When the New England Patriots hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in week six of the regular season, both offenses were spectacular while the two teams’ defenses still made the occasional big play. One of the biggest plays of the 43-40 contest, however, was made in neither of the two phases but rather the oft-forgotten third: the kicking game.
Following a Patriots field goal early in the fourth quarter that gave the team a 30-26 lead, Chiefs returnman Tremon Smith ran the ensuing kickoff back 97 yards to the New England 3-yard line. Three plays later, Kansas City was in the end zone to take its first lead of the day. And while it ultimately would not last, Smith’s return still proved to be one of the biggest momentum swings in the game.
With the two teams set to meet again on Sunday with the AFC title on the line, once more the focus is mostly on offense and defense. The Patriots and Chiefs field two of the best offensive units in football, while their defenses have come a long way since their week six bout that saw a combined 83 points and 946 yards of offense. However, special teams might again play a pivotal role when it is all said and done.
“It is a key phase of the game,” said Patriots special teams ace Albert McClellan when talking about the importance of the kicking game earlier this week. “A lot of people always say that punting is the most important play of the game since so many people have their hands on the ball. It’s great to get noticed, but at the same time we are a unit, so once one person gets noticed the whole unit gets noticed.”
McClellan will be a big player for the Patriots on Sunday — one that was not with the team when it first played the Chiefs: the veteran, who was named the best special teamer in the NFL by advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, was only added to the team in early November after his release from the Baltimore Ravens. He appeared in eight games for New England since then, playing roughly two thirds of special teams snaps.
Together with fellow mid-season acquisition Ramon Humber, McClellan helped stabilize the Patriots’ previously inconsistent kick coverage units — something that is not lost on special teams captain Matthew Slater. “All I remember from going back to my notes from when we played Kansas City was writing down that we’re not very good in the kicking game,” said Slater earlier this week. “I certainly haven’t forgotten how we played against these guys. It was terrible, so we’re going to try and avoid a repeat of that.”
“I think that we’ve certainly made strides throughout the course of the season. It’s been great to have [Albert McClellan] come in and really help us, Ramon [Humber] come in and help us,” Slater continued. “Two steady veterans that really understand how to play this game. They’ve brought a lot of balance to our game and what we do and I think we have made strides, but we’re going to find out whether we’ve made enough strides here come Sunday night.”
McClellan also knows that the Patriots, as opposed to week six, need to be on top of their special teams game on Sunday. “They got some home run hitters. You’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to be laser-focused,” the 32-year old said. “Everything comes into play: your assignment, your technique, communicating everything. It’s not just one person, it’s not just one thing — it’s combining everything and hopefully your formula is better than theirs.”
Through their first 17 games, the Chiefs’ formula is serving them well on both kickoffs and punts: both primary returnmen are posting some very good numbers with speedster Tyreek Hill running back punts and the aforementioned Smith usually responsible for kickoffs. Hill is averaging 8.8 yards on his 25 punt returns, and also scored a touchdown on opening day, while Smith is gaining 26.4 yards per kickoff runback (886 yards on 33 returns).
New England’s returners are no slouches either, though. Punt returner Julian Edelman is gaining an average of 7.6 yards since returning to the team in week five. Meanwhile, kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson is still one of the NFL’s primary weapons in the returngame: the 27-year old is running kickoffs back for an average of 28.6 yards and also has a week seven touchdown on his résumé.
While the battle between the Patriots’ and Chiefs’ offenses and defenses takes center stage leading up to the AFC Championship Game, it might very well be a kicking game play to make the difference. Three months removed from their debacle in week six, New England appears to be better prepared to handle it this time around.