Things are looking pretty bleak for the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Sitting at an abysmal 2-4 since Week 8, their offensive issues have not just stuck around but have worsened, despite a one-game resurgence in Las Vegas some weeks ago. Even with the 31 points they put up on the Raiders, Patrick Mahomes and his highly suspect supporting cast have put up just a meager 19 points per outing in their last half-dozen games, with every loss they've suffered coming against a team currently in the playoffs (the Eagles and Packers), or a team with a fairly good chance to make it in (the Bills and Broncos). Even more important than that is that Kansas City's lead in the AFC West is now down to just one game, and with another loss or two, the entire complexion of the AFC Championship chase can get turned upside down.
Even with that in mind, this Chiefs team has eight wins under their belt, winning games in new ways: Defensively. They lead the NFL in both pressures and pressure percentage, sit third in sacks, and sixth in passing defense. I don't know what sort of deal with the devil Steve Spagnuolo made before this season, but whatever it was, it's worked like a charm. Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis' ascension in year two has been vital, Chris Jones is still Chris Jones (just on a well-under-market one-year deal), and they have several other contributors like Nick Bolton and Willie Gay.
Maybe more so than any other team, the Patriots have generally found a way to make things tough on Mahomes since his ascension to being the best quarterback on the planet. In the last two Patriots-Chiefs outings, New England has held KC to just 19 offensive points per game, and those were two offenses much better than this current Chiefs. While this should be an angry and motivated offense after how last week went down, the Chiefs are kind of just what they are at this point and will be down Isiah Pacheco and Donovan Smith at that. Are things setting up for another upset special for the Patriots???
Date: Sunday, December 7
Start Time: 1:00 EST
Location: Foxborough, Massachusetts
Stadium: Gillette Stadium
TV Info: Fox (Joe Davis and Daryl Johnston on the call)
Patriots Uniform Info: All Navy (Begging for the Mono-White Chiefs look)
Players Already Ruled Out Before Sunday
Kansas City Chiefs: Isiah Pacheco (RB), Donovan Smith (OT)
New England Patriots: Rhamondre Stevenson (RB)
Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones is still the sparkplug of the Chiefs' defensive engine, but Kansas City having a certified lockdown corner like Trent McDuffie, and L'Jarius Sneed for that matter, has completely changed things for them in 2023. McDuffie's ability to be just as good on the boundary as he is in the slot opens up a ton the further to the line of scrimmage you get. Because of the elite secondary play, just two receivers have gone over 100 yards on the Chiefs all year: Joshua Palmer of the Chargers and Christian Kirk of the Jaguars (Devonta Smith hit 99 on the dot, but that's neither here nor there). I have a feeling McDuffie vs. Pop Douglas will be the quintessential battle within the battle when those two line up against each other.
The elite secondary play also ties into the sack and pressure production the Chiefs have put up all season long. It's Chris Jones who leads the proverbial wolfpack in that department, however, but rather second-year edge rusher George Karlaftis out of Purdue. Nine sacks on the year and his 15 in his career currently rank 14th all-time for players before they hit the age of 23. If he were to get three more in these final few games, that would get him up to ninth all-time, trailing just names like Myles Garrett, Mario Williams, Terrell Suggs, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shawn Merriman. He, along with Jones, Michael Danna, and Derick Nnadi, primarily along the defensive front, has been tough to handle all season long.
Going to be a hard day to put points on the board, especially through the air. Again, I have no idea how much of Steve Spagnuolo's soul was sold to get this Chiefs defense in this spot after these last few years, but it's a remarkable bump in production.
What is there really to say about Patrick Mahomes at this point? Already one of the best gunslingers in NFL history, multi-time MVP and Super Bowl winner, etc, etc. But this year has been as close to Tom Brady's 2006 or 2013 as it gets, it's been that bad for what they have around him. Rookie SMU product Rashee Rice has been a pleasant surprise, but it's been bleak on the outside, and as crazy as it sounds, this team misses Juju Smith-Schuster. He was a super reliable option for Mahomes to go to and complement Travis Kelce, and now they have no one save for Rice who can be a difference-maker on the outside. And even then, Rice paces this team with eight drops out of the team's league-high 34 total.
Circling to Kelce, this has sneaky not been a great year for him. Missing the season opener and getting feet wet against Jacksonville that next week will hurt the final tally, but drops have been an issue again (four on the year, 22 in his last 45 games). Two targets to him have resulted in picks, and he had a beyond-brutal red-zone fumble in the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl rematch against Philly. No Hyperbole, it probably lost them that game. You can joke about the podcast with Jason Kelce or the relationship distracting him, but some of these teams have erased him. Namely, the Dolphins, Eagles, and Broncos (second game).
Just breezing through two of those games (Dolphins and Broncos), I saw a guy who's playing like a 34-year-old. He doesn't have the speed or ability to separate vs. man coverage efficiently enough, and while the finesse part of his game (finding soft spots against zone, short/intermediate area production, etc.) is not quite his whole bag, it's close to it based on that sample size. That, and his blocking is...well...still the same as it ever was (He's never being the jumbo slot receiver allegations). The one thing I've never understood over the last few years is the amount of off-coverage he faces. You're not going to play exclusively man coverage all game, but to not disrupt his timing and let him find space off free releases is a choice. A bad one, but a choice all the same. I have a good idea of how the Patriots can shut him down, but more on that later.
With no Pacheco on Sunday, that's 55.6 percent of the Chiefs rushing production out the window. That leaves just Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has just 51 carries for 179 yards on the year, and Jerrick McKinnon as the two lead backs for Andy Reid and Matt Nagy's offense. Far from ideal circumstances for a rushing offense that finds themselves 17th in the league at the moment. Further complicating matters is that left Donovan Smith is also out with a neck injury, putting Wayna Morris in line for just the second start of his career. So, if there were a good time for the Patriots to catch the Chiefs, this would be it.
New England Patriots
So, as far as stopping Kelce, which should be priority one, the guy I'm going to argue for being a part of that game plan has played just 46 defensive snaps since Week 6 and just eight since Week 10. This would be none other than Marte Mapu, who's certainly looked too small as a run defender in spots, but I think he's perfect in a 'tight end eraser' role, saying as much just weeks after he was drafted. Bill Belichick was asked about Mapu's lack of playing time last week, making the very fair point of the guys ahead of him on the safety depth chart playing as well as they are (Dugger and Peppers specifically), but he's still sounded high on him. I don't think it'll be a one-player solution, but I would love to see Mapu be a part of that. I'm sure Dugger and Peppers will lead the charge though.
Speaking of the former, there was recent contract news concerning Browns safety Grant Delpit that could affect Dugger's market. Cleveland gave him a three-year $36,000,000 extension, 65 percent of which is guaranteed money. Resident Patriots Cap expert Miguel Benzan also recently projected a hypothetical Dugger extension, valuing him at 1.5 million dollars per year more on AAV and with 68 percent of the money guaranteed.
New England has money to burn, Dugger is a guy who has more than earned his keep, and that seems like a more than fair deal for a guy who's become one of the NFL's best safeties. If I ran the ship (I should, quite frankly. Hit my line @RobertKraft @JonathanKraft), I'd offer that exact deal so quickly it'd make your head spin. And while Peppers still has an extra year left on his deal, he's a guy who's categorically earned a bump in pay. He's far outpaced his 4.5 million dollar AAV this year.
Now, back to game-related stuff. With the Chiefs' run game taking a massive loss without Pacheco, The Patriots have a real chance to jump from the No. 3 rushing defense to No. 2, currently occupied by the Chicago Bears, believe it or not. Not a surprise, but it was another monster outing for Davon Godchaux up the middle once again in Pittsburgh, and DL coach DeMarcus Covington was eager to sing his praises, as well as Anfernee Jennings, who's impressed all season long.
Knowing what we know about the Chiefs' defense, the Patriots' best shot at stringing two wins in a row for the first time since Weeks 8 and 9 of 2022 (Yes, it's been that long), it'll have to be on the ground. While the KC run defense is middle of the road in yards allowed per game, they're in the bottom five in terms of EPA. No Rhamondre Stevenson will certainly hurt again, but as we saw in Pittsburgh, Ezekiel Elliott is more than up for a heavy-duty workload.
The question will now be who will be behind him on the depth chart. JaMychal Hasty or Kevin Harris? No Ty Montgomery after he was let go for his special teams blunder in Pittsburgh, and I don't think they'll elevate both backs. Smart money would say Harris, which would be my choice, but Belichick was recently asked by Hasty and brought up picking up pass protection and executing that. Needless to say, this wouldn't be a good time to bring him up, given the opposition, and for what it's worth, I liked Harris when they gave him some run on that West Coast swing last year. Just depends on how they feel about his ability to hold up in pass protection vs. Hasty.
Realistically though, if Bailey Zappe can give this team any chance as a passer, that's a massive credit to him. Spagnoulo defenses are no joke, and they'll be sending the hounds a ton. His decision-making and ability to get the ball out quickly will matter more on Sunday than at any other point this year. Balancing that with the coverage matchups he'll be dealing with, I can't say I envy him whatsoever. Gonna be a long afternoon.
Points Spread: KC -8.5 (-105) | NE +8.5 (-115)
Moneyline: KC (-420) | NE (+330)
Over/Under: O 37 (-104) | U 37 (-118)
Lines via FanDuel as of Friday, December 15
This is a VERY interesting spread and total on Sunday. Kansas City is 8-5 ATS on the year but just 2-4 in their last six matchups. The over has also only hit for them four times all year, but this is the first weekend it's been south of 40 for them in 2023. Just with the way their offense is right now with the lack of production and injuries, the three plays here would be Patriots ATS, Chiefs outright (although I wouldn't feel good about that in either direction), and the under.
Every fiber of my being is telling me the Chiefs will find a way to win this game because they have an irate Patrick Mahomes under center due to the events of last weekend. I also can't look at this Chiefs offense and confidently say they have a single piece that scares me outside of Mahomes, Travis Kelce included. To say I have less faith in an offense led by PATRICK MAHOMES than the Patriots offense speaks volumes, and I have a sneaky suspicion that the Patriots are about to pull off the biggest upset of the NFL season on Sunday. If it happens, it'll be in the same vein as last weekend in Pittsburgh, but I think it's doable, more than the general public may think.
Final Score: New England Patriots 20, Kansas City Chiefs 13
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