The eyes of the football world will be on New England tonight as the Kansas City Chiefs travel to New England to face Tom Brady and the defending Superbowl champions. While most people will likely focus their attention on the Patriots, fans in Kansas City should have their eye on five crucial situations.
1) – Can the pass rush get home/is Houston-Ford combo healthy?
It’s nearing two years since Justin Houston was at his game-breaking form and it’s a valid question to pose whether or not he can return to elite form. With veteran Tamba Hali starting the year on IR for the first six games, Dee Ford will be the one facing right tackles. The defensive line is a lot better, starters and depth, than the last time Houston was fully at 100%. If Kansas City can find a way to get pressure on Tom Brady on Thursday night, they will have a good chance of dictating the game. If Brady comes out firing on all cylinders and can get the ball out of his hands in two seconds or so, like he is want to do, it will negate all pass rush the Chiefs have.
2)- Will the secondary be up to the task? This is a make or break season for Phillip Gaines.
Phillip Gaines’ second year as a pro was not something to write home about. He showed a lot of promise and potential his rookie season before he tore his ACL. This season should see Gaines entering 100% recovered, and give us good insight into whether the second year man’s struggles were a result of a lingering injury or regression after being picked on by QB’s in 2016. I tend to think the lanky corner will have benefited from a full offseason in the weight room and film study. Another thing to watch will be how Terrance Mitchell does after a second half of 2016 where he looked great, batting passes down often with authority.
3)- Can Kareem Hunt run with authority in his first NFL action?
Kareem Hunt is the lone rookie starter for KC entering Thursday night’s matchup, and there isn’t a rookie I’m more comfortable with in such an important role. I lean towards the thinking that Hunt will be this year’s Jordan Howard and a legitimate Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. He can catch the ball VERY well out of the backfield as well, which is no small thing in Kansas City’s offense or with Alex ‘check-down’ Smith at the helm. I have little concern for Hunt with the ball in his hands, but I will keep an added focus on his blitz pick-ups when they ask him to stay in and block. He did this well in the preseason but it’s a much bigger task looming vs. a Bill Belichick defense.
4)- Likely being double-teamed and seeing extra attention, can Kelce/Hill overcome?
By now we have all heard the typical Belichick/Patriots narrative: New England takes away the opposition’s biggest threat and forces your second, third, and fourth guys to win for you. The true engine of the KC offense is undoubtedly Travis Kelce. I fully expect the Patriots to bracket Kelce off the line of scrimmage and constantly keep a safety over top the NFL’s fastest man, Tyreek Hill. This will create one on one matchups and opportunities elsewhere and it will be huge for guys like Chris Conley, Kareem Hunt, and Demetrius Harris to capitalize when the ball comes their way. There will be little margin for error here.
5)- Does Andy Reid have a creative trick up his sleeve, a la 3 TE sets/Tyreek trickery/Hungry pig?
In the 2014 regular season meeting between these two teams, Andy Reid had some tricks up his sleeve in formations they hadn’t previously gone too often on film. Reid deployed a three tight end set that was nearly unstoppable that night on rout to a 41-14 win for the Chiefs. 2014 was a long time ago, and both teams have turned their rosters over immensely. With six months to plan for this game, I think we can expect some trickery/something unseen before from both teams and it will be exciting to watch the chess match that unfolds between two Hall of Fame head coaches.