I finished watching the Kansas City Chiefs three hours before I could even write this. I'm not sure what I watched, but there's some weird voodoo going on with Andy Reid. There's nothing fancy happening on either side of the ball (or at least nothing that the Patriots haven't seen), yet it seems to work on a consistent basis.
My theory is that the Chiefs operate by lulling the opposition to sleep. They run, run, screen, run, cross, run, quarterback scramble, run, six yard comeback, and then they're in field goal range. Their defense will just out-talent the opposition with some pretty standard schemes at all levels.
It's wizardry that they've been able to string together so many wins, but it certainly isn't luck. The Chiefs have a definite method to their snoozefest, and the Patriots can't be caught napping.
When the Chiefs run the ball
Kansas City utilizes their top run running backs in Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware. West is the more versatile back, who can run, block, and catch, while the 5'10, 230 lbs Ware will hit the second level and drive the defender back an extra four yards.
The reason the Chiefs are able to run so well is that their line is extremely consistent. They might not drive the defenders into the second level, but they do an exceptional job of creating lanes for the backs to willingly squeeze through for positive yardage.
Kansas City likes to use minor misdirections to enhance the rushing game, by running opposite of the pulling guards to suck the linebackers out of position, or by using motions. The reality is that these two backs are just very talented and willing to hit the line of scrimmage and to drive the pile.
Ware is probably the more talented and dangerous runner, but West is actually a consistently used checkdown target.
The Patriots will need to rotate their defensive tackles to ensure the Chiefs don't wear them down. Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Akiem Hicks, and Sealver Siliga should all see plenty of time on the field.
The more important position in the Patriots run defensive will be the edge defenders. Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, and Rob Ninkovich (as well as Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower) need to hold the point. The Texans actually did a really good job of controlling the edge and forcing the backs to run laterally; in 2014, Jones often tried to penetrate into the backfield, losing control of the point of attack.
This edge control is doubly important because not only do the backs hit the hole with authority, but quarterback Alex Smith is extremely willing to scramble if he sees an opening.
When the Chiefs pass the ball
There's Jeremy Maclin. There's Travis Kelce. Albert Wilson will see a handful of targets. West will receive some checkdowns. That's pretty much it. Maclin and Kelce combined for 49% of the total Chiefs targets on the season, while Wilson is the only other player to average more than 2 receptions per game (2.5).
Maclin is used in a similar fashion to Brandon LaFell, with plenty of sideline action and opportunities for yards after the catch. Maclin is just 10x more effective than LaFell this season. Regardless of Maclin's ankle, Logan Ryan should get the draw because of the receiver's strength and 6'0, 200 lbs frame. Maclin actually isn't a traditional speedster, although he has considerable burst.
Kelce is used on slip screens, low crossers, and 15-yard out patterns. The Chiefs really want to get the ball into his hands so he generates yards after the catch, and he doesn't disappoint. The Patriots need to chuck him on every single crosser he runs, and should high-low his coverage with Patrick Chung and Jamie Collins. On a side note, Kelce is a fairly big liability as a blocker, should he ever stay home to block.
That really just leaves Wilson as the proven receiver, and the Patriots should use Malcolm Butler in coverage on an island. The 5'9, 200 lbs Wilson will probably receive more looks than normal due to Maclin's status, but Butler should be able to cover him for the whole game. Nearly 30% of Wilson's targets come 15+ yards down the field, so look for Butler to try to get his hands on some of these deeper passes.
Coverage will, of course, change based upon the Chiefs personnel. Rookie Chris Conley could see time and his size would likely draw Ryan in coverage, with Justin Coleman or Leonard Johnson coming on as the nickel. West also deserves a spy out of the backfield, as does Smith, so the Patriots linebackers will have to communicate when passing coverage of Kelce to Chung.
The Chiefs passing offense isn't anything special, but it's consistent and rarely makes mistakes. The Patriots can't be willing to concede any easy passes, or else the Chiefs will happily walk 15 plays down the field.
When the Patriots run the ball
Teams have had plenty of success running the ball outside against the Chiefs. That makes some sense because the Kansas City edge defenders, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, have been battling some pretty serious injuries over the past few weeks.
The quicker running backs have had success dodging mountain man nose tackle Dontari Poe in the middle of the field, while the stronger backs have been able to make some progress attacking the outside lanes. The Patriots don't have a quicker back, so look for New England to attack the edges with Steven Jackson on rushing plays, or swing passes to James White as an extension of the rushing game.
The Chiefs rushing defense is pretty standard and they're extremely disciplined. You rarely see a player over-pursuing to open up a cutback lane, and the defensive front seven generates a good push. Kansas City likes to play their 3-4 front on first down, and their biggest weakness (injuries aside) would be linebacker Josh Mauga. The Texans definitely tried to run in his direction whenever they could.
The Patriots will need their offensive line to at least pose some type of threat to keep the pressure off of Tom Brady, and to open up the playaction passing game. With rookie guard Tre Jackson out, the Patriots interior of Shaq Mason, Bryan Stork, and Josh Kline had better be ready to drive the Chiefs back off the ball. This is Mason's time to shine.
When the Patriots pass the ball
If New England's receivers are fully healthy, the offense will click and will produce. That's a huge if, based upon the injury report. While the Chiefs defense is good, opposing teams have been able to move the ball with a quick release.
The Chiefs play cornerback Sean Smith against the offense's left side, and will likely draw Brandon LaFell for the day. LaFell seems to be the type of receiver that Smith thrives against, so look for the Patriots to manufacture some packages on low crossers or rubs to generate some separation. Don't expect much from LaFell, but consider everything he produces to be gravy.
Julian Edelman moves around the formation, but would likely face Marcus Peters when he's on the right side of the field. The Herald's Jeff Howe thinks that Edelman will "torch" Peters. The Chiefs rookie corner does an exceptional job of finding the football in the air and using the sideline to help with the coverage. If Edelman is to produce, he'll have to cut inside and away from the sideline.
Personally, I think the Patriots flexing tight end Rob Gronkowski out to the right side against Peters would be a major waste of Gronk's talent because that would play right into the Chiefs' match-up advantage. The only reason to put Gronk outside this week would be if he's running an inside slant to box out the defender.
The Chiefs depth at cornerback is very good as Ron Parker could get the draw against Danny Amendola. It's important to note that all four of these offensive players I've mentioned are on the injury report. A healthy Patriots team and this isn't a question. But this unit is far from healthy.
The Patriots need to take advantage of the Chiefs size with a Super Bowl against Seahawks-like game plan that focuses on lateral movements and getting the ball into the hands of the receivers to generate yards after the catch. This would not only force the Kansas City defenders to change direction- not their strength- but it would also help negate the Chiefs pass rush that will undeniably have a field day if Tom Brady is forced to hold onto the football.