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Six matchups that could decide the Patriots’ game against the Chiefs

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Related: Asking Arrowhead Pride: Defending the Chiefs offense starts with Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce

NFL: JAN 20 AFC Championship Game - Patriots at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs square off on Sunday, two of the most talented teams in the NFL will share the field in one of the most anticipated games of the 2019 regular season — one that projects to be a highly contested affair once more. As such, the rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game could be decided by how a few key matchups unfold. With that being said, let’s take a look at six of them that certainly could have a major impact on the game’s final result.

Bill Belichick vs. Patrick Mahomes

The Patriots went up against Kansas City and its talented quarterback twice last season, winning both games literally in the last second. But despite those two victories, it would be naive to think that New England has figured out how to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense on a consistent basis. The 24-year-old is too good, and in 2019 might be even more dangerous than last year given his added experience in Andy Reid’s system.

The matchup between the Patriots and Mahomes will therefore be a key to Sunday’s game, especially because of Bill Belichick. New England’s head coach and de facto defensive coordinator has been able to consistently make life hard for opposing passers this season due to his aggressive scheme in combination with a talented and experienced group of players — one that has been terrific at disguising its looks and throwing opponents off rhythm.

Mahomes should expect the same thing on Sunday, given that the Patriots used that approach against him last year as well. While he still won his fair share of rounds, the Patriots were able to slow him and the Chiefs’ passing attack down just enough — especially in the first halves of both games — to ultimately come away victoriously. And Mahomes knows that another difficult challenge awaits heading into Sunday’s game.

“It’s a team that they’re going to have stuff that we didn’t necessarily prepare for because they’re going to do stuff they haven’t done in maybe two or three years,” he said earlier this week. “So, we’ve watched the tape and looked at everything they can possibly do but whenever we get these unscouted looks, it’s about me finding the best way to get us into the best play and not take these negative plays while keeping the offense moving.”

If the Patriots can again confuse Mahomes this week and make him look below-MVP-worthy for extended periods of time, their chances of winning will increase enormously.

Stephon Gilmore vs. Travis Kelce

For the first three quarters of last year’s AFC Championship Game, the Patriots used their top cornerback on Kansas City’s number two wide receiver. And while he did give up a 54-yard reception early in the second half, Stephon Gilmore was able to limit Sammy Watkins’ impact on the game: the completion was Mahomes’ only one on four attempts when targeting the All-Pro cornerback — one that saw his responsibilities change late in the game.

With the season on the line, New England moved Gilmore away from Watkins and onto the Chiefs’ most consistent pass catcher in the fourth quarter: Travis Kelce. The tight end had caught only three passes for 23 yards and a touchdown at that point, but the Patriots felt better moving J.C. Jackson off him in crunch time to make sure Kelce would not make the game-changing play he certainly is capable of making in any situation. With Gilmore on him, the lone target thrown his way sailed incomplete.

On Sunday, we could see a return to the Gilmore-Kelce matchup. The 30-year-old is Kansas City’s leading receiver, after all, and one New England a) will treat more as a big wide receiver than a traditional dual-threat tight end, and b) needs to contain in order to maximize its chances of slowing one of the most potent offenses in the league. Who better to use, therefore, than the best man-to-man cornerback in all of football?

Jonathan Jones vs. Tyreek Hill

With Gilmore expected to face off either against Kelce or Watkins again, the Chiefs’ most dangerous wide receiver will likely again get special double-team treatment: Tyreek Hill will primarily be covered by Jonathan Jones underneath, with safety help — either in the form of Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon — over the top. The Patriots used this plan during the AFC title game last year and it worked well against the All-Pro wideout.

Hill was targeted three times by Mahomes in January, and caught only one pass for 42 yards. On that reception, however, the Patriots did not have Jones lined up on the other side but rather Keion Crossen. The rookie defender, who now plays with the Houston Texans after his release during roster cutdown day, filled in for New England’s primary slot cornerback and was promptly targeted by Mahomes. Jones, meanwhile, did not allow a reception all game.

The plan worked the last time New England met Kansas City, and it would be a surprise to see a deviation from it. After all, Jones is arguably the fastest player on the Patriots’ defensive roster and therefore best suited to take on the fastest player on the Chiefs’ offense.

James White vs. Kansas City’s linebackers

With Steve Spagnuolo taking over coordinator duties from Bob Sutton this offseason, the Chiefs’ defense has improved quite a bit and now ranks among the better ones in the NFL when it comes to stopping the pass. Seeing many deep throw attempts by quarterback Tom Brady is therefore unlikely — in large parts also because the Patriots’ offensive personnel at the moment does not seem to be suited for a consistent vertical attack.

Therefore, the Patriots might try another method of moving the football through the air: attacking Kansas City’s linebackers in coverage with receiving back James White. While the Chiefs might try to copy the Houston Texans’ approach and put a cornerback on White, the veteran running back should still get his fair share of one-on-ones against a linebacker and the Patriots need to take advantage whenever the time arrives.

White, of course, has been comparatively quiet for the Patriots against the Chiefs last year. During the two games between the clubs, he combined to catch only nine passes for 102 yards. If Kansas City’s current personnel and the strengths and weaknesses of the defense are an indicator, however, White could see an uptick in action this week.

James Ferentz vs. Chris Jones

The Patriots’ offensive line has been an area of concern for most of the season, but with Isaiah Wynn returning from temporary injured reserve in Week 12 it started to settle down a bit. Then came Week 13 and the MCL sprain suffered by center Ted Karras — himself the replacement option for original starting center David Andrews, who was moved to IR ahead of the season after blood clots were discovered in his lungs.

With Karras likely out for Sunday’s game, career backup James Ferentz will step into the lineup between guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. And the 30-year-old will immediately go up against one of the toughest defensive linemen in all of football: Chiefs tackle Chris Jones. Despite having missed three games, the 25-year-old leads the Kansas City defense in quarterback pressures as he has registered 6.0 sacks, 10 hits and 23 hurries so far this season.

While somewhat inconsistent as a run stuffer — likely an area that the Patriots will try to exploit — Jones’ pass rushing prowess makes him a factor that needs to be accounted for. Ferentz, who looked serviceable filling Karras’ shoes against the Texans but is still a downgrade, will therefore have to bring his A-game and display good communication with his fellow linemen. According to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, however, the latter should not be too much of a concern this week.

“He communicates well on the offensive line to direct traffic as David Andrews and Ted also do, so we’re very fortunate that we have had multiple people that can do that, and that’s a key part of that position,” Belichick said during a media conference call earlier this week. “He’s played a lot of football, he’s practiced a lot of football. He’s been with us for a long time, he knows our offense and all the things that go with it — the line calls, the cadence and so forth — extremely well.”

Sony Michel vs. Kansas City’s run defense

The Patriots entered last year’s AFC Championship with the plan to shorten the game by consistently moving the football on the ground — an approach that worked well early on but had to be abandoned to a certain degree with the contest turning into a shoot-out in the second half. Still, New England was able to gain 177 yards on the ground while attempting 47 runs, scoring four rushing touchdowns, and possessing the football for roughly 44 minutes compared to Kansas City’s 21.

The majority of the carries that day went to then-rookie Sony Michel, who finished the game with 29 rushing attempts for 113 yards and a pair of scores. While Michel’s per-carry average of 3.9 yards is not exactly eye-popping, the Patriots’ willingness to put the football in his hands allowed the team to play the game on its terms early on — something that might again be the plan this week for two primary reasons:

1.) The Patriots are currently more consistent at running the football than throwing it.

2.) The Chiefs defense is worse against the run than it is against the pass.

Putting those two factors into consideration and adding the fact that New England’s defense is better against the pass than the run — a shortened game would lead to more passing from the Chiefs — Michel and the Patriots’ ground game could again be in for a sizable workload on Sunday. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not the success looks similar than it did in January. After all, New England misses its center (David Andrews), fullback (James Develin) and blocking tight end (Rob Gronkowski) from a year ago.

Nevertheless, trying to establish a presence on the ground appears to be the Patriots’ best approach to consistently move the football down the field against Kansas City’s defense.