Due to total ineptness by Brian Hoyer and a meltdown by the Cincinnati Bengals in the final 90 seconds, the Patriots face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round. The Chiefs were a worst-case scenario, but the Patriots still hold the advantage. Last week, I previewed a hypothetical matchup between the two teams. The Chiefs are well-coached and do not make mistakes outside of Andy Reid's inability to manage the clock at times. The Patriots are likely in for a dogfight and will have to bring their best efforts to vanquish a streaking Kansas City team.
Negate the Chiefs Pass Rush: The matchup between the Patriots offensive line and the Chiefs Front 7 does not favor the Patriots, but that doesn't mean the Patriots can't move the ball proficiently. The Patriots need to use a combination of quick throws, the running game, and misdirection plays to slow down the Chiefs pass rush. The Patriots need to also stay balanced, although running the ball will be tough and could cause stalled drives over certain points in the game. If the Patriots can keep the Chiefs off-balance and keep them from getting into obvious passing situations, the Chiefs pass rush should get tired and frustrated throughout the game.
Get Rob Gronkowski Involved Early and Often: I don't know how the Chiefs will matchup on Gronkowski, it's possible that they wind up playing both safeties or have a linebacker trail in coverage. The Patriots can create advantageous matchups for Gronk by moving him all over the formation by lining him up in multiple spots within a particular formation, motions, and unique formation looks. The key to the Patriots postseason run is getting Gronk involved because of his ability to dominate a game and present red zone nightmare matchups for the opponent. The Patriots have been very conservative with Gronk down the stretch, now is the time to unleash him again.
Take Away Travis Kelce: With Maclin battling a what looked like a severe knee injury that turned out to be a high ankle sprain and most likely not playing, the Chiefs' top receiving threat becomes their TE Travis Kelce. Kelce is very similar to Gronk in both the run and pass game as a blocker and a receiver. The Patriots need to slow down his release when lined up at TE with a chip from the edge rusher along with double coverage with a linebacker underneath and safety over the top. The Chiefs other pass catching options aren't game breakers and don't create matchup issues with the Patriots secondary, so I expect extra attention directed towards Kelce. The Chiefs will do everything they can to make that as hard as possible for the Patriots to execute by the same way the Patriots must do the same with Gronk. If the Patriots can limit Kelce's effectiveness, that should slow down the Chiefs passing game.
Stop the Chiefs Running Game and Screens: The Chiefs stay ahead of the chains with a good running game and screens that keep the opponent off-balance. Even with the loss of Jamaal Charles over the season, the Chiefs still get strong production with a combination of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. A big part of the Chiefs game plan will be to shorten the game and kill the clock with a slow-moving offense to keep Brady on the sidelines as the Chiefs control the ball. The trick is to force the Chiefs into long 2nd and 3rd down situations and force Alex Smith to beat them as a passer against tight coverage. If the Patriots allow the Chiefs to run the ball, it puts pressure on the offense to score in the limited amount of time they could have. If the Patriots continue to force long 3rd down situations, it plays right into their hands.
For a score prediction, I have the Patriots winning 30-23 over the Chiefs. This will be a closely-fought game between arguably the two best remaining teams in the AFC. I don't think at any point will either team command a 2-score lead. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best opponents in the field and I'm for taking a hard path to the Super Bowl as long as the Patriots win. Last year, that tough game against Baltimore to start the postseason helped shape the team's toughness and resiliency needed to make the comeback and final stop to capture the Super Bowl last year.