Patriots, Chiefs: Three Players to Watch AFC Divisional Playoff

Steve Balestrieri
January 16, 2016 at 11:07 am ET

The Patriots take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the 2015 NFL Playoffs at Foxboro today at 4:30 p.m. The winner will move on the AFC Championship Game next week; the loser goes home. There’s no more playing it safe with injuries and guys banged up. It’s all hands on deck and if you can get out there and contribute, you’re playing.

The Patriots injury list is as long as it has ever been after coming OFF of a bye week and there are still plenty of questions to be answered on who plays and who doesn’t. The injury list from Friday contains 12 questionable players include Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Danny Amendola, Jonathan Freeny, Nate Ebner, Scott Chandler, La Adrian Waddle and Justin Coleman.

The Chiefs come in with injury concerns of their own with Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Jeremy Maclin, Spencer Ware and Albert Wilson listed as questionable. KC has run off 11 straight wins heading into this week in stark contrast to the Patriots having lost their last two and four of their last six.

Matchups are always a prime concern regardless of the opponent and this week’s will ultimately decide whether the Patriots move on next week. And all of our Patriots players are on the questionable list. Which is telling in itself.

Here are our three players to watch from a Patriots perspective this week.

Julian Edelman: The Patriots and Tom Brady’s most trusted wide receiver hasn’t played since early in Week 9 against the Giants when he suffered a broken bone in his foot. Not surprisingly with Edelman in the lineup, the Patriots were 9-0; without him they were 3-4 and their third down conversions went from 50 percent to around 33 down the stretch.

He and a healthy Amendola keeps the Patriots short passing game going and the chains moving. Edelman is particularly effective at getting open at the line of scrimmage and allowing Brady to get the ball out quickly which helps an offensive line that is battered, bruised and has been leaky down the stretch.

Edelman is going against a secondary that is very good but tends to give a cushion and then breaks on the ball. That would not be a recipe for success against he and Brady. How effective he is today will go a long way in deciding this one.

No one is tougher than Edelman. He’s battle tested, his Super Bowl heroics in the 4th quarter were instrumental in getting New England, ring #4. As to his being rusty? Some food for thought. Edelman didn’t play at all in the preseason and was off from the SB until the opener against Pittsburgh. His totals against the Steelers in Week 1? Very Edelman-like numbers with 11 catches for 97 yards. Anything resembling that today is a great sign for New England.

Dont’a Hightower/Jamie Collins: The Patriots linebackers haven’t been on the field much together down the stretch but they really need them today. Hightower is a beast inside in the running game and when he’s healthy, he flies up in the gaps and stuffs runners at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Kansas City has a potent running game with Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware and QB Alex Smith. They operate nearly a 50/50 balance in offense between running and passing and average 127.8 yards per game on the ground. They need the running game effective to make their own short passing game effective.

If Hightower is close to his normal self, he’ll be a big factor in filling in those gaps. A look at the rush defense when he isn’t in there shows that teams have been able to run at the front seven, particularly between the tackles and if KC does that today they’ll be in good shape for an upset.

Collins will probably be tasked with spying on Smith today. He’s adept at making big plays with his feet and bust a long run from the pocket or roll out and hit one of his receivers on the fly. Collins is the Pats most athletic linebacker and with Maclin either out or limited, Smith will be forced to take on a bigger role with the offense. How effective he is will depend on the day Collins has trying to keep him contained.

Rob Gronkowski: What a week it was in Foxboro; between the on-going saga of Chandler Jones and the black eye of Belichick and the possible return of Edelman, the Patriots couldn’t afford any more distractions right? Well Gronkowski missed the last two practices with what was listed as “knee/back” issues.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reported he went to the hospital for injections in his knee while Ian Rapopport of NFL Network said that it wasn’t the case. Jeff Howe reported on Friday that “if” Gronk plays he’ll be far less than 100 percent.

We’ll see, the Patriots need Gronkowski threatening the middle of the field and stretching the seams, something they haven’t been able to do in recent weeks. That opens up some real estate underneath for guys like Edelman, Amendola and LaFell to operate in with Brady.

The feeling here is not only will Gronk play but play well. Normally when a player is hurt the team keeps them around the facility for treatment. Gronkowski was spotted last week in Florida relaxing poolside which unless he reinjured it this week, tells me that his knee isn’t as bad as some are making it out to be. We’ll know for sure at 4:30 p.m.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll have the latest on breaking news for the Patriots as well as a complete breakdown of the game from Saturday.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com

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