The New England Patriots open up the 2017 season with fanfare as the team celebrates their 5th Super Bowl title in front of the fans. The team looking to spoil the fun is the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots are looking to start off the season right, going 12-1 in season openers since the start of the 2004 season with the lone loss coming in 2014 at Miami. The Patriots are significantly better than the Chiefs at most positions, but the Chiefs do have a better edge pass rush and speed on the outside of their offense. Overall, the Patriots will be looking to see what they have after making many moves at the cutdown deadline. Here’s what the Patriots need to do in order to start their 2017 title defense.
Don’t let Tyreek Hill beat you: The Patriots are good at scheming away the opponent’s top receiver. The Chiefs let Jeremy Maclin go in the offseason, opening up the door for Hill to be the Chiefs’ #1 receiver. TE Travis Kelce is easily the Chiefs most consistent weapon in the passing game, but he doesn’t take the top off a defense like Hill can. The best way to combat him is the Antonio Brown strategy: put Devin McCourty over the top on Hill’s side of the field no matter what and have Malcolm Butler trail underneath all game. In order for this strategy to work, Stephon Gilmore has to lock down Chris Conley on the other side of the field. The recent acquisitions of Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett should help the Patriots craft a game plan to limit his impact in the game.
Another facet to consider as well is where Hill impacts the game as a return man. The Patriots special teams does a great job covering kicks and punts, but Hill is better than anyone the Patriots faced last year. We could see the Patriots opting to blast the ball out of the end zone and remove any chance Hill can impact the game on Special Teams on kickoff attempts and directional punting by Ryan Allen to pin him near the sidelines and prevent a return.
Don’t let the Chiefs get solid gains on 1st and 2nd down: The best way to handle Alex Smith is to force him to play behind the chains. He’s very good at managing drives when his offense is on schedule, but when forced to play behind the chains he struggles a bit. The most important part to this is good tackling and prevent extra yardage in the play. That means not letting what should be 2nd and 8 situations turn into 2nd and 5 or 2nd and 4 situations. With the way the Patriots are able to force long fields for opposing offenses and how stout the run defense has been, I’m pretty confident they can get off the field without allowing points, even if they give up a couple first downs.
Attack the mismatches in coverage: The Patriots will have a healthy Rob Gronkowski for the first time since Week 9 of the 2016 NFL season. In addition to Gronk, they have very talented backs who can catch the ball in James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis. The Chiefs have a solid #1 corner in Marcus Peters, but he only covers 1 guy. The Patriots can create advantageous matchups by attacking the Chiefs replacement slot corner and their linebackers in space and away from where they are comfortable from playing. Josh McDaniels and the rest of the offensive staff does a good job of identifying and exploiting mismatches like Lewis vs. a linebacker in open space, so I’m confident they can figure out where to hit the Chiefs defense in the air.
Final Score: Patriots 27, Chiefs 19. I think the Chiefs will be able to move the ball a bit against the Patriots defense, but will have problems once they get past the NE 25 yard line. The Patriots offense should be able to run the ball a bit on the perimeter and I predict a big game for newcomer Rex Burkhead with 115 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. With a 27-19 lead, the Patriots force the Chiefs to go 4 and out after advancing the ball into NE territory in the final minute.