This week’s marquee game had a good dose of drama added to what already was a matchup of great intrigue.
The Patriots’ game against the Chiefs took a significant turn Saturday when it was discovered that New England quarterback Cam Newton had tested positive for COVID-19 and is now ineligible to play this week.
As of Saturday afternoon, ESPN reported the league is looking to reschedule the kickoff for Monday or, more likely, Tuesday.
But whichever day the game is played, if it is played this week, instead of a quarterback matchup that pits Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes against Newton, the Patriots will counter with either veteran career backup Brian Hoyer or second-year neophyte Jared Stidham, who has just four career pass attempts.
Whether that change will alter what the Patriots do is a matter of question. In their first three games, the Patriots had completely committed to running the ball, much of that scheme featuring Newton.
That made for what figured to be a great showdown of two powerful offensive forces will clash when the Patriots (2-1) and Chiefs (3-0) play at Arrowhead Stadium: the Kansas City passing attack and the New England rushing attack.
But without Newton, the Patriots have lost the primary catalyst of their ground game. Newton leads the team in carries (35) and is second in rushing yards (149) behind Sony Michel (173) — though 86 of Michel’s rushing total came on just two runs last week. And those numbers don’t factor in the threat Newton poses even on option plays when he doesn’t keep the ball.
There, too, figures to be a fascinating chess match between Mahomes, who’s a constant dual threat to run and pass, and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whose game-plan-specific defensive schemes are legendary.
The Patriots are the only team to beat Mahomes twice in his NFL career (including playoffs), handing him his first career regular season loss in Week 6 of 2018 and his first and only career playoff loss in the 2018 AFC Championship game.
But Mahomes has given Belichick fits along the way. He’s the only quarterback with multiple starts against Belichick as a head coach (including playoffs) to average 300 or more passing yards per game (310.0) and have a passer rating of 100 or better (102.2) against him.
Mahomes is coming off a Monday night win over the Ravens, against whom he completed 31 of 42 passes for 385 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Mahomes has eight touchdown passes and three interceptions in three career games against the Patriots.
Mahomes’ receiving targets all pose problems to opposing defenses. Tyreek Hill will likely see double teams from the Patriots, whose defense is built around preventing explosion plays.
Tight end Travis Kelce is a difficult matchup. And don’t forget Sammy Watkins, who had four catches for 114 yards in the 2018 AFC title game against New England’s top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore. Look for Belichick to possibly use more zone defense in an effort to keep Mahomes in the pocket and to prevent some of the long throws.
As much as we all know Mahomes is going to pass the ball all over the yard, we also know the Patriots are going to run the ball. If they’ve trended in any direction through three games, it has been in their commitment to run the ball.
The Patriots enter the game ranked first in the league in rushing, averaging 178 yards per game. The Chiefs, conversely, are ranked 27th in the league defending the run, yielding an average of 153 yards per game. So, this obviously bears watching.
Michel had the two longest runs of his career against the Raiders last week and finished with 117 yards. Rex Burkhead rushed for two TDs.
After their 250-yard rushing performance against the Raiders last week, the Patriots have a chance to record back-to-back 200-yard rushing games for the first time since 2012. They’ve have rushed for more than 200 yards in two of the first three games this season.
The Patriots have been a completely different team with Newton at quarterback than they were with Tom Brady, who was never a threat to run. Newton’s running ability opened up a lot of new calls for New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Newton is tied for NFL lead with four rushing TDs this season.
The Patriots, of course, won’t have that luxury in this game with Newton out. And neither Hoyer nor Stidham are the same kind of running threat that Newton is.
The two teams, statistically, look very evenly matched. The Patriots score an average of 29 points per game and the Chiefs score 30.3. Both teams have scored 11 offensive TDs. Defensively, the Patriots are allowing an average of 22 points per game while the Chiefs allow 20.
One area to watch in this game is penalties. The Patriots, who have not committed an offensive penalty in the first three games, have only seven penalties this season while the Chiefs have 18.
A good barometer of how well Belichick gets his teams up for big games against the best opponents: The Patriots have won their past five games against undefeated teams that entered the game 3-0 or better.
Cool fact: Belichick (306) and Chiefs coach Andy Reid (225) have combined for 531 career wins (including playoffs), which is one win shy of the most by opposing coaches entering a matchup in NFL history. Miami’s Don Shula (267) and Dallas’ Tom Landry (265) had prior to their Week 11, 1987 matchup (the Dolphins won, 20-14).
This is the fourth consecutive season in which the Patriots and Chiefs have played each other, but the three previous matchups (2017, ’18 and ’19) were all played at Gillette Stadium.
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