11 months is a long time in the NFL, and Sunday’s meeting between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs will serve as another reminder of that. The two teams last met in the AFC Championship Game, with the Patriots coming away with a 37-31 overtime victory. Since then, however, a lot has happened: from the Patriots winning the Super Bowl to massive personnel turnover within both organizations.
Let’s dig a bit deeper.
No more battles between Rob Gronkowski and Eric Berry
Rob Gronkowski and Eric Berry both entered the NFL in 2010 and turned into outstanding players for the Patriots and Chiefs, respectively. While they only met three times over the course of their careers, the battles between the two perennial Pro Bowlers certainly were memorable — especially from New England’s perspective, as Gronkowski regularly got the better of the Chiefs’ talented defensive back. Such was the case in the AFC title game as well.
Berry was matched up with Gronkowski on numerous occasions, and the veteran tight end was able to win the matchups with two crucial receptions: the future Hall of Famer hauled in a 25-yard reception on third down in the fourth quarter to set up Rex Burkhead’s go-ahead touchdown one play later. In overtime, Gronkowski made another third down catch over Berry when he converted a 3rd and 10 on New England’s game-winning drive.
This year, however, both men are no longer with their teams. While Gronkowski decided to call it a career during the offseason, Berry was released by the Chiefs in a cost-saving move. In order to replace them, the teams have looked to the free agency market: the Patriots brought in Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson, Kansas City added high-priced Tyrann Mathieu via free agency. LaCosse and Watson have been little more than role players, while Mathieu is the Chiefs’ starting strong safety and a big reason for the team’s improved pass defense.
The Patriots will look quite different in the trenches...
New England did not only lose its most talented offensive skill position player since January, but also two starters along the offensive line: left tackle Trent Brown left via free agency to join the Oakland Raiders, while center David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and subsequently placed on season-ending injured reserve. Second-year man Isaiah Wynn, who missed all of last year with a torn Achilles tendon, stepped in for Brown while Andrews’ original replacement Ted Karras is unlikely to play on Sunday after missing both practices this week with a sprained MCL. James Ferentz will fill his spot in the lineup.
On defense, the Patriots also lost a player who saw considerable action against the Chiefs during last season’s playoffs: Trey Flowers signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency after he had played 100% of New England’s defensive snaps in Kansas City and registered a big 14-yard sack in the second quarter that put the team out of field goal range. Flowers is the biggest defensive departure, but not the only one.
Defensive tackle Malcom Brown joined New Orleans Saints as a free agent, while Adrian Clayborn was “granted his release” and is now back with the Atlanta Falcons. Flowers is the biggest name of the group, however, given his status as one of the NFL’s most disruptive defenders and New England adapted its scheme after losing him: moving from a 4-3-based defense to more 3-4 looks, the team now uses outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, John Simon and Chase Winovich to provide pressure around the edge.
...and so will the Chiefs
Kansas City also saw some turnover in the trenches since last January. While three of the five starters along the offensive line are still on the team, only tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz remain in the same spots they played last season. The interior of the line, meanwhile, switched from a Cameron Ervinig—Mitch Morse—Andrew Wylie formation to an Andrew Wylie—Austin Reiter—Laurent Duvernay-Tardif lineup. The group has had its moments so far this season, but like New England’s O-line also had to deal with injuries along the way.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs saw even more movement. They traded defensive edge Dee Ford to the San Francisco 49ers, let tackle Allen Bailey walk in free agency, and brought Frank Clark on board via trade. The expensive trade for Clark — Kansas City sent three draft picks to the Seattle Seahawks to acquire his services — has paid off only partially so far this season: he has been solid as an outside pass rusher and run defender, but still has only 5.0 sacks to his name this season.
New England’s kicking situation looks a lot different
While the Patriots’ kick coverage units have seen plenty of turnover since last year — gone are Brandon King, Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber; Brandon Bolden and Justin Bethel were brought on board — the biggest changes came in form of the kickers themselves: impressive fifth-round rookie Jake Bailey has replaced Ryan Allen at punter, while place kicker Stephen Gostkowski will finish the season on injured reserve after hurting his hip in late September.
Finding a replacement for Gostkowski, who kicked the game-winning 28-yard field goal to lift the Patriots past the Chiefs during last year’s regular season, has been a difficult venture for the team: Mike Nugent was inconsistent, Nick Folk had to undergo surgery to remove his appendix, and Kai Forbath was released after only one game. As of right now, the team therefore does not have a place kicker on its 53-man roster. While the spot will get filled until Saturday at the latest, the situation is less than ideal.
Rookies, of course
New England has seen plenty of contributions from its rookies with the aforementioned Chase Winovich and Jake Bailey leading the way: Bailey has looked good punting the football — he has been named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week twice already — and is also performing kickoffs with Gostkowski no longer available; third-round rookie Winovich already has notched 5.5 sacks as a rotational outside linebacker and core special teamer.
Furthermore, wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry have seen their fare share of snaps as well. While the two youngsters have had a harder time getting up to speed in New England’s challenging offensive system and playing alongside future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, they have offered valuable depth behind starting wide receivers Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett.
On the other side of the field, two names stand out: Mecole Hardman and Juan Thornhill, who were both drafted in the second round in April. Hardman has served as a rotational third/fourth wide receiver this season, and is actually tied with Tyreek Hill for the team-lead in receiving touchdowns (five). The speedster has proven himself a viable deep-threat receiver who leads his position with an average 12.2 yards gained on his 23 catches this year.
Thornhill, meanwhile, has earned the starting safety spot alongside Mathieu over the course of the summer. As such, the deep-field defender rarely leaves the lineup and has registered two interceptions this season — trailing only Mathieu’s three. As noted above, Kansas City is noticeably better against the pass this season, and Thornhill’s contributions cannot be underestimated.
One other player that Chiefs rookie that could play a big role on Sunday is sixth-round running back Darwin Thompson, as Arrowhead Pride’s John Dixon told Pats Pulpit earlier this week: “In the preseason, the former Utah State running back turned our heads with his vision, shiftiness and desire, but he’s struggled to get offensive snaps while sitting in the back row of a crowded running back room.”
“After Darrel Williams was hurt against the Raiders, however, Thompson played a significant role in closing out the win — and even scored a rushing touchdown,” John continued when talking about the 22-year-old. “Darrel Williams [will not] play on Sunday, and Damien Williams’ injury makes him questionable at best. So Thompson is likely to get some snaps — and he will be motivated to make them count.”
Multiple assistant coaches have left both organizations
Change does not just happen on the field, but off it as well — and the 2019 Patriots and 2019 Chiefs can tell us a thing or two about it. New England, for example, lost numerous assistant coaches this offseason: defensive signal caller Brian Flores left the team to join the Miami Dolphins as their new head coach, and was joined by wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer. Meanwhile, defensive line coach Brendan Daly left to take a similar position with the Chiefs.
Speaking of which: Kansas City fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and his entire staff after the AFC Championship Game, and brought in Steve Spagnuolo to take over. Even though nobody will confuse the Chiefs with the top defensive teams in the NFL, Spagnuolo has his unit trending in the right direction — with struggles still against the run, but some strong play versus the pass.