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Scouting the Matchups: Injured returners key for Patriots

Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower should give the Patriots a lift as they return to the lineup.


There's probably not going to be much to see here. The Patriots finished the regular season ranked 30th out of 32 NFL teams in rushing offense and were held to 133 yards on the ground in their last two outings combined. New England ran for 63 yards on 22 carries during a 26-20 overtime loss to the New York Jets and was limited to 70 yards rushing on 27 carries in a 20-10 loss to Miami. The Patriots will likely lean on Steven Jackson, who wasn't even with the team until late December. Jackson gained 50 yards on 21 attempts in his two regular-season games and may be at his best in short-yardage situations. Assuming he does have success moving the chains in those opportunities the Patriots will likely take it. New England will be facing a Chiefs defense that was No. 8 against the run during the regular season so don't expect much more than that. Advantage: CHIEFS



The Chiefs running game got the best of most teams this season, even after top running back Jamaal Charles was lost for the season after he suffered a torn ACL in a Week 5 loss to the Bears. Three Chiefs have run for more than 400 yards, including quarterback Alex Smith, who's the team's No. 2 rusher. Charcandrick West leads the way with 660 yards on 168 carries. Kansas City had the sixth-best rushing attack in the league during the regular season. New England entered the playoffs ranked ninth in rushing yards allowed per game and 11th in rushing yards allowed per play (3.98). Run defense was a real strength for the Patriots throughout the season despite some late-season lapses. The Patriots allowed more than 100 yards on the ground three times in their last six games, but that was more the exception to the rule. Advantage: PATRIOTS



The Patriots are hoping Julian Edelman will return and help breathe some life into a passing game that struggled down the stretch. Edelman hasn't played in a game since he broke a bone in his left foot on Nov. 15. At the time of his injury, he led the team with 61 receptions. New England passed for 221 yards in the loss to New York and had a season-low 126 passing yards against Miami. Outside linebacker Justin Houston, who led Kansas City in sacks this season (7.5), returned from injury last week and is a big part of a Chiefs defense that finished fourth in the league in sacks (47). Cornerback Marcus Peters had eight of Kansas City's 22 interceptions during the regular season. The Chiefs finished ninth in the league in pass defense. There are a variety of unknowns in this matchup including Edelman's health, Rob Gronkowski's usage, which was limited down the stretch and the pass protection. If Tom Brady gets the time he'll find receivers.   Advantage: PATRIOTS



The Chiefs entered the postseason with the 30th passing offense in the NFL and suffered a huge blow when wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was injured in the third quarter of last Saturday's playoff victory over the Texans. Maclin led Kansas City in receptions (87), receiving yards (1,088) and receiving touchdowns (eight) during the regular season. He missed some practice time during the week dealing with a high ankle sprain. The Chiefs will likely need more from tight end Travis Kelce and No. 2 receiver Albert Wilson. Smith is good a taking care of the football. He's thrown 21 touchdowns passes and has been intercepted eight times. The Patriots finished 17th against the pass but were second in sacks with 49. The Chiefs allowed 46 sacks during the regular season and three more against Houston. This is a pedestrian passing attack that New England should be able to contain, with or without Maclin. Advantage: PATRIOTS



Knile Davis averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return during the regular season (10th in the NFL) and opened the postseason by returning one 106 yards for a touchdown in last Saturday's 30-0 victory over Houston. Kansas City placekicker Cairo Santos made 30 of his 37 field goal attempts during the regular season with a long of 53 yards and added three more last weekend. He finished second to New England's Stephen Gostkowski in league scoring with 129 points. The Chiefs allowed 6.5 yards per punt return during the regular season, which was eighth in the NFL. New England has made its share of costly errors on special teams this season, particularly down the stretch, but Gostkowski is still the best in the business and is accustomed to kicking in January in Foxborough. Advantage: PATRIOTS



The Patriots had a bye week to help recover from the rigors of the regular season. They also have the advantage of playing at home, but the Chiefs won six games away from Kansas City this season. Momentum is clearly with Kansas City. While the Patriots have lost four of their last six games, the Chiefs extended their winning streak to 11 games by beating Houston on the road last weekend. The Chiefs have allowed more than 20 points once during their current winning streak. The outcome could be determined by how much the Patriots get from injured players like receiver Edelman, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.  Advantage: PATRIOTS

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