If they can limit Tyreek Hill and Pat Mahomes just enough, expect the Patriots to stay unbeaten at home

The Patriots have had nine straight seasons of 11 or more wins, an NFL record. They’re about to make it a 10th.

Can the Patriots contain Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill?
Can the Patriots contain Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill? –Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Welcome to Season 8, Episode 13 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

When the NFL schedule was released on April 17, one game above all others on the Patriots’ schedule looked like the marquee matchup for the local 53, one that could not be missed: this one right here.

The Chiefs and Patriots aren’t exactly ancient rivals even with their AFL roots, having met 37 times, with Kansas City holding an 18-16 advantage. (There have been three ties, the most recent in November 1966, when Jim Nance — who is related only phonetically to the familiar voice that will call Sunday’s game for CBS — ran for 107 yards). They have had some memorable matchups through the years — the Chiefs’ rout that spawned the timeless phrase “We’re on to Cincinnati’’ in 2014, a Drew Bledsoe/Ben Coates-led 40-10 thumping in 1998, a few other gems here and there.

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But the closest it has ever been to a true rivalry is . . . right now, actually. They lead their divisions — the Chiefs are 8-4, while the Patriots are 10-2, even though the tone of the discussion around them this past week coming off a Sunday night loss to the Texans is one more suited for a 2-10 team.

This week’s collision will be the teams’ fourth since the start of the 2017 season. The Chiefs beat the Patriots, 42-27, in the 2017 season opener (if you remember that Mike Gillislee scored the Patriots’ first points that season, you might be Mike Gillislee). The Patriots handed the Chiefs their first loss of the season last year with a 43-40 win in Week 6, then ended the Chiefs’ season 14 weeks later with an instant-classic 37-31 overtime win in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium.

Neither team looks quite as potent now as they did then, though both remain legitimate candidates to be playing the final game of the NFL season in Miami on Feb. 2. Patrick Mahomes, so electric last season in throwing for 50 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards, remains ever-dangerous in guiding the league’s fourth-ranked offense, but he’s battled injuries, including a dislocated kneecap that caused him to miss two full games and most of a third.

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As for the Patriots, well, you know. The offense that dropped 80 points in two games against the Chiefs last season does not exist anymore, for an assortment of reasons that require no further rehash here. The Patriots have scored 72 points in their last four games, during which they’ve gone 2-2. The defense, which leads the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (12.1), has questions to answer after being pierced by the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson — Mahomes’s nearest competitors for the rights to be called the best young quarterback in the league — in recent weeks.

The daydream for Patriots fans is that last year’s offense and this year’s defense show up Sunday. But only one is possible, and any hope this team has of fulfilling its dreams of hoarding a seventh Lombardi Trophy depends on its defense containing marvelous players such as Mahomes. This matchup among these recent rivals will offer a clue as to whether that dream will be possible.

Kick it off, Bailey (or Patriots designated kicker of the week), and let’s get this one started . . .

THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY

James White — In the loss to the Texans, the Patriots ran for 145 yards on 29 attempts, a cool 5 yards per pop. White picked up 79 of those yards, including a long of 32, on 14 attempts. He also had eight catches for 89 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Those are terrific numbers, and it was swell that it happened at NRG Stadium, the scene of the greatest Super Bowl performance White or pretty much any other running back has ever had. As I suspect you may already know, he scored 20 points (three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion) and made 14 receptions in the comeback from down, 28-3, against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. He also scored the winning touchdown in overtime. Those statistics are as legitimate as legitimate can be. His statistics against the Texans? They don’t entirely fall into the Lies and Damn Lies category, but they’re not telling the whole story, either. White had just five touches for 15 yards in the first half as the Patriots fell behind, 14-3. Cris Collinsworth noted repeatedly on the NBC broadcast that the Texans were wisely covering him with a defensive back. But that shouldn’t totally relegate White to an afterthought — as a receiver or as a runner. The Patriots need to make sure White is involved more — he’s been the forgotten man way too often this season. Along with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead, White — whose presence in the backfield too often is a tip-off that the Patriots are throwing — should be able to run the ball against a Chiefs defense that ranks 30th in the league (141.3 rushing yards allowed per game) and allowed 176 rushing yards on 48 attempts in the AFC Championship game. It’s time to get this right, and a part of it is remembering before garbage time that they have White.

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Patrick Mahomes — We know about all the spectacular Favreian stuff Mahomes does, the no-look passes and such. A commercial break on game day doesn’t pass without seeing him in one highlight or another. But the marketable moments aren’t the whole story. His second season as a starter has had some moments where it deviated from his plans — most notably the injury — and with 20 touchdown passes heading into Week 14, it’s a safe bet he’s going to fall short of last year’s 50. But one thing he’s done better this year? Protect the ball. Last season, he had 12 interceptions — not a terrible total for a relative NFL novice QB — and nine fumbles. This season, he’s thrown just two picks in 352 attempts, a 0.6 interception rate. Last year, his rate was 2.1 in 580 attempts. And his fumbles are down to three. He’s also been sacked just 12 times after taking 26 sacks last year. That’s a remarkably efficient and mature performance for a young quarterback, and it will be fascinating to see if he can protect the ball and resist losing yardage while trying to make a play against a Patriots defense that leads the NFL with 20 interceptions and is tied with the Saints for fourth with 40 sacks.

James Ferentz — The backup interior lineman has been on the fringes of the Patriots since 2017, and the son of longtime University of Iowa coach and former Bill Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz has been on the fringes of the NFL even longer. He first came into the league as an undrafted free agent (out of Iowa, naturally) with the Texans in 2014. They cut him three times before he ended up with the Broncos in 2017. When Denver cut him, the Patriots brought him aboard, but he’d still played just 22 NFL games, with no starts, before this season. He’s played 11 games for the Patriots this year as their line has endured frequent chaos, and he’s expected to get his second start this week and his first at center with Ted Karras battling a knee injury. Belichick offered lengthy praise for the 30-year-old this past week, noting how valuable he is because of his dependability when he gets a chance. Not bad for the third center on the roster entering training camp.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

I know, these are not Tom Brady’s finest times as an NFL quarterback. They might be among the worst, given that he’s had probably fewer bad days than any quarterback in history. He was bummed out after the win over the Eagles, had one of the worst completion percentages in his career in the win over Dallas (45.95 percent), and while his numbers were OK in the end against Houston (24 for 47 for 326 yards, 3 TDs), we know they were fattened up late against a Texans team that was already mentally celebrating its win. He was 7 of 19 for 82 yards and an interception at halftime.

He’s 42 years old, he has two listed ailments on the injury report and probably a Grey’s Anatomy’s worth of aches that aren’t for public consumption, isn’t copacetic with his young receivers, doesn’t have a contract for next season . . . and did we mention he’s 42, or five years older than Steve Grogan was when he retired? This isn’t what Brady envisioned, for sure, and no one among us, including him, knows how it will end.

It’s more than reasonable to talk about this stuff. It’s necessary. The greatest quarterback in the history of the sport is struggling, and headed toward an uncertain offseason that could get here a lot sooner than anyone around here wants if the offense doesn’t solve some problems soon.

But there’s also a place to draw the line, and for me, it’s this: speculating on who may be the quarterback of the Patriots next year. I saw a piece late in the week — I can’t remember the source, and I really don’t care to — speculating on whom Brady’s replacements could be next season. The five names listed: Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Jameis Winston.

I mean, c’mon. Do we really have to be playing these stupid conjecture games now? I know it’s a traffic chase, but there are real games left to play. The emphasis — the whole story — is whether Tom Brady can “salvage’’ this 10-2 team. Yes, the end may be near for him as a Patriot, and we should savor every moment, even if he falters more than he used to. Now is not the time to look for a replacement. Now is the time to appreciate that he’s still here.

KEY MATCHUP

Patriots CB Jonathan Jones vs. Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill

It’s tempting to call Jones the unsung hero of the Patriots’ AFC Championship game victory over the Chiefs, but his crucial contributions were pretty well sung after the game, and he sure deserved it. Jones was essential in limiting Hill — who had 1,479 receiving yards last season and averaged 17 yards per catch — to just one reception (albeit for 42 yards). Jones did have help on Hill — safety Devin McCourty usually bracketed him over the top, and Keion Crossen also chipped in for a few plays — but nonetheless it was a defining performance for the young cornerback, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and made such progress and a positive impression that the Patriots kept him around with a three-year, $21 million deal in September.

Jones is having another strong season, but he’s coming off a game in which Watson and the Texans went after him with some success. Jones will likely play a huge role again in trying to slow Hill, who recently has been slowed by other things. He suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter of the win over the Chargers in Week 11 and played just seven snaps. He returned after the bye with a modest five catches for 55 yards in a Week 13 rout of the Raiders. Even if the hamstring is still an impairment, Hill, who had seven catches for 142 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 6 regular-season meeting with the Patriots last season, is still Kansas City’s most dangerous weapon. During a news conference this past week, Belichick asked, “Does anyone not think he’s the fastest player in the league?’’ He already knew the answer. It’s up to Jones and friends to make sure there’s no further confirmation Sunday.

PREDICTION, OR . . .

Let’s keep this one simple: It’s probably too much to ask for the Patriots to limit Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to a combined four catches for 65 yards, as they did in the AFC Championship game. But if they can contain them to some degree — let’s say 140 combined yards and a touchdown — while not getting burned by secondary weapons like they were by the Texans, they’ll remain unbeaten at home this season. If this game were in Kansas City, the Chiefs, with that raucous crowd behind them, would prevail. But at Foxborough? Put it this way: The Patriots have had nine straight seasons of 11 or more wins, an NFL record. They’re about to make it a 10th. Patriots 33, Chiefs 31.

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