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ESNY’s NFL Divisional Round Preview

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots

In the opening game of the divisional round the NFL’s hottest team, the Kansas City Chiefs travel to New England and look to keep their 11-game winning streak going against a banged up, but healing Patriots team that welcomes back wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.

The return of Edelman and Amendola means the return of the Patriots passing game. Because when Tom Brady has these two at his disposal he is able to get the ball out of his hands before his banged up offensive line can collapse before him. New England has dealt with injuries at nearly every position on the offensive line, shuffling 13 different lineups in through 16 regular season games. This weekend they’ll welcome back Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, but will be without starting rookie right guard Tre’ Jackson.

The status of Kansas City’s passing game on the other hand, has yet to be determined as it remains unclear whether the team’s top wideout, Jeremy Maclin will be active and whether he’ll be effective if activated. Maclin suffered a leg injury in the team’s blowout against Houston and avoided a torn ACL, but missed practice all week with a high ankle sprain.

If Houston is going to pull this upset off however, it’s not going to be because of their passing game. It’s going to be because they have one of the AFC’s most dangerous defenses.

The Kansas City defense finished second in the league with 22 interceptions during the regular season, eight of which came from Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Marcus Peters. Peters, along with pro bowl safety Eric Berry and cornerback Sean Smith could be difference makers in this game if the Kansas City front seven can force Brady to make some arrant throws. And with the combination of Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dontari Poe, Kansas City’s front seven may do just that.

While it’s important for these guys to pressure Brady consistently and give him an array of different pass rushing looks, it’s 10x more important for this defense as a whole not to give up any big plays. They can’t afford to miss tackles, fall for double moves, let Brady spin out of a tackle, or let Keshawn Martin run up the seam for an 80-yard bomb and a momentum-shifting TD. Because once this defense gives up the lead to Tom Brady, it’s going to be very hard for Alex Smith to bring his team back against the New England defense.

If Smith is playing from behind he’s going to have to pass and when New England knows they’re passing the Chiefs receivers aren’t going to get open, it’s as simple as that. Kansas City’s strength on offense is in their misdirection running game–they ranked sixth in the NFL during the regular season with an average of 127.8 rushing yards per game.

Smith finished with a career high 3,486 passing yards in 2015, along with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he too will be going up against a fearsome pass rush that features Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard. If New England is able to take away the run game, Smith may not have enough time or enough weapons on the outside to win this game through the air.

Prediction: New England 27, Kansas City 17

I'm a senior journalism and communications major at THE University of Connecticut, as well as a die hard Jets and Knicks fan. College football and basketball have their place in my heart, but the NFL is my pride and joy.