PATRIOTS // CHIEFS OVERVIEW
The football gods have smiled down on us this year, with the top offenses of the Rams, Saints, and Chiefs all reaching Championship weekend — joining the annual mainstay New England Patriots. Patriots at Chiefs pairs the league’s number four scoring offense and number one scoring offense, with 41-year-old Tom Brady and 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes squaring off for the right to go to the Super Bowl. When these teams met earlier in the year, the Patriots pulled out a 43-40 victory at home. This game, of course, will be at Arrowhead, where the Chiefs have been practically unstoppable. In Bill Belichick’s career, he has given up 40+ points on seven occasions. Three of those games have come against Andy Reid. Buckle up for what should be an awesome game to watch.
While the Patriots have proven over the years to be the greatest “find a way to win” team in the NFL — reaching their eighth consecutive championship game in spite of rarely having a top four on-paper roster (that is to say: in spite of rarely having a top four on-paper “top-heavy” roster) — the one thing this team cannot really afford is to fall far behind. With Gronk a shell of his former self and Josh Gordon gone, this team typically has to build drives in order to score, rather than being able to strike quickly. And while this team somehow managed to put together the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history with a similar setup (Gronk on the sidelines; Edelman and White as the primary pieces), that is a worst-case scenario for this team. Furthermore, the greatest strength of the Chiefs’ defense is their pass rush (first in the NFL in sacks this year), and the best way for the Patriots to mitigate the threat of Justin Houston, Dee Ford, and Chris Jones is to A) avoid second-and-long and (especially) third-and-long, and B) get the ball out quickly on early-down passing plays. We should expect the Patriots to use their constant misdirection to try to spring Chris Hogan and/or Phillip Dorsett on a downfield look or two, but the primary goal of the Patriots on first down will be creating second-and-manageable, and their primary goal on second down will be avoiding third downs. Look for the Pats to hammer the Chiefs with plays designed to pick up five, or seven, or 12 yards at a time, and look for them to use tempo to their advantage (quick-snaps, quick substitutions, plays where they get up to the line quickly and then wait a while before snapping the ball, etc.). In this way, the Patriots will try to stay in front of the Chiefs, while doing their best to remove the crowd from the game.
While the Patriots certainly would not have requested “at Chiefs” for their AFC Title Game matchup, there are a number of ways in which this matchup sets up well for them, as the Patriots’ primary pieces in this spot (Julian Edelman, Sony Michel, and James White) all match up well against weaknesses of the Chiefs.
The Chiefs have been poor against the run this year, ranking 31st in yards allowed per carry and notably giving up 4.4 yards per carry on runs up the middle, where 35.2% of Michel’s runs have gone this year. While the Patriots have been extremely predictable in run/pass calls with Michel on the field, they have been unpredictable with where he will go, with an even split among carries to the left and to the right (and with an even split among interior runs and outside runs). The Chiefs have a number of weaknesses in the run game, and Michel will look to exploit all of these. There is also a chance the Pats change up some of their season-long tendencies and throw more often with Michel on the field to confuse the Chiefs’ defense. We should go into this game leaning on Michel as nothing more than a yardage-and-touchdown back (keeping his floor dangerously low in PPR and half-PPR scoring), but the matchup sets up well for these yards and touchdowns to pile up, while he might grab one or two unexpected receptions along the way.
One of the greatest vulnerabilities for the Chiefs this year on defense was pass catching running backs, with KC allowing the 10th most catches, the fifth most yards, and the most touchdowns to the position. It’s not reactive or “recency bias” to believe that White will be a big part of the Pats’ offense once again in this spot. Look for another heavy dose of quick passes to the Pats’ elite weapon out of the backfield. He’ll have a chance to push for eight or more receptions once again.
(Last week, when all the chips were on the table, Rex Burkhead played only 11 snaps — and while that could have been a game plan specific approach from New England, this is another spot that sets up better for the inside running of Michel and the short-area quickness of White. Burkhead will mix in, but he’ll likely need a big play or another touchdown to reach value.)
Expectations should be held in check for Edelman compared to his career day in Week 19 — but this has more to do with Edelman’s typical range of production than it does with the matchup, which works strongly in his favor. The Chiefs have been incapable of stopping passes over the short middle this year, allowing a 78.1% completion rate to passes thrown in the middle of the field within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage (and they’re not much better to the short right, where Edelman runs another large percentage of his routes). The Patriots will look to lean on their star slot receiver’s short-area quickness to pick up short and intermediate gains throughout this contest. It is worth keeping in mind, of course, that Edelman topped 90 yards only twice in the regular season (going for 104 yards both times), and two-touchdown games from Edelman are about as rare as Super Blood Wolf Moon lunar eclipses…but he should carry a very strong floor yet again, and he has clear and obvious paths to reaching ceiling in this spot.
We will also see opportunities for Hogan (target counts without Josh Gordon of 0 // 11 // 5) and Dorsett (target counts without Josh Gordon of 0 // 5 // 5) to produce — primarily on the perimeter. Hogan is better suited to zone-beating routes than to man-beating routes (the Chiefs are one of the man-heaviest teams in the league), but four to seven targets is his likeliest range, and while his floor is close to zero, his ceiling is intriguing. Dorsett should get a couple opportunities to win one-on-one matchups, with the Patriots sure to take a couple shots 15 to 25 yards downfield to keep the defense honest. Four to seven targets is his likeliest range as well.
The true wildcard here is Rob Gronkowski, who has a tremendous matchup against a Chiefs defense that allowed the fifth most catches, the sixth most yards, and the most touchdowns to the tight end position, but who looks like a poorly-oiled robot on the field right now. Stunningly, Gronk has topped 26 yards only once in his last six games. Even more stunningly, that outlier game produced an 8-107-1 line on eight targets against Miami. Since returning to the field in Week 12, Gronk has faced five difficult tight end matchups in seven games. He needs to be considered a low-floor play right now, but he has a chance to be a sneaky, difference-making X-factor in the pass game for New England — keeping him in the tourney conversation this week.
CHIEFS PASS OFFENSE
The Patriots are one of the man-heaviest coverage teams in the NFL — comfortably deploying Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, and J.C. Jackson in one-on-one matchups that allow plenty of freedom in other areas of the field; but man coverage against Tyreek Hill and the Chiefs creates even more opportunities for Hill to break off an explosive play. This week, we should expect the Patriots to either A) mix in more zone than normal, in the hopes of taking away the deep ball, or B) keep a safety over top of Hill as often as possible in the hopes of taking away the explosive play. Ultimately, there is no “stopping” this Chiefs offense, but the Patriots will hope to create enough mistakes and stalled drives to give their offense the edge. And while the starting point for this plan will be isolating and eliminating Hill in some way, shape, or form, we should also point out that Hill’s two career games against New England have gone for 7-133-1 (with Alex Smith) and 7-142-3. As always, Hill’s floor is low for the high end of the price range, but he has legitimately top-score-on-the-slate upside.
While the Patriots have struggled to contain Hill the last two years, they have done a strong job against Travis Kelce, holding him to 5-40-0 last year in a game in which the Chiefs scored 42 points, and holding him to 5-61-0 this year in a game in which the Chiefs scored 40 points. An argument can be made that if you have a good offense on the other side of the ball, the best way to beat an offense like the Chiefs is to “force them to throw deep.” The thinking being: the Chiefs are going to score points regardless, and if you try too hard to take away the deep ball, they’ll rip you apart underneath and easily march the field; on the other hand, if you take away the short stuff and force them to go deep, they’ll hit some huge plays, but they’ll also have some deep throws that simply miss, and some drives that stall out as a result. The Patriots can pretend like they’re not thinking about the weather, but the ball doesn’t travel as well in cold temperatures, either (this game is expected to be played somewhere in the range of zero to 15 degrees), and if they can force the Chiefs to win with Hill, they could essentially force the Chiefs into a more one-dimensional style that will lead to plenty of points, but also to one or two more punts than normal. This is all conjecture, of course (and ultimately, the Pats would love to eliminate both Hill and Kelce), but there is no getting around the fact that the Pats have done a better job than most teams figuring out ways to limit Kelce’s impact. His ceiling is as high as ever, but his floor should be considered lower than it is in most other spots.
It surprised me last week that ownership on Sammy Watkins was under 5% on DraftKings, as he now has target counts in his healthy games this year of 5 // 7 // 8 // 1 // 8 // 4 // 7 // 9 // 5 // 8. Across 10 healthy games, he has notched 11+ DraftKings points and 8+ FanDuel points seven times — with legitimate alpha-caliber production showing up on multiple occasions. The matchup this week is not good, as the Patriots have pieces that can contain Watkins one-on-one (they were one of the three teams this year that held him below the above-mentioned level of production), but he’ll be on the field plenty, and he’ll be involved enough to be considered on a slate this size.
This passing attack is extremely concentrated, but there is outside potential for Chris Conley (54 out of 82 snaps last week) or Demetrius Harris (37 out of 82 snaps last week) to trip into production.
CHIEFS RUN OFFENSE
The Patriots were above-average this year in terms of preventing fantasy points to the running back position, as they ranked middle of the pack in rushing yards allowed and — for the third consecutive year — ranked top two in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed to running backs; but between the 20s, they are a great matchup for Damien Williams, who has almost certainly shown enough to lead this backfield in touches even if Spencer Ware finally returns to the field this week. The Patriots ranked 29th in yards allowed per carry, and even more importantly for Williams (recent target counts of 5 // 6 // 7 // 1 // 6 — with the one-target game coming in a 35-3 blowout win), the Pats were below-average against pass-catching backs, allowing the 12th most catches and the ninth most yards to the position. While this is a slightly below-average matchup, the slate is small enough that Williams’ role still very much keeps him in the running for a top-two running back score this week.
(There is a chance Ware also mixes in for 10+ touches if healthy this week — though given the way Williams has played, and given the importance of this game, I would be surprised if this ends up being the case.)
Edelman and the Patriots’ two primary backfield pieces are obviously the plays that stand out to me the most on the Patriots’ side of the ball, but Hogan, Dorsett, and Gronk are all in the tourney conversation. None of these three carry any floor certainty, but any of them could push for seven targets, a solid yardage game, and a touchdown. Gronk, in particular, stands out as a piece the Patriots may try to sneak some involvement out of when the Chiefs are least expecting it. As for Tom Brady: fear of touchdowns on the ground keeps him in the same category as Brees and Goff (behind Mahomes), while his lack of a true big-play threat will make it tough for him to produce the highest yardage total on the slate. He’s fourth in raw projections, but this offense is good enough, and this slate is small enough, that I obviously wouldn’t mind the idea of throwing Brady onto some teams if multi-entering, and I wouldn’t be averse to arguments that push him to number two or three in the raw projections list.
On the Chiefs’ side, Hill is very much worth the risk in tourneys — and I would worry less about ownership (yes, he’ll be somewhat highly owned; there are only two games, after all) and more about the construction of the rest of your roster. Because you are giving up some floor by allocating extra salary to a high-variance player, try to secure a bit of extra floor in one or two other spots on your Hill rosters; this will put you ahead of the portion of the field that pairs the risk of Hill with too much additional risk from other spots.
Kelce and Watkins carry a lower floor than normal, though each guy still holds onto his ceiling. It won’t be a surprise if one of these two outperforms price-considered expectations, but it also won’t be a surprise if one of these two fails again — as they both did in Week 6 when these two teams last played.
Williams remains extremely intriguing in this spot (Kareem Hunt tattooed the Patriots for receiving lines of 5-98-2 and 5-105-1 the two times he played them, adding 148 yards and a touchdown on the ground the first time around and an additional 80 yards on the ground the next time around), even with the Pats presenting a slightly below-average on-paper matchup.
As for Patrick Mahomes: he obviously, no-doubt carries the highest on-paper quarterback projection on the slate, making him a strong play this weekend. On the flip side: the games still need to be played on the field, and there is certainly a chance any of these other three quarterbacks outperforms Mahomes, if you want to slide in a different direction at the quarterback position.