4 key battles that could decide Saturday's NFL divisional games

There are two big games up for decision tonight.

Kansas City Chiefs @ New England Patriots

Saturday, 9.35pm

Patrick Chung v Travis Kelce

Lions Patriots Football Patrick Chung breaks up yet another pass. Source: Steven Senne/AP/Press Association Images

THE KANSAS CITY Chiefs have had a remarkable season, losing five straight before winning 11 games in a row since losing their best offensive weapon, Jamaal Charles, to Injured Reserve.

On Saturday, however, they face their toughest test to date when they travel to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots and, while the defending Super Bowl Champions will obviously have to stop the Chiefs’ run game, Kansas City have discovered a passing offence this season in the shape of Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce.

However, with Maclin limited at best (he’s day-to-day at time of writing following an injury picked up against the Texans), tight end Kelce will be the Chiefs’ primary target in the passing game today. The last time the New England Patriots faced an elite tight end — with apologies to Charles Clay  of the Buffalo Bills — was week nine when they came up against Washington’s Jordan Reed.

On that day Reed — who averaged 6.4 catches per game over the course of the season — was completely shut down by Patrick Chung, catching just one of five passes (for nine yards) thrown his way when covered by the Patriots strong safety.

Reed did pick up a touchdown with 29 seconds left in the game — with his team already down by 24 points — but rookie safety Jordan Richards was covering him at that stage. Chung is an altogether different beast and an example of what makes him so good against tight ends can be seen on this third down play early in the game.

Source: NFL

Even if Reed (red) makes the catch, Chung’s (blue) coverage is such that he has no chance to get past the first down marker anyway, forcing Washington to punt. If he can cover Kelce — whose skills as a pass catcher are arguably inferior to Reed’s — in a similar fashion today, it will be very difficult for Kansas City to move the ball.

Source: NFL Gamepass

Tom Brady v Turnovers

Patriots Chiefs Football Tom Brady will need to be close to his best to beat the Chiefs. Source: Colin E. Braley/AP/Press Association Images

Let’s face it, if this game turns into a shoot-out, there’s only going to be one winner and that’s the home team. In order to advance to the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs are going to have to force turnovers like they did last week and like they did the last time these two sides faced off when Tom Brady threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in a 41-14 defeat.

A lot of what happened last weekend was on Brian Hoyer, who made a ridiculous number of mental errors for a professional quarterback, but the pressure forced by the Chiefs defence — the likes of Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey — can cause chaos for an offensive line.

Source: NFL

Take a look at this play from last week where Bailey (blue) forces a fumble by bull-rushing left tackle Chris Clark (red) into his own quarterback, allowing Poe (yellow) to recover the football.

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However, Brady led the league in the regular season with an interception rate of just 1.1% and only two fumbles lost so it’s going to be no easy task to force the kind of turnovers that Kansas City need.

So who’ll win the game?

Obviously, those are just two of the battles that will decide tonight’s early game and I haven’t even typed the names Marcus Peters, Julian Edelman, Spencer Ware or Rob Gronkowski.

The Patriots go into the match-up as 5-point favourites, low considering they’re at home, the defending Super Bowl champions and aiming to reach their fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game which would draw them level with the Oakland Raiders for the most in NFL history.

Verdict: Tom Brady has never lost at home against the Chiefs, expect that statistic to remain valid after tonight’s game. Patriots by 5+.

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

Sunday, 1.15am

Eddie Lacy v Arizona run defence

Packers Cardinals Football Eddie Lacy will need to find the gaps tonight. Source: Jeff Haynes

Only the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers gave up less yards on the ground to opposing running backs this season than the Arizona Cardinals’ 1,460 which worked out at 91 yards per game.

In their week 16 meeting at the end of December — which Arizona won by 30 points — the Packers managed 101 yards on the ground, 60 of which came from Eddie Lacy but almost half of his total came on one run.

Indeed, take that one 25-yard run mid-way through the third quarter away and the running back averages just 3.1 yards per carry in the game. However, it’s a showcase of what can work for the Packers in the early hours of Sunday morning. By this stage, the Packers were in a 31-0 hole so were experimenting with different packages and formations.

Using two tight ends, they load the right side of the defensive line with Josh Sitton (71), Don Barclay (67) and Josh Walker (79) in particular making key blocks for Lacy. It also helped that free safety Tony Jefferson (22) takes a terrible angle to the ball for the Cardinals.

Source: NFL

However, they tried something similar on the very next play and look how well it worked out for them.

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Lacy ran for 63 yards and a touchdown last week against Washington in one of his best games of the season but he’s going to have to produce an even better performance this week if the Packers are to have any hope.

Patrick Peterson v Aaron Rodgers

Packers Cardinals Football Patrick Peterson breaks up another pass. Source: Rick Scuteri/AP/Press Association Images

With Devante Adams more than likely out of the game, the Packers will be relying heavily on Randall Cobb and James Jones in the passing game. Green Bay were quite innovative with Cobb against Washington, lining him up in the backfield, in the slot and out wide so — while Peterson stuck to his own side of the field when the two met in December — it’s very likely he’ll follow Cobb around tonight as the Packers man was targeted a team high 129 times during the regular season.

Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL with Pro Football Focus ranking him number one in both snaps per receptions allowed (19.5) and yards given up per snap in coverage (0.58). Even without Tyrann Mathieu to help over the past few weeks, the five-time Pro Bowler has been virtually impossible to throw on this season.

Peterson was only targeted twice by Aaron Rodgers when the sides met last month, giving up zero receptions, and if the Packers are going to make a game of it this time around, the Green Bay quarterback is going to have to take more risks.

The first time he was targeted in that game, the cornerback (blue) is one-on-one on Devante Adams (red) when the receiver makes a heads up move as Rodgers scrambles around with the offensive line collapsing around him.

Source: NFL

But, even though he actually slips on the play, Peterson still has the speed to get back to his receiver in time to ensure he gets his left arm between Adams’ hands — not to mention his torso into contact — resulting in a catch out of bounds.

Source: NFL

So who’ll win the game?

Again, these are just a couple of the battles that will help decide this game and Carson Palmer, the Cardinals quarterback, is likely to have a massive impact also.

Perhaps because they beat the same opposition in the same venue by 30 points less than a month ago, or perhaps because they’re the better team overall, the Cardinals are 7-point favourites.

Verdict: You can’t ignore the outcome of the last meeting between these two and Green Bay’s performance against Washington says more about the state of the NFC East than it does the Packers. By any metric, there can only be one winner. Cardinals by 7+.

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Steve O'Rourke

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