Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots (-5, 43.5 o/u)
The New England Patriots (12-4, 7-1 home) didn’t play particularly well down the stretch this season. They lost their last two games and four of their final six, but in doing so avoided a Divisional Playoff tilt with Pittsburgh. Instead, the Patriots will host the Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, 6-3 road) on Saturday in Foxborough (4:35 p.m. Eastern) with a spot in the AFC Championship Game on the line.
While the Chiefs have won 11 straight, their weak passing game and lack of success at Gillette Stadium might be just what Bill Belichick wanted on for his team’s playoff debut. Though KC walloped the Pats at Arrowhead last year (41-14), they haven’t won in Massachusetts since 1990. New England continued to be a strong home team this season, going 7-1 at Gillette with their only blemish an anomalous 35-28 setback to the Eagles in Week 13, a game that saw Philly score three touchdowns on defense and special teams.
That said, the Pats didn’t have the toughest home slate. Their only home win over a playoff team came in Week 1 when they downed the Steelers, 28-21.
In addition to the loss to Philly, New England lost dropped games at the Broncos, Jets, and Dolphins in the final six weeks of the season. The poor finish dropped them to 7-6-3 against the spread, overall, during the regular season, but they remained a solid 4-1-3 ATS at home.
New England’s success this year, at least on offense, was thanks to an elite passing game. The team managed more than 286 yards through the air, fifth in the NFL, even though QB Tom Brady was forced into battle with a decimated receiving corps and o-line on a weekly basis.
The Patriots run game was virtually non-existent most days. They averaged just 87.8 yards per game, third-last in the league. That doesn’t figure to change in the postseason as both Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount are out for the season. The team will roll with James White and a geriatric Stephen Jackson in the backfield on Saturday, a combination that strikes fear into no one.
Despite the terrible run game, the Pats finished third in the league in scoring, tallying 28.9 points per contest.
Unlike many years in the Brady/Belichick era, the New England defense was also top-tier this season. The unit finished top-ten in both total yards (ninth) and scoring (tenth). They were particularly stout against the run, holding opponents just under 100 yards per game, a good sign against the run-first Chiefs.
Kansas City started the campaign 1-5 and, in the process, lost top tailback Jamaal Charles to a season-ending injury. The emergence of RBs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, coupled with the scrambling ability of QB Alex Smith, helped keep the running game going, though, and KC rode its ground game and a dominant defense to ten straight wins to close the year.
Smith wasn’t asked to do much in the passing game – the Chiefs had the fourth-fewest pass attempts in the league – but he was efficient when called upon. He completed over 65-percent of his passes and averaged a respectable 7.4 yards per attempt. He also protected the ball exceptionally well, throwing just seven INTs (second-fewest among the 28 QBs with at least 300 attempts).
While the Chief offense has been a solid unit down the stretch, the bulk of the now 11-game win streak can be attributed to the team’s upper-echelon D. Kansas City finished the year third in scoring defense at 17.9 points per game and were top-ten against the pass and the run. The team racked up 47 sacks on the year led by Justin Houston (seven) and Tamba Hali (6.5).
The Chiefs forced five turnovers in Saturday’s 30-0 Wild Card win over Houston, upping their ATS record to 9-8 for the year (and 6-3 on the road). However, their mediocre passing game was dealt a serious blow when top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin left with what appeared to be a major knee injury.
For the first time in months, the Patriots are motivated, rested, and relatively healthy. Kansas City’s defense has looked great, but it’s also been ages since they’ve been tested like they will be on Saturday. Add in that New England is solid against the run and the Chiefs’ passing game will likely be without Maclin, and KC should find it very difficult to score.
Pick: New England (-5).
(Photo credit: Keith Allison (originally posted to Flickr as 836) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)
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