Yellow caution flags should flutter over Gillette Stadium Saturday when the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs kick off their AFC divisional playoff game. Why worry? Let us count the reasons.
The Chiefs, winners of 11 consecutive games, are the hottest team in pro football. They launched their postseason run last weekend with a 30-0 rout of Houston, a convincing performance by the seventh-best defense in the NFL.
The Patriots, losers of four of their last six games, are one of the coolest teams in the playoffs, and that’s not a compliment. After a 10-0 start that had Pats fans dreaming of an undefeated season and another Super Bowl title, Bill Belichick’s boys stumbled badly in the last month-and-a-half. They slipped from the being the top team in the AFC with home-field advantage through the conference championship to the second-seeded team behind Denver.
Injuries, a significant factor in New England’s slump, continue to plague the team. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, unstoppable in the first 10 games, is nursing knee and back problems and is listed as questionable for the Chiefs. After Tom Brady, Gronk is the most important player on the Patriots offense. He will play Saturday. These are the playoffs after all. The question is how effective he will be.
Julian Edelman (foot), Danny Amendola (knee), Sebastian Vollmer (ankle-abdomen-toe), Don’t’a Hightower (knee), Rob Ninkovich (shin) and Chandler Jones (abdomen-toe) are also on the questionable list. Even if they all play, there’s no guarantee they will play at the level they were at before injuries hit them. You don’t miss weeks of action with a broken foot, as Edelman has, without acquiring some rust. That said, the return of injured Patriots, even if they are not 100 percent, can only help a team that was desperate for healthy bodies in the last month of the regular season.
Off-field distractions provided media fodder this week. Jones, the defensive end, showed up at the back door of the Foxboro Police Department early Sunday shirtless and behaving strangely. He was subsequently treated at Norwood Hospital for a substance he put into his body. The Boston Globe reported this week that it was synthetic marijuana. ESPN.com reported that the substance was not illegal. Jones apologized for on Thursday for a “pretty stupid mistake.” Belichick would not say whether the incident would affect Jones’s playing time against the Chiefs, but fans should look for No. 95 on the field. These are the playoffs after all.
Belichick himself was a brief sideshow when he showed up for a press conference on Tuesday with black eye. He declined to explain. No surprise there.
Despite the injuries, the stupid mistake and the black eye, the Patriots are favored. Home field advantage, Brady and kicker Stephen Goskowski should be just enough to make the odds makers look like prophets.