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New England Patriots-Kansas City Chiefs: Keys to game and who will win

By Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange   |   Updated Jan. 15, 2016 at 8:27 AM
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New England Patriots (12-4)-Kansas City Chiefs (12-5): AFC divisional playoff preview

Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, at Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. - TV: CBS

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*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson

*Keys to the game: Kansas City brings its 11-game winning streak and a formula for winning in any environment to New England. The Chiefs led the league in turnover margin and can make the argument their front seven is the best in the NFL, with the ability to harass Patriots QB Tom Brady from multiple angles and speed in the middle of the field -- in the form of FS Eric Berry and ILB Derrick Johnson -- to track Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski.

There are a few big chips that would work against the Chiefs -- the offense is not built for a high-scoring game and their best playmaker, WR Jeremy Maclin, has what coach Andy Reid described as a "mild" high ankle sprain. QB Alex Smith's mobility should aid the Chiefs' offense, especially if power back Spencer Ware (ankle) is limited, but the Chiefs must take a few chances down the field to keep the Patriots guessing.

That said, the Chiefs are finding great success out of a three-tight end set that adds blocking beef in the read-option game and serves to isolate TE Travis Kelce as a receiver.

Attrition is a factor for the Patriots, too, especially on the offensive line and a running back, where the toll of injuries has had an impact for most of the second half of the season. Brady gets his favorite target, WR Julian Edelman, back from a foot injury for the first time since Nov. 15 and won't be shy about steering the ball toward risk-taking rookie CB Marcus Peters. While he has eight interceptions and made the Pro Bowl, Peters gave up two big plays at Houston last week and has allowed seven touchdown passes.

Tempo and four-wide receiver spread sets have been effective tools for Brady and the offense against strong 3-4 defenses this season, and without a true lead back to control the clock, they'll likely go for the upper hand by dictating the Chiefs use nickel personnel.

*Matchup to watch - Patriots RT Marcus Cannon vs. Chiefs LB Justin Houston: Sebastian Vollmer is expected to return and start at left tackle. Cannon's pass protection is not his strength and Houston's speed gives him a major advantage. However, Houston was shaky last week at Houston in his first game back from a knee injury and playing with a bulky brace.

*Player spotlight - Chiefs C Mitch Morse: The starter missed last week's game with a concussion and remained in the head injury protocol at midweek. If he can't go, the Chiefs confess there are depth and tempo concerns against the Patriots' solid three-DT rotation inside.

*Fast facts: This is Smith's fifth playoff start and Brady's 30th. ... The Chiefs last won in Foxborough in 1990. ... The Patriots were 9-0 with Edelman during the regular season, 3-4 without him. ... Reid was coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in a Super Bowl XXXIX loss to Bill Belichick and the Patriots in 2005. ... A win sends the Patriots to the conference championship game for the fifth consecutive season. Only the Raiders (1973-77) have accomplished that feat.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

Short of a perfect game by the Chiefs' well-respected defense, Kansas City needs big plays and probably a special teams break or two to escape for a possible home game in the AFC title game. Rested and prepared, the Patriots stay true to their reputation with a late drive to advance.

*Our pick: Patriots 23-20.

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