Keys for Pats Defense in Sunday's AFC Championship

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The outcome of last Sunday's Divisional round matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers wasn't all that shocking. It was more the manner in how we arrived to that result.  There was a pretty healthy split of "experts" and other media picking the New England Patriots and those picking the Chargers.  However, the ones who were riding with the Patriots did not expect them to go out and dominate the way they did, on both sides of the ball.

Photo courtesy of Sports Interaction
People tell me I never say anything negative about the Pats, and that it's okay to criticize them once in awhile.  So, here it goes.  Last Sunday, the Pats failed to deliver a compelling playoff game.  As a Pats fan, sure it was great to see them dust LA like that.  However, I love the closely contested, white knuckle games, of which Sunday was not.

Now this Sunday should be...SHOULD BE.  I said that about last weekend's game and it was over before halftime.  We'll see if the Patriots have learned anything at all from all of their road woes this season.  We'll see if that mess of a game in Pittsburgh, where the environment mimicked that of a playoff game, prepared them for the hostility they'll face on Sunday.

They'll need to be great in all aspects of the game.  However, I chose to focus on the defensive keys.  If the Pats hope to be playing in Atlanta in two weeks, I believe they will need to do the following.

1. Contain Tyreek Hill

Hill is the guy I’m most concerned about limiting on Sunday.  The Pats - like every other team in the NFL - don’t have a guy on defense with the kind of speed that Hill does.  He’s one of a kind.  As awesome as Stephon Gilmore is, he’s not going to be able to do it alone.  He will need help at times Sunday evening.  Whether it's from Devin McCourty, or Duron Harmon, the safeties have to have Gilmore's back.  I’ll gladly take my chances with J.C. Jackson 1 on 1 with Sammy Watkins, or Jason McCourty in a 1 on 1 situation if it means providing safety help on Hill. 

He has absolutely torched the Pats in previous games.  Hill’s combined numbers in 2 games against New England: 14 catches, 275 yards and 4 TD's.  He has had 7 catches, at least 130 yards and a touchdown in each game.  Absurd.  The kinds of plays Hill is known for are the exact types of plays New England needs to avoid on Sunday.  They’re also the exact types of plays they’ve been unable to avoid with Hill in the past.  In each of the previous two meetings against the Pats, Hill has recorded a touchdown of 75 yards. 

Those plays shift momentum and get the crowd buzzing.  I’m much more content with giving up yards underneath and tightening up in the red zone; much like they did in October - for the first half anyways.  Travis Kelce can certainly burn you underneath, eating up chunks of yards at a time.  However, the Patriots have done a pretty good job of limiting Kelce in previous contests. 

Kelce has faced off against the Patriots four times in his career.  He has just one touchdown in those four games, and has yet to break 100 yards.  His best performance came back in 2014, in his first meeting against New England, when he went for 93 yards and a touchdown on 8 catches.  That was before he became a household name.  Since that time, he's had the following stat lines: 5 catches 40 yards, 6 catches 23 yards and 5 catches 61 yards.

Its almost like a pick your poison between Kelce and Hill.  The Pats have done well with Kelce, it's time to finally slow down Hill.

2. Avoid Big Plays (again)

When these two teams met back in October, before the game I mentioned that New England would need to limit the big plays that Kansas City’s offense is capable of.  They won in spite of doing that.  This is something the Pats have struggled to contain the last couple of times they’ve played the Chiefs.  In the last two meetings, they’ve allowed four touchdowns of 65 yards or more.

This is the most explosive offense in the league.  If you want to argue New Orleans, fine, but you're splitting hairs at that point.  The Chiefs are far and away the best offense in the AFC.  Kansas City led the NFL in both pass plays of 20+ yards, with 76, and rush plays of 20+ yards, with 19.  They were also second in the league in pass plays of 40+ yards, with 15; one behind the league leaders in Green Bay and Pittsburgh. 

Despite having one of the best offenses in the game, they don't possess the ball too often.  Kansas City finished 27th in the league in time of possession this year.  They led the league in both yards and points per drive, but were middle of the pack (13th) in terms of time of possession per drive.  They score, but they score quick.  The Chiefs are certainly capable of stringing long drives together, and that's what the Patriots need to make them do.

The longer the drive lasts, sure it's less time New England's offense is on the field.  However, it's also going to limit the number of drives the Chiefs offense has as well, and that's what the goal should be.  The more chances you give them, the more points they'll put up. 

Kansas City’s explosiveness was on full display back in the first meeting between these two teams.  They hung 40 points on the Pats, despite having just 9 at halftime.  If the Pats allow 40 on Sunday, they lose.  They don’t want to get into a shootout with this team, especially in Arrowhead. 

3. Win on First and Second Down

The Pats have to be good on first and second down, defensively.  Obviously, third down is important, but you won’t find yourself with an opportunity to get off the field on third down if you can’t get stops on first and second down. 

Now, Kansas City had the second best third down offense in the league during the regular season.  So, it’s not like they’re vulnerable in those situations.  However, they also faced the fewest third downs per game, illustrating how effective they were on first and second down. 

Playing well on first and second down can put Kansas City in more difficult third down situations.  Instead of 3rd and 2, maybe you put them in a 3rd and 6, and that shrinks the playbook a little bit. Now, you probably don’t worry about those stupid run-pass options that normally torch the Pats. 

The better they are on first and second down, the more favorable the situation on third down, which increases the chances of getting Patrick Mahomes off of the field, and Tom Brady back on it. 


Follow me on Twitter - @mcvay34

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Boston Sports Syndicate: Keys for Pats Defense in Sunday's AFC Championship
Keys for Pats Defense in Sunday's AFC Championship
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