Patriots

Without Cam Newton, beating the Chiefs becomes exponentially more difficult for the Patriots

Can’t imagine there’s been another Patriots game in recent years that’s been as unconventional to preview as this one.

Is there anything Bill Belichick can employ to quiet the Kansas City offense? CHARLES KRUPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

This preview was updated after Patriots quarterback Cam Newton reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

Welcome to Season 9, Episode 4 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

Well, can’t imagine there’s been another Patriots game in recent years that’s been as unconventional to preview as this one. The matchup between the last two Super Bowl winners and the coaches, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, who rank second and sixth on the NFL’s all-time victories list was set to be one of the jewels of the regular-season schedule.

Now? Perhaps it still will be an excellent game. But nothing about it now is normal, and the degree of difficulty for the Patriots has risen exponentially in the past couple of days, since news came Saturday morning that quarterback Cam Newton had tested positive for COVID-19.

The NFL decided Sunday morning to reschedule the game for Monday night, presuming there are not more positive tests for the virus in the interim. So the Patriots will fly to Kansas City Monday morning, without their dynamic quarterback, to take on the defending champions and the most electrifying player in the league in Patrick (Don’t Call Me Pat) Mahomes.

No, this is not ideal. Is anything these days?

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The circumstances weren’t nearly as alarming when the teams met a year ago, but they were unusual in their own way. Remember? When the Chiefs visited Gillette in Week 14, there was suspense before the game as to whether their equipment would arrive on time. It finally did show up, two hours before kickoff, and the Chiefs, undistracted by the silly situation, showed up, too, holding off the Patriots, 23-16. Perhaps that win forecasted what was to come a little less than two months later, when the franchise collected its first Super Bowl win since the 1969 season.

It should be noted that the Chiefs hoarded all the breaks in last season’s matchup. A potential return of a fumble for a touchdown by Stephon Gilmore was blown dead. N’Keal Harry was deemed out of bounds on what should have been the tying touchdown, but because the Patriots had no challenges left, they couldn’t get the call overturned.

Despite some silly braggadocio about becoming a dynasty similar to the Patriots, the Chiefs have handled wearing the champion’s bull’s-eye well. Led by Mahomes, the Chiefs are off to a 3-0 start, with their most recent win a thorough dismantling of the Baltimore Ravens on “Monday Night Football” in which they scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions.

The Chiefs are fourth in the NFL in scoring (30.3 points per game), and save for some unexpected struggles in an eventual Week 2 win over the Chargers, have looked like an unstoppable force. After the developments affecting the Patriots late this week, the Chiefs are, and should be, the heavy favorite.

Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started . . .

Three players I’ll be watching

Patrick Mahomes: We generally try to stay away from quarterbacks in this segment — I mean, who isn’t watching the quarterback, right? But even those quirky aficionados of offensive-line play or the All-22 obsessives can’t look away from the Chiefs’ fourth-year quarterback (and third-year starter) for long. So we’ll make an exception for Mahomes, since he is so . . . well, exceptional. No matter whether we’re talking about his career or this young season in particular, he is off to a spectacular start. Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns and was named league MVP in 2018, hoisted the Lombardi Trophy last season, and is rolling right along this year, with nine touchdowns without an interception, a career-best 67.8 completion percentage, and 898 passing yards. He’s the freewheeling, brilliant player that the national NFL media portrayed Brett Favre as being long after he actually was. Mahomes could probably win with one Jake From State Farm lining up at tight end and the other at receiver, but this season he is surrounded by more talent than ever, with rookie back Clyde Edwards-Helaire adding a new element to an already loaded offense. Mahomes’s breathtaking abilities and occasional no-look passes sometimes obscure the fact that he’s an extremely intelligent quarterback, especially for one who just turned 25 a couple of weeks ago. Disguising coverages and mixing up the blitz will work only so long against him, which the Chargers discovered in Week 2.

Brian Hoyer: And on the opposite end of the QB spectrum . . . actually, that’s probably not fair to Hoyer, who in 11 seasons has carved out a respectable niche in the league as a competent stand-in and trustworthy teammate. While this will be his first start for the Patriots in his third stint with the team, he has had his moments elsewhere, including going 10-6 as a starter over the 2013-14 seasons with the Browns. In 2014, he led six fourth-quarter comebacks. On the downside, he’s just 16-22 in his career as a starter, and for the Patriots to have a chance, he must protect the ball, which he did not do well last year with the Colts (four interceptions in 65 passing attempts).

Jonathan Jones: Yes, the Patriots already have allowed seven touchdown passes this year after giving up just 13 last season. But even with the loss of Patrick Chung, the addition of Adrian Phillips, and the relative emergence of Joejuan Williams and Kyle Dugger give the Patriots more depth of skill than they had even a season ago. Jones has had his ups and downs early in the season, but he is third on the team in snaps by a defensive back (trailing only Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty). Belichick indicated this week that Jones will have a significant role in covering Chiefs burner Tyreek Hill, and the coach spoke highly of his dedication to improving since entering the league as an undrafted free agent. That hard work is going to have to translate to results against the high-flying Chiefs.

Grievance of the week

In the grand scheme of things, I recognize this is about as important as Belichick’s dress code for Zoom calls with us media jackals. There are much bigger gripes to howl about, including, frankly, the decision to play this game just a few days after Newton’s positive test. But in the category of Insignificant But Annoying, I simply cannot be the only viewer during the last couple of Patriots-Chiefs matchups who has been driven to the frothing fringes of madness by those bright yellow gloves Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu chooses to wear. On the TV screen, his mustard mittens look exactly like a penalty flag any time he is near the play. The NFL should allow the players as much freedom to be distinctive with their gear as they want. But yellow gloves on Honey Badgers must be banned. C’mon, you know Roger Goodell has executed stupider bans.

Key matchup

Patriots center Joe Thuney vs. Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones

Chandler Jones is in his fifth year with the Arizona Cardinals, and he has been phenomenal for them, piling up 61 sacks, second in franchise history to Freddie Joe Nunn’s 66.5 from 1985-93. But if you’re one of the fans that still laments the deal that sent Jones to the Cardinals after the 2015 season, it’s time to let it go.

The Patriots parlayed the second-round pick they received (along with guard Jonathan Cooper) into a pair of 2016 draft picks, which were used on Malcolm Mitchell and Thuney. Mitchell was doomed by injury, but he always will be remembered for his instrumental role in the Super Bowl LI comeback win over the Falcons.

Meanwhile, Thuney has turned into one of the best linemen of the Patriots’ era of excellence. He’s never missed a start, but his most impressive feat came last Sunday, when he moved to center to replace the injured David Andrews, dominated the interior of the Raiders’ line as the Patriots ran for 250 yards, and didn’t have a single obvious miscommunication with Cam Newton. This guy is a quintessential Patriot — tough, smart, and versatile. But the challenge is even tougher this week, with the limited Hoyer at quarterback.

The Chiefs’ Chris Jones is better as a pass rusher than a run defender, and he is formidable, having already collected 3.5 sacks this year — including two Monday night against the Ravens — after totaling 24.5 over the previous two seasons. He also has six QB hits this season after accumulating 20 last season. The 2019 Pro Bowl selection will present a tougher challenge to Thuney than anyone on the Raiders could. But it’s a safe bet that Thuney will be up to it. It’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t.

Prediction

Or, I bet Christian Okoye could still get 3 yards on third and 2

Common sense suggested the Patriots would try to run the ball and control the clock against the Chiefs even when Newton was expected to be the quarterback. Not even Mahomes has figured out how to throw a touchdown pass from the sideline.

With Newton out, a running back-focused ground game becomes their only hope. The Patriots ran it so well a week ago against the Raiders, with Sony Michel breaking loose for 117 yards on just nine carries, including the two longest runs of his career (38 and 48 yards).

With Rex Burkhead (three TDs against the Raiders), second-year man Damien Harris (fresh off injured reserve), and dependable James White back after missing last week’s game because of a family tragedy, there’s a distinct 1978 Patriots vibe about this team’s running game.

The Chiefs are susceptible, owning the league’s 27th-ranked rush defense (153 yards per game). But with Hoyer taking the snaps, their task becomes easier.

The recipe for a Patriots win: Control the clock by running the ball, do not turn it over, keep Mahomes off the field as long as possible, and force the Chiefs to settle for field goals. But knowing the recipe and cooking up an upset are two different things. The Patriots won’t be perfect. The Chiefs’ record still will be. Chiefs 24, Patriots 20.

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