(CBS Boston) — The Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) and New England Patriots (10-2) head into Week 14 as favorites in their respective divisions. The Chiefs recently dispatched with the Oakland Raiders, their only real AFC West challenge, in the kind of blowout win that removes all doubt about the division’s best team. The Patriots have won the AFC East the last 10 seasons, so another championship is almost expected. But their lackluster loss to the Houston Texans once again exposed their lingering issues on offense as the team struggles to maintain a one-game division lead.
The Chiefs visit Foxborough Sunday to face the Patriots, for a matchup with potential home-field implications in the AFC playoff race. Kansas City’s dismantling of Oakland wasn’t all that much of a surprise. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes leads one of the NFL’s more explosive passing attacks and is capable of throwing for 400-plus yards and multiple touchdowns any time he steps on the field. But his exploits weren’t really needed, as KC’s much-maligned defense led the charge against the over-matched Raiders.
A bottom-tier unit, the Chiefs defense held the Raiders scoreless for three quarters. (Raiders’ mistakes and penalties helped.) Kansas City mostly shut down Oakland’s outside receiving game, forcing check-downs to running backs and tight ends. Derek Carr was picked off twice, one of which Juan Thornhill returned for a touchdown. The pass rush also bothered Carr much of the afternoon, contributing two sacks. Josh Jacobs ran for 104 yards on 17 carries, and tight end Darren Waller caught seven of his nine targets for 100 yards in an ultimately futile effort. But that was the bulk of their offense.
NFL On CBS lead play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz has been impressed with the Chiefs defense of late. “That defense definitely is playing at a higher level than not only what we saw from Kansas City earlier this year but from what we saw in the playoffs last year against the Patriots and what we saw in the regular season against New England. They have gotten that side of the ball in a better place.”
Exactly how much credit the Chiefs defense deserves is a little unclear. Chilly temperatures and 40 mph winds certainly impeded both offenses as well. The Patriots are used to those sorts of weather conditions this time of year. (Sunday’s forecast calls for similar temperatures and calmer winds.) What they’re not used to is offensive struggles this late in the season.
The Patriots offense has endured its share of hiccups in recent seasons, but it always seemed to figure things out before the last month of the regular season. Those struggles continued in Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans, however. While Tom Brady passed for 324 yards and three touchdowns, he only completed about half his passes. And the Pats didn’t find the end zone in the first half. After a field goal on their opening drive, the next four drives ended in either interception or punt. The Texans defense is among the NFL’s worst, still it was the fifth consecutive outing in which the Patriots offense struggled in the first half.
Brady’s frustration with his receivers has showed at times. As former wide receiver Brandon Marshall, now with Inside The NFL, recently pointed out, they “aren’t running strong routes in and out of their breaks.” The offensive line also continues to have problems protecting him, which has knock-on effects. Marshall notes that “…their backs can’t get out. And they’ve been really good over the years getting the ball to the running backs in the passing game. Now the backs have to stay in and chip and help out in protection. That’s not their strength.”
The running game was more productive against the Texans than it had been in prior weeks. James White and Sony Michel combined for 124 yards on 24 carries. The pair, or any pair of Patriots backs, hadn’t put up a 100-yard game since the win over the New York Giants in Week 6. The team averages 96.3 yards per game (21st) despite 27.6 attempts (eighth). Their 3.5 yards per carry ranks among the worst in the NFL.
“It’s still a work in progress,” notes Nantz. “It’s been an offense that has been burdened with far too many injuries on the offensive line.” (The Patriots injury report early in the week also included Tom Brady, though it’s nothing serious.) “A revolving door on the outside with a combination of things. I think they’re still trying to put it together, much like they did last year at the end of the season. Trying to figure out a way to play the postseason with a run-heavy offense, that’s what they did last year. And they ran right through the Chargers, the Chiefs in a thriller, and the Rams in the Super Bowl with kind of a different plan of attack than they had all regular season.”
The Chiefs offense also struggles on the ground, having produced only one 100-yard rusher this season. And even that productive outing should be viewed with skepticism, as Damien Williams picked up most of those yards on a 91-yard third-quarter run. The Patriots defense will be more worried about the passing attack, of course. And this may be the matchup — Mahomes and his pass-catchers vs. stingy Patriots secondary — that decides the game.
The Chiefs QB isn’t displaying any ill effects from the dislocated kneecap that sidelined him for two-plus games. Mahomes threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns in his return against the Tennessee Titans a month ago. His mediocre stats against the Raiders last week were more a function of how the game played out than anything Mahomes did or didn’t do. Tight end Travis Kelce leads all KC pass-catchers with 68 receptions, though Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins remain downfield threats.
The Patriots defense is still among the NFL’s best units, despite giving up 28 points to the Texans and 37 points to the Baltimore Ravens in early November. They still allow only 12.1 points per game, by far the lowest in the league, along with just 258 yards. The 163.5 yards passing they give up is second only to the San Francisco 49ers. They’ve intercepted opposing quarterbacks 20 times so far this season.
These teams have plenty of recent history with each other. The Patriots won both a 2018 regular-season shootout and the last AFC Championship by less than a touchdown. All that suggests another close one on Sunday.
The Chiefs play the Patriots Sunday @ 4:25 ET on CBS.