BOSTON (CBS) — In what’s becoming a familiar sight for fans in New England, the Patriots are kicking off the season for the entire NFL on Thursday night as they get to unveil yet another Super Bowl championship banner. The season opener at Gillette Stadium may not exactly be an easy game for Tom Brady and the Pats, as they take on one of the AFC’s more talented teams in the Kansas City Chiefs.
The last time these two teams squared off was in the 2015 AFC Divisional Playoff in Foxboro, which the Patriots won 27-20. But the game that most people will remember was from 2014, when the Chiefs blew the Pats’ doors off 41-14 on Monday Night Football at Arrowhead Stadium and Brady got benched in the fourth quarter.
That 2014 blowout was the game that Trent Dilfer infamously declared the Patriots were “not good anymore” and many others pronounced the dynasty dead. All they’ve done since is win two out of the last three Super Bowls with Brady winning MVP in both of them. It will be interesting to see what Brady looks like in his first real game action at age 40, especially as he’s forced to play the season without the injured Julian Edelman.
The Chiefs are no pushover, however, as they are deep on defense with some explosive players on offense. Let’s take a look at what to watch for in the Patriots-Chiefs season opener:
This Is 40
Brady looked no different in his brief playing time during the 2017 preseason and worked as hard as ever during training camp as he enters his age-40 season. The quarterback’s first real test since hitting the big 4-0 comes with fans across the country watching on Thursday night.
The reigning Super Bowl MVP has to start the season a little bit behind, unfortunately, as he and the Patriots have had to retool the offense since losing Edelman for the season. He will have to find a new favorite target in the slot and on third downs. He still has no shortage of talented pass-catchers with Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola – but there was no receiver he trusted more than Edelman.
Brady also has a deep stable of running backs to work with in the passing game, so it would not be shocking if the Pats can find ways to score their share of points without No. 11 on opening night. But don’t be surprised if they have a slow start against the tough, talented Chiefs defense.
The Tight Ends
Both the Patriots and Chiefs may find themselves in need of a big catch or a clutch score, and they may both look to their star tight ends before anyone else. In a game filled with explosive playmakers, Rob Gronkowski and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce are arguably the two most dangerous ones in this game.
The 27-year-old Kelce has drawn comparisons to Gronk in recent years, most recently having caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards and four touchdowns. Even Gronk himself admitted that he has watched film of Kelce in order to become a better player.
“You try to look at every tight end throughout the league and try to take what you can from other tight ends. [Kelce’s] one of them that’s up there that you want to look at,” Gronk told reporters in Foxboro on Tuesday. He explained that Kelce’s abilities to “break off defenders” and “get that separation” are some of the things he has looked at to improve himself as a receiver.
As for Gronk, he’s coming off the third back surgery of his career but has looked fresh and strong during training camp and the preseason. He also has a heavily incentivized new contract and worked more with Brady’s trainer Alex Guerrero in the offseason, which could mean good things for his ability to stay healthy and durable for the whole season.
Either way, if someone scores a big touchdown during the season opener, don’t be surprised if he’s wearing No. 87.
Patriots Pass Rush
The Patriots don’t have many legitimate question marks on their roster as they enter the 2017 season, but one of them is who will get the majority of the snaps opposite Trey Flowers on the defensive line. The Pats must feel good about three of their four starting linemen with Flowers and defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown, but it remains to be seen how consistently they can pressure opposing quarterbacks off the edge.
The Patriots suddenly find themselves thin at defensive end with Rob Ninkovich retired (but not closing the door), rookie Derek Rivers out for the season with a torn ACL, and Kony Ealy cut before the season. Rookies Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler will have chances to step up, while fellow newcomers Lawrence Guy and Cassius Marsh could also make an impact. The team has even been spotted experimenting with linebacker Dont’a Hightower on the end of the line.
Hightower has already shown he can be a dangerous pass-rushing linebacker when called upon, so it wouldn’t exactly be stunning if he made more of an impact than he usually does in those situations. But eventually, the Patriots will need to find more stability on the edge as they face several tough quarterbacks over the course of the season.
The Return Game
Both teams will be worth watching on returns, and for very different reasons. The Chiefs boast one of the league’s most electric returners in Tyreek Hill, who led the league with 592 punt return yards and scored three return touchdowns. Hill will be dangerous every time he touches the ball and the Patriots could have trouble with him if they’re not careful – especially if they’re without Matthew Slater, who is listed as questionable for the game.
In the case of the Patriots, it’s not a question of how they will return punts but who will be catching the ball now that Cyrus Jones is out for the season. The obvious choice would be Amendola, but he’s not an ideal option if the Patriots expect to keep him healthy throughout the season. Another option is the recently acquired Philip Dorsett, who returned punts at college and made three returns for the Colts as a rookie in 2015. They could also simply park Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung back there and settle for fair catches.
A big return always has game-breaking potential, but it’s also the Chiefs’ best possible chance at making a game-changing play, as quarterback Alex Smith isn’t exactly a big-time playmaker in his own right. If they want to pull off the road upset, they may need Hill to make the Patriots pay when they kick the ball to him.
BONUS: Where’s Roger?
Roger Goodell’s presence at the game has nothing to do with actual football, but the NFL commissioner is certainly someone everyone will be itching to see before kickoff. He is making his first appearance in a regular season or playoff game in Foxboro since the 2014 AFC Championship Game, and is sure to be showered with boos (and possibly dodge some debris) from the Patriots faithful in attendance.
Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy is distributing up to 70,000 towels with a clown-nosed Goodell adorning them, which are likely to be littered throughout the Gillette Stadium seats. Goodell’s appearance at the stadium, especially on TV, may be brief, but the boos will certainly be heard loud and clear.