranked 21st in total defense but finished seventh in points allowed, so while they give up their share of yards, they typically keep teams out of the end zone. The challenge is containing Mahomes, who threw for 352 yards and four touchdowns against New England in Week 6. He is mistake prone but also a true playmaker who’ll be tough to stop at home. Stephon Gilmore & Co. will have their hands full with this array of weapons.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Advantage: Patriots

Similar to Patterson, who is one of the game’s most dynamic kick returners, Hill is a weapon in the kicking game for Kansas City. He averaged 10.7 yards per punt return this season, good for seventh in the NFL, and also scored a touchdown. The Chiefs, however, aren’t as strong in other areas and are coming off a sloppy performance against Indianapolis in which they committed a holding penalty on a punt return and also allowed a touchdown on a blocked punt. The Patriots started the season poorly on special teams but have improved in recent weeks. They blocked or deflected three punts over their final four games and are allowing fewer yards per return than they did in September and October. Punter Ryan Allen and kicker Stephen Gostkowski have been effective, too. Numbers aside, the Patriots are finally trending in the right direction.

OTHER FACTORS

Advantage: Chiefs

As the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Patriots now have to play a postseason game on the road for just the eighth time in the Bill Belichick era and the first time since they traveled to Denver for the 2015 AFC Championship Game. History is not on their side. They have not won a road playoff game since 2006 and have lost the conference championship the last three times they played it on the road. They also finished 3-5 on the road this year, the first time they failed to finish .500 or better away from Gillette Stadium since 2009. The Chiefs, ironically, had lost six consecutive home playoff games dating back to 1994 before they beat Indianapolis last weekend. But they’ve won at least six home games in each of the last five years and posted a 7-1 record at Arrowhead in 2018. The Patriots will need a historic performance to buck these trends in a hostile environment.

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