(CBS Boston)- “I don’t see any reason why it won’t be a nail-biter.” says NFL On CBS lead play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz.
This Sunday, the NFL has plenty of marquee matchups, but none that were quite as highly anticipated when the schedule was released as the the Kansas City Chiefs vs. the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game. While the two teams aren’t quite as dominant as one may have expected entering the season, they still currently rate as the second and third seed in the conference. And Nantz is excited that game day is finally here.
“As soon as I walked out of the stadium in Arrowhead last January after that AFC Championship Game epic, I couldn’t wait to see it again,” said Nantz. “Here we are, months of anticipation for the fans, and for the broadcaster.”
While some of the shine has come off the Patriots in recent weeks, due to their offensive struggles, Nantz has confidence that Brady, Belichick and company are going to figure things out, leading to a game he calls a “monster matchup and our best one of the whole regular season.”
A big part of why Nantz, and NFL fans, are so excited to see this matchup is just how close the two matchups between these teams were last season. The regular season and playoff matchup were decided by a combined 10 points, and the postseason game needed overtime to decide it. With each team bringing back rosters very similar to those in that January matchup, Nantz sees little reason to expect much more separation than we saw in those two meetings. A big reason why? The Chiefs have improved on defense.
“I think that everyone knew coming into the year that the Chiefs needed to do something to solidify their defense. That has been an evolving process since Week 1 with a new defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo,” said Nantz. “Our crew had the opportunity to see the Chiefs last week against the Raiders, and 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.”
The numbers back up the eye test, as K.C. ranks 15th in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency ratings and are actually sixth in the league against the pass by that same metric. It’s been a largely bend-but-don’t-break style, as they rank 25th in yards allowed per game (372.1) but 16th in scoring defense (22.1 PPG). Last week against the Raiders, they harassed Derek Carr into two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and two sacks, while forcing and recovering a fumble on special teams.
The one area that is exploitable from New England’s vantage point, however, is the Chiefs’ run defense. Rookie Josh Jacobs had 104 yards on just 17 carries last week, and Kansas City ranks 30th in the league in stopping the run, giving up over 140 yards per game on average. The Patriots running game with Sony Michel hasn’t really gotten going this season, but this could be the opportunity for a breakout.
A dominant run attack would have the extra benefit of keeping Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the explosive offense off the field. While Mahomes isn’t having quite the same otherworldly season that we saw from him last year, he still has the ability, as Nantz puts it, “to do things that we haven’t seen other players do before.” The veteran broadcaster calls him a magician in the way that he is able to keep plays alive and contort his body to make throws.
The Patriots pass defense would seem to be well-equipped to deal with Kansas City’s attack, as they rank as the league’s second-best unit in pass defense efficiency. What will be fascinating to see is whether they can prevent the Chiefs from putting together explosive plays. Kansas City ranks sixth in the league in pass plays of 20 yards or more (48) and first in pass plays of 40-plus yards (15). The Patriots have allowed the second-fewest plays over 40 yards (3) and the fourth-fewest over 20 (26) in the passing game this season.
But, aside from the matchups and Brady vs. Mahomes story lines, there is a little extra oomph given to this game this weekend due to the playoff implications around the AFC. Particularly with the pair of CBS national games.
“It’s a big day of football. On our doubleheader day, Baltimore and Buffalo early, that is a fantastic matchup. If Baltimore wins that game, my goodness, that will fold right into our double header game with Kansas City and New England. The Patriots would be in a position where they can’t afford to lose, because if they come up short, they will find themselves two games back of the Ravens with three games to play for the one seed,” said Nantz.
“However, there are some tricky things at play there too, if Buffalo wins in the early game,” Nantz continued. “Then you have the Patriots needing to hold off the Bills in the division. Whoever put together the schedule, and I know there’s a computer that spits out 300 different versions of it, they absolutely nailed it with December 8th. It is one of the great schedule weekends in a long time. It is going to feel like a playoff day.”
The Patriots and Chiefs are set for kickoff from Foxboro at 4:25 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS with Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson on the call. Prior to that, the Bills and Ravens will meet at New Era Field in Buffalo at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time.