Red-hot Chiefs face Patriots team that lost four of last six
Taking away one of Tom Brady's favorite targets presented further damage to a New England Patriots offense that has been dealing with injuries to its line for most of the season.
Julian Edelman should be back, but there's growing concern about how effective Rob Gronkowski will be -- if he plays at all.
Even if all his weapons are at his disposal, Brady could have trouble evading Kansas City's pass rush as New England looks to advance to its fifth straight AFC championship game and snap the Chiefs' 11-game winning streak in Saturday's divisional playoff game in Foxborough.
Edelman has missed the last seven games because of a broken foot suffered against the New York Giants on Nov. 15. He caught seven touchdowns as New England averaged 33.6 points in the nine he played before the Patriots averaged 23.1 without him.
Though Edelman is expected to play Saturday, Gronkowski's status is suddenly murkier. He missed practice Tuesday because of a knee injury suffered Nov. 29, was limited Wednesday and sat out Thursday's final workout before the game. Reports indicated he had treatment at a local hospital that included an injection in his knee.
Bill Belichick's team dropped four of its final six after winning its first 10 and managed just 196 total yards -- its fewest since 2010 -- in a 20-10 loss at Miami in the regular-season finale.
"I think the more dependable, consistent players that are out there, the better our offense is going to be. (Edelman's) been one of them for as long as he's been here," Brady said. "Depending on what he can do we'll try to find ways to integrate him.
"Whoever's out there, we're going to have to have confidence in. There's no next week, so we're going to have to do everything you can do to be out on the field and help us win."
That includes lineman Sebastian Vollmer, who sat out against the Dolphins after being carted off the field with a leg injury in an overtime loss to the New York Jets on Dec. 27.
Brady has been sacked 38 times this season -- the third most of his career -- behind a line that has been hurting for a good portion of the season. That may not bode well against the Chiefs (12-5), who finished fourth in the league in sacks with 47 -- two behind New England, which ranked second.
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Kansas City has overcome a 1-5 start behind a defense that has allowed an average of 296.2 yards during the winning streak and forced five turnovers in last week's 30-0 rout of Houston in the wild-card round that ended a 22-year drought without a playoff win.
The Chiefs forced 29 turnovers in the regular season compared with 13 all of last year, which included six interceptions. Rookie Marcus Peters tied for the league lead with eight this year and had another in the wild-card game.
"Any time you can get to the quarterback and put pressure on him, or make him uncomfortable in the pocket, you can create turnovers," linebacker Justin Houston said. "Every week that's our plan, that's our goal: Dominate every snap."
The Patriots haven't lost three in a row since a four-game skid in 2002, but the Chiefs aren't going into this matchup believing New England is any less dangerous just because it's going through a bit of a slump.
Brady's 102.2 passer rating and 36 touchdown passes were his best marks in four seasons and came despite Gronkowski (one game), Danny Amendola (two) and Edelman all missing time.
"Bill's a friend, he's a heck of a football coach. Tom Brady is unbelievable. And the job they've done there, the accomplishments they've had, they've made history," coach Andy Reid said. "We look forward to the challenge of playing them. That's what this is all about."
The Chiefs also have some potentially serious injury issues. Leading receiver Jeremy Maclin left the wild-card game with a high-ankle sprain and didn't practice until doing so in a limited fashion Thursday. Star pass rushers Houston and Tamba Hali sat out Thursday's drills, as has been customary this season to provide extra rest.
Reid called Maclin and Houston game-time decisions.
Alex Smith relied heavily on Travis Kelce, who finished with eight catches for 128 yards. He also praised the efforts of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, who have helped make up for Jamaal Charles' absence.
Ware finished with 67 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Texans. He's dealing with a sprained ankle but is expected to be ready by Saturday.
"Ultimately, it comes down to those two guys," Smith said. "Obviously, I think everybody knew it was a big deal when Jamaal went down and rightfully so. (They're) making the plays in the game and then building off of that, getting the confidence that you know you can do it at this level."
The Chiefs' offense ranked 27th with an average of 331.2 yards per game, but it looked much better in a 41-14 win over the Patriots in last year's meeting -- the second-worst loss of the Belichick era. New England doesn't anticipate that happening again, especially since it appears Chandler Jones should be ready to go.
Jones, who ranked fifth in the league with 12 1/2 sacks, was hospitalized Sunday under mysterious circumstances. As more evidence was revealed, he apologized to his teammates and the New England fans on Thursday for "a pretty stupid mistake" that sent him, shirtless and disoriented, to a local police station. An officer who went to Jones' house to retrieve the player's keys commented on the smell of marijuana.
With that possible distraction and having had nearly two weeks off, it appears the Patriots are ready to get on the field and find a way to end the Chiefs' winning streak.
"The fact that they haven't lost in so long, it's not like you can go to a game and say, 'This is how this team defeated them.' That just doesn't exist," Belichick said. "So we've got to figure out a way."
This will be the first postseason meeting between the clubs. The Chiefs have lost all five meetings in New England since last winning there in 1990.