This is a game that will come down to match-ups and execution since both teams are coached very well and rarely make mistakes. Both teams have injuries to key players and have some key losses over the season and some unexpected contributors that filled the vacancies left by those losses. The Patriots are facing a Chiefs team that has won 11 straight games, albeit some close wins against some mediocre at best teams in Oakland, San Diego, and a Denver team struggling to score points this year.
While the list of wins is not impressive and the Chiefs aren't cutting through them like butter, the Patriots have to bring their A-game Saturday in order to advance to the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are very proactive with their planning, so they probably had some of their pro scouts analyze what the Chiefs do well and what they don't do well. Over the week, the coaching staff will devise a game plan for the players to execute. Once the game is kicked off at 4:35 PM EST, execution of the game plan and adjustments by the coaches is what will matter.
So here are some match-ups to pay attention to:
- Chiefs TE Travis Kelce vs. Patriots LB Jamie Collins + S Patrick Chung/S Devin McCourty: There is no way the Patriots should ever let Kelce get a free release or single him with either a linebacker or a safety. Kelce is probably the closest TE to Rob Gronkowski in the NFL right now in terms of ability and route tree, so they know what type of threat he brings to the table. The Chiefs will likely move him across the formation to free him up so the edge rushers don't chip him at the start of their rush, so the Patriots need to be ready for anything. Most likely they will match with a bracket of a linebacker underneath and a safety over the top no matter where he goes. If you're the Patriots, you make Alex Smith find someone else to beat them with.
- Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson/S Eric Berry/S Ron Parker: I don't expect the Chiefs to consistently double Gronk all game long like the Patriots should do with Kelce, but I do think they will try a similar game plan. For the Patriots, Gronk opens everything up on the perimeter because teams have to keep a safety in on him at all times. The Patriots will move Gronk all over the field, lining him up at his usual TE spot, as a flexed out Split-End receiver, or even as a fullback on certain plays to get a certain blocking angle or match-up. I expect the Patriots to try to exploit opportunities to Gronk whenever the Chiefs singled him up or play zone.
- Patriots WR Julian Edelman vs. Chiefs CB Marcus Peters: The Patriots direly need Edelman to be back and close to 100% healthy to open up the passing game. Edelman gives the element of quickness due to his video-game like short area acceleration and an option to take out the opponent's pass rush. In addition to the receiving game, his run blocking is better than his replacements as well, which could give the Patriots more yards should a run play bounce outside. The main coverage match-up is the #1 vs. #1 match-up. Even though Peters is a rookie, beating him is no easy feat. If Edelman decisively wins this matchup, the Chiefs defense is going to have a long evening against the Patriots offense.
- Patriots OT Marcus Cannon vs. Chiefs ED Justin Houston: On paper, this is a total mismatch. Houston is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL and Cannon is a backup swing tackle forced into duty because of injuries. This is not a battle Cannon is going to win on his own, the Patriots should try to help out with a chip from the TE or RB along with the quick passing game to frustrate Houston. The Chiefs will move him around to create match-up problems, so Cannon won't be the only player that has to deal with the frustration of blocking him. The good news for Cannon is that Houston is battling a knee injury that he re-aggravated last week that kept him out for a brief period against the Texans.
- Chiefs OT Donald Stephenson/OT Jah Reid vs. Patriots ED Jabaal Sheard: Even though Sheard doesn't start over Rob Ninkovich, he plays a starter's share of snaps. The Chiefs have their starting RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif in concussion protocol after suffering a concussion in the game against the Texans, which forced them to move their starting RT Jah Reid inside and sub in Donald Stephenson. I expect the Patriots to try to exploit that matchup with Jabaal Sheard, who has been a great signing for the defense. Sheard has contributed 8 sacks and 4 forced fumbles for a very tough Patriots defense. Much of his production spiked in the second half of the season, where he basically made Brian Hoyer's day a nightmare in Week 14. If Sheard continues to be the menace he's been all season, Alex Smith might be seeing him in his nightmares on the flight back to Kansas City. If Duvernay-Tardif is cleared for the game, then Sheard will face Reid then.
- Chiefs LG Jeff Allen + C Zach Fulton + RG Jah Reid/RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (if cleared) vs. Patriots DT Alan Branch + DT Malcom Brown + DT Akiem Hicks: In this match-up the Patriots will only have two of their guys on the field at one time unless they go 3-4 looks. All three players are playing their best football right now and the Patriots could wind up controlling the line of scrimmage if their top DTs play as well as we'd expect them to. It's unclear if Duvernay-Tardif is able to play since he's under concussion protocol, but the Chiefs will be playing their back-up center and potentially their backup right guard. Any sort of situation where the Chiefs have two replacements on the interior could spell doom for them on the inside. If the Patriots can stop the inside running game and apply interior pressure on Alex Smith, that will give the Patriots defense opportunities for stops and turnovers.