The last time the New England Patriots played the Kansas City Chiefs, writers from across the country were quick to eulogize the future Super Bowl champions after a humbling 41-14 loss in Week 4 of the 2014 season.
The Patriots have played 31 games since then, and the Chiefs have played 30 games. These are two different teams from those that took the field at Arrowhead Stadium all that time ago, but the Patriots would be foolish to ignore the lessons they could learn from their previous meeting with the Chiefs.
"It was a pretty dominant performance by Kansas City, so I'm sure that there are things from that game that they may try to do or that they may feel like they can still do or want to do," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of the last meeting between the Patriots and Chiefs. "We'll definitely have to take that into consideration."
Many of the key players in that game are still the same.
Alex Smith is still the quarterback, and is still playing the same role of game manager that gave the Patriots fits last year. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes for a second straight year, and nearly matched his 2014 touchdown-interception ratio (18-6 in 2014; 20-7 in 2015). He completed 76.9 percent of his throws against the Patriots, collecting three touchdowns and a 144.4 passer rating in the process.
Travis Kelce is still the tight end, and is still as close to a Rob Gronkowski clone as there is in the NFL at 6'5" and 260 pounds, with a similarly impressive wingspan/catch radius and similar ability to bulldoze defenders when he has the ball after the catch. Kelce had a dominant eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots last year.
Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are still the star outside linebackers. The two combined for three sacks against the Patriots in Week 4 of 2014, and they're up to their old tricks again in 2015. Houston and Hali ranked second and ninth, respectively, among 3-4 outside linebackers in Pro Football Focus' pass-rushing productivity metric.
Both men are nursing injuries headed into the divisional round, but if either or both are able to compete, the Patriots pass protection is going to have to be aware of their whereabouts at all times.
More importantly than all that, the schemes are still largely the same as the ones that were implemented against the Patriots more than a year ago; Bob Sutton is still the defensive coordinator, Doug Pederson is still the offensive coordinator, Andy Reid is still the head coach.
That being said, there are more than a few key differences.
|Chiefs running game|
For one, the Chiefs have been without running back Jamaal Charles, who tore his ACL in Week 5 of this season. A year-plus one week earlier against the Patriots, he finished the night with 18 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown along with three receptions for 16 yards and two more scores. But the Chiefs have gotten by with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware carrying a bulk of the workload instead, and their offense still finished the year ranked sixth in rushing.
The Chiefs will also be without Dwayne Bowe, their No. 1 wide receiver in 2014, who left to join the Cleveland Browns as a free agent. They could also be without Jeremy Maclin, the receiver the Chiefs signed to replace Bowe this offseason, as Maclin suffered a high ankle sprain in the Chiefs' playoff victory over the Houston Texans.
For the Patriots, a lot has changed, but a few things have come full circle.
For starters, the Patriots offensive line has gone from a convoluted mess in the first four weeks of the 2014 season to a stabilized unit during their Super Bowl run and back to being a weakness in time for the two teams to face off once again.
The Patriots run defense was much maligned in the first four games of the 2014 season, yielding 519 yards (129.8 yards per game) and 4.4 yards per attempt to start the season. Their up-and-down run defense has largely been attributable to the absence and presence of linebacker Dont'a Hightower, but in their final six games of the 2015 season, the Patriots allowed 692 rushing yards (115.3) and 4.1 yards per attempt.
The secondary and the pass rush, however, have changed for the better. The Patriots pass defense is playing even better now than the unit that featured Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback a year ago. It's thanks in large part to a pass rush that finished with 49 sacks, the most ever by a Belichick defense with the Patriots.
So, what does it all mean? A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same.
"There have been 25 games played since then," Belichick said. "It's definitely a game to look at, but there are a couple thousand plays on either side of the ball. I think you look at it, there are things we can take from it, [but] there are some things that I'd say are somewhat outdated just based on the players and the personnel. So it has relevance. We're certainly going to have to prepare and coach the team a lot better than we did that night."
In the process of preparing, though, they'll have to account for a lot of the things that gave them trouble that Monday night against the Chiefs.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained via team news release.