Everyone in New England has been saying it for months: just get healthy for the playoffs and everything should be fine.
Well, here we are. The Patriots are set to host the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday (4:35 p.m., CBS) at Gillette Stadium. They’re as healthy as they’re going to be.
You wouldn’t say they’re rolling into the postseason, though. In fact, they played some of their worst football under Bill Belichick over the last six weeks of the regular season, a 2-4 stretch.
Much of that was due to injury. Julian Edelman was out, Rob Gronkowski was out and then played hurt, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola played hurt, and the offensive line was patched together. On defense, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Dont’a Highower, and Chandler Jones, among others, all missed time.
There are still unknowns surrounding the Patriots on offense. Edelman is set to return, but at what percentage of health? And another big concern developed on Thursday: Rob Gronkowski, who had just six receptions for 104 yards and zero touchdowns over his final two regular season games, missed practice for the second time this week.
If the knee hampers him on Saturday, the Patriots could be in trouble.
The game manager
When it comes to Alex Smith, people throw the term “game manager” around to slight him. He may not wow you with his arm or take over a game, but the bottom line is Smith does what it takes to win, through the air or on the ground. The Chiefs ranked just 30th in pass offense this season (203.4 yards), but sixth in rush offense (127.8 yards) even with Jamaal Charles going down. Smith can get out and run with the best of them, so when there’s nothing available, he’ll tuck it away and do work on the ground rather than force a throw. He might need to run more this weekend if Jeremy Maclin (high ankle sprain) can’t go. Trust that Smith usually makes the smart decision with the ball, though. His postseason touchdown-to-interception ratio is 10 to 1.
Smith and the Chiefs offense have to do just enough. They can rely on their defense to do the rest. Brady better hope his guys are healthy on Saturday, because they’ll need to be against a Chiefs defense that ranked eighth in rush defense (98.2 yards) and ninth in pass defense (231.1 yards) this season. Kansas City also ranked second in the NFL in interceptions (22) and second in turnover differential (plus-14). In other words, there’s not much room for error for the Patriots offense.
The Chiefs dominated the Texans last week from start to finish. A kickoff return for a touchdown to begin the game put Kansas City in the driver’s seat for 60 minutes. For the Patriots to make Smith and the Chiefs uncomfortable, they’ll need to get out and build an early lead. The Chiefs may not have the offensive firepower to come back. The Patriots were able to come back from down 14 points to the Ravens twice in last year’s Divisional Round. They certainly can’t expect that against the Chiefs.