Hannable: Patriots’ X-factor vs. Chiefs will be player who didn’t even play in first meeting


FOXBORO — The Patriots will be going up against the best offense in the entire NFL Sunday night in the AFC championship when they take on the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

Kansas City averaged 35.3 points per game in the regular season and it has had its way against the Patriots over the last two seasons. In the two games between the teams, the Chiefs have scored 82 points — 42 in the meeting last year and then 40 in Week 6 this year.

With Kareem Hunt no longer in the picture, it’s mostly about defending Patrick Mahomes and the passing game, led by tight end Travis Kelce and wide reciever Tyreek Hill. In the two games, the Patriots have held Kelce to 10 catches for 101 yards, but it’s been a different story with Hill. The speedy receiver has 14 catches for 275 yards four touchdowns.

Clearly, the Patriots defense has done well with covering Kelce (which has mostly been Patrick Chung), but really had an issue with Hill. Given just how fast he is, it’s been no one player on him. In the Week 6 meeting it was a few players, including Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and Eric Rowe with help from all three safeties.

“There were times when we played them the first time where I felt like us in the secondary didn’t do a good job of just knowing where he was, knowing how he could hurt us, whether it’s an over route or deep route or whatever it was," McCourty said. "I think going this week, just having an awareness of where he’s at at all times.”

In order for the Patriots to beat the Chiefs, they are going to need to keep Hill in check. Fortunately, for them they have a much different defense than when they allowed him to have seven catches on 12 targets for 142 yards and three touchdowns in the game earlier in the year.

Rowe is now on injured reserve, while Jones is no longer really part of the defense and is exclusively a special teams player. The biggest change has been the emergence of rookie J.C. Jackson, who has turned into the Patriots’ No. 2 cornerback behind Stephon Gilmore. The Maryland product allowed a 42.0 passing rating in coverage this year, according to Pro Football Focus.

But, Jackson wasn’t even active the last time the two teams met. He was a healthy scratch.

The undrafted rookie could be a big difference, as he may be the Patriots’ best corner when it comes to matching up with Hill. There’s no way the Patriots would ever have Jackson on Hill 1-on-1, but certainly would with safety help. 

Jackson’s strength goes head-to-head with the strength of the Kansas City offense. Mahomes has thrown 94 deep passes, which are more than any other quarterback, while the Patriots have the lowest deep completion percentage (24.2 percent) in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. Jackson has been a big reason why.

“I would say his ball skills,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said of Jackson. “Being confident enough to turn around and place the ball and catch it. That is what it comes down to. He always talks about how he was really an All-American receiver, that is what he should be playing. His ability to be comfortable, turning around, looking for the ball, placing the ball, going up and catch it really helps him.” 

In the first meeting this year, Gilmore primarily was on Sammy Watkins. Watkins didn’t play in a game after suffering a foot injury in late November until last week’s game against the Colts where he played 81 of their 87 offensive snaps and finished with six receptions for 62 yards. We wouldn’t be surprised if Gilmore takes Watkins away again, and then the Patriots take their chances with Jackson and help on Hill.

It’s also worth noting the Patriots won’t need to worry about Hunt burning them out of the backfield (10 catches, 203 yards in last two meetings), so they can focus more on Kelce and Hill. If lesser options like Chris Conley or Damien Williams beat them in the passing game then so be it. The Patriots just do not want to lose with either Kelce or Hill having big games.

While everyone will be looking to the Week 6 meeting for a glimpse as to what to expect, it can almost be thrown out the window because the Patriots defense is so different than it was then — especially now having Jackson so involved.