The New England Patriots kick-off the 2017 NFL season on Thursday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. They begin the defense of their Super Bowl 51 Championship in prime-time on Thursday night with quarterback Tom Brady back for his fifteenth opening day start in New England.
The Patriots are undefeated when playing in the NFL Thursday Kickoff game as the defending Super Bowl Champion and will open at home with the unveiling of their fifth Super Bowl banner. The game will be broadcast nationally on NBC and will subject the nation to Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. In addition, the game will be broadcast on the Westwood One radio network with Kevin Harlan and Boomer Esiason calling the game.
Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM, The Sports Hub, will have the game available on the radio. The Patriots Radio Network’s 40 stations will feature broadcasters Bob Socci and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak.
Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key matchups to watch on Thursday that will determine if the Patriots win for the fifth straight time in their first game in defense of their Super Bowl championship or if the Chiefs pull off the upset.
Marcus Peters has blossomed into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in just a few years. At just 24 years-old, his big play ability at the cornerback position is unparalleled in the league right now. Although he has been burned on occasion, his gambling style resulted in six interceptions last season.
Peters will be likely seeing a lot of new wide receiver Brandin Cooks on Thursday night. Cooks is young, has blazing speed, and polished route-running. Cooks gives the Patriots the true number one wide receiver they have lacked since Randy Moss and his big mouth shot his way out of Foxboro.
With safeties Ron Parker and Eric Berry there to assist Peters on vertical routes, he will use his size (six-feet and 210 pounds) to get physical at the line of scrimmage with Cooks. The problem the Chiefs (and the rest of the NFL) will have with Cooks is that he can run underneath routes and then push it upfield for a big gain after making the short reception.
If the Patriots can get Cooks loose for a few big plays, they should be able to put up a lot of points in their first showcasing of their new-look offense. If Peters can lock-up and contain Cooks and make a big play with an interception, the Chiefs could stay in the game and keep the scoring down.
KC Safeties Eric Berry and Ron Parker vs NE Tight End Rob Gronkowski
Of course, even if the Chiefs bottle-up Brandin Cooks the Patriots still have Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Phillip Dorsett, James White, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Dwayne Allen and some other guy who plays tight end. That “other guy” is Rob Gronkowski, simply the best tight end in the NFL.
Gronkowski is coming off back surgery after missing a big chunk of 2016. First slowed by a hamstring injury in training camp and for the first few games of the season, he was having a career best year, averaging almost 100 yards receiving per game and over 20 yards per reception.
While Martellus Bennett stepped up ably for the injured Gronkowski, he was nowhere near the threat that Gronk was in the New England offense. Gronkowski’s presence running full speed through the secondary put immense pressure on the linebackers and safeties trying to cover the imposing tight end.
Eric Berry is an All-Pro safety and is physical but he gives up so much size to Gronkowski that he almost has no chance in single coverage. Kansas City will have a number of linebackers covering Gronk near the line of scrimmage but Berry and Ron Parker will have responsibility for him in coverage when he gets downfield.
Parker and Barry are two of the best safeties in the NFL right now. However, Gronkowski with his size, athletic ability and route running concepts is a load for any defense. The best way to slow Gronkowski is to pressure Brady and prevent him having time to find his biggest target downfield.
NE Tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon vs KC Edge Rushers Justin Houston and Dee Ford
For Kansas City, their biggest win in the past three seasons was over the Patriots in Week Four of the 2014 season. That game led to the famous Bill Belichick line of “we’re onto Cincinnati”. That season culminated in a Super Bowl championship for the Patriots.
The key to that victory in 2014 by the Chiefs was their ability to pressure Quarterback Tom Brady. Teams have shown the ability to pressure Brady occasionally but it is a risky proposition as he is one of the best quarterbacks when facing blitzes and pressure.
The caveat is that the teams who can consistently create pressure without blitzing are the ones who are able to slow the Patriots offense. Kansas City has a terrific pair of outside pass-rushers in Justin Houston and Dee Ford. That duo generates a lot of pressure from the edge and puts more pressure on the interior pass-lockers. Giving Brady a pocket to step up into.
For New England, they need a healthy Nate Solder at left tackle and Marcus Cannon at the top of his game at right tackle to handle the pressure of Houston and Ford. Cannon blossomed into one of the best right tackles in the NFL last season earning second-team All-Pro status.
Solder has been injured much of training camp and the Patriots have not seen a lot of him on the field so far. They need to hope that he is at full speed on Thursday night in order to protect the blind side of Tom Brady.
NE Cornerback Malcolm Butler vs KC Wide Receiver Tyreek Hill
The New England offense may need to put up a lot of points against Kansas City as they have two of the most explosive weapons in the NFL. Last season, fifth-round draft pick Tyreek Hill blossomed into one of the most dangerous players with the ball in his hands in the league.
Whether returning punts, running the jet sweep, or turning a quick slant into a huge scoring play, Hill was electrifying in his first season in Kansas City in 2016. He averaged over 11 yards per rush and had 61 receptions for 593 yards.
Hill is just 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds but lightning-quick with breakaway speed. Although New England will mix their coverages and mix man-to-man with zone concepts, expect to see a lot of cornerback Malcolm Butler matched up with Hill.
Butler has been the number one cornerback for the Patriots the last two seasons and although New England brought in Stephon Gilmore as their top corner, Butler is more likely to match up with Hill due to his size, quickness, and agility.
If Hill is able to get free for a number of big plays with chunk yardage it will make it very difficult for New England to contain the Kansas City offensive attack. However, if Butler has a shutdown game across from Hill it would be a big boost to the New England defense.
NE Secondary vs KC Tight End Travis Kelce
Of course, even if New England is able to slow down Tyreek Hill, they still have to try and contain the second best tight end in the NFL. Last season Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce established himself as a receiving threat and almost on the same level as Rob Gronkowski.
At six-foot-five and 255 pounds, Kelce is an athletic freak. He tore up opposing defenses with 85 receptions for 1,125 yards. Like Gronk, he overpowers safeties and runs away from linebackers.
For the Patriots they will likely try a number of different combinations to slow down Kelce. Look for top cornerback Stephon Gilmore to cover the Chiefs’ top receiving target and use his aggressiveness within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage, long arms and make-up speed to try and keep him in check.
New England will also use some combination of safety Patrick Chung and safety Devin McCourty to try and slow the Chiefs’ top receiver. Even cornerback Eric Rowe, with his size and long arms, will get a shot to try and cover Kelce.