It's finally time. The wait is over. Football is back.
Coaches always say, "the next game is the most important one," and when it comes to looking at the big picture, that's always the case because that's what anyone can control.
But for the Kansas City Chiefs, the game Thursday night against the New England Patriots is important not *only *because it's the "next one," but also because of who they're playing.
For the last 17 years under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have been the model of success in the NFL.
They've won more than 200 regular season games during that time, captured the AFC East title in 13 of the last 14 seasons and won five Super Bowls.
Therefore, it's fair to say the road to the Super Bowl and the AFC goes through Foxboro.
With the Chiefs having high expectations for this season, the opportunity to walk down that road lets them see exactly where they stand.
In this 1,600-meter race that is an NFL season, the Chiefs' first 100 will show them exactly how far they've come, or how far they still need to go.
Here are five things to watch Thursday night:
- Justin Houston doing his thing
It has been the Chiefs' defensive storyline of the year since he first walked onto the field at minicamp, where the brace-less Justin Houston started running around unaffected by a knee injury that lingered and cost him most of the last two years.
Without a healthy Houston, the Chiefs were still a top 10 NFL defense—ranking seventh in the league in scoring last year at 19.6 points per game.
But with Houston, whose pass-rushing ability is obvious and well known, and a run-stopping and edge-setting ability that is often overlooked, the defense can take another step forward.
When the Chiefs and Patriots faced each other in the playoffs two years ago, when the Chiefs fell, 27-20, Houston played only eight snaps in the game as he tried to play through a knee injury.
That won't be the case this time around.
But the last time a healthy-Houston was on the field against the Patriots was in 2014, when the Chiefs won on Monday Night Football, 41-14, and Houston had seven tackles, two sacks and a couple of quarterback hits.
- The Chiefs' nickelback situation
With the news coming out earlier in the week that starting Chiefs' cornerback Steven Nelson was placed on Injured Reserve with a "core muscle injury," the focus went straight to a defensive backfield that will have to answer the call Thursday night if the Chiefs are going to have a chance in the game.
It was already a tall task, but it's now magnified when the player who played more snaps at cornerback than anyone else on the roster last year, suddenly isn't available.
If there's one thing we know about the Patriots, particularly offensively, it's that they know how to find what they feel is an advantage and go after it.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said they have a few options to replace Nelson at the nickelback spot (inside) when they move out of their base defense, and it's a spot that could find itself matched up on receiver Brandin Cooks, who went over to the Patriots this offseason in a trade with the New Orleans Saints.
Cooks has caught more than 160 passes for 2,300 yards receiving with 17 touchdowns over the last two years.
Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady has always been able to find and get production from any of the receivers out on the field with him, but a talent like Cooks is one to keep an eye on Thursday night.
- Can the Chiefs get interior pressure?
For as ridiculous as Brady's numbers are over the last two years, completing 66 percent of his passes for almost 300 yards per game with 64 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, the truth is he's pretty quick to get rid of the ball.
Brady isn't hanging in the pocket with the ball in his hands for very long.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brady's average "time to throw" last year was 2.49 seconds, which was seventh-fastest in the league for starting quarterbacks.
That ability to get the ball out quick, but still have gaudy numbers generally means Brady is getting it to the right guy at the right time, and then letting those guys make plays.
Overall, the Patriots were third in the NFL last year in total yards after the catch with 2,334.
"It's about playing within the game," defensive lineman Chris Jones said of Brady's affinity for the quick release. "We have a game plan for it and we've just got to trust the process. We know coach [Reid] and (defensive coordinator) Bob [Sutton] have a plan and we just have to believe in that."
Besides Jones, one of the other players to watch who could disrupt things up the middle is veteran free agent signee Bennie Logan, who has been a handful for opposing interior offensive lines.
It's easy for quarterbacks to manipulate the pocket and step up with pressure coming off the edge, it's a whole different animal if that pressure is right in your face.
- Will the Chiefs get the ground game going?
The last time these two teams met in that playoff game two years ago, the Chiefs were without two starting offensive lineman in center Mitch Morse, and left guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.
They'll play Thursday night against a Patriots' defense that's known for its' ability to shut down an offense's running game.
"They're technically sound football players," Morse said of the Patriots' front seven. "They're good at doing multiple things. They're well-coached and they play hard."
Last year, the Patriots ranked third in the NFL by allowing just 88.6 yards rushing per game.
This is a recipe for opposing offenses to be in third-and-longer-than-you-want-to-be-in-Foxboro, which means it'll be up to Morse, Duvernay-Tardif, and the rest of the group up front to pave the way for the guys running the ball.
And with the news of Spencer Ware being out for the year with a knee injury, that responsibility to pick up the ground game falls on the shoulders of rookie third-round pick Kareem Hunt, and fourth-year player Charcandrick West.
- One key stat to watch—third down conversions
Any football game can basically be boiled down to four key stats—red zone efficiency, turnovers, third downs, and penalties.
Those numbers will often tell you the story of the game. If you're poor in any one area, the other areas have to make up for it, and sometimes that's not even enough.
Last year, the Chiefs won all five games that they had a better third-down conversion percentage than their opponent.
While it's obviously always a key stat, the contributing factors in this game on Thursday make it that much more important.
The Chiefs' ability to sustain long drives on the road as an underdog by converting third downs will not only help keep a raucous Foxboro crowd at bay, but it obviously also gives them more opportunities to get into scoring position.
It also keeps Brady on the sideline, which is exactly where you want him.