How the Patriots defense ended the NFL’s most dangerous offensive duo – and barely survived

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KANSAS CITY, Missouri – Bill Belichick’s bet had worked.

He’d stuck a talented rookie on the league’s most talented tight end and relied on JC Jackson to discourage Kansas City from shooting in Travis Kelce’s direction or hope the Chiefs would just look away. The Patriots would also block Kelce, of course. And in the first half, the All-Pros had two catches for 11 yards.

But Kelce then coached Jackson for a 12-yard touchdown to start the third quarter of Sunday’s AFC Championship game and pulled a pass interference flag against him to start the fourth.

Problem, right? No.

The comeback Kelce and Tyreek Hill attempted against a four-cornered Patriots defense designed specifically to contain them ended on the spot. The NFL’s most dangerous skills duo finished with just 65 combined receiving yards – by far their lowest of the season – and so came home with a 37-31 overtime loss.

“We knew if we wanted to limit that attack,” safety Duron Harmon said after the game. “It started with these two.”

In the aftermath of Kelce’s flag, New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore followed the tight end and was forced into action on two cover shots. They ended in an incompletion and a forced fumble canceled by a penalty. Gilmore has completely covered his fellow All-Pro despite dropping four inches and 50 pounds.

“I had to use my speed a lot more and beat him to the point because he wants you to get physical with him,” Gilmore said. “And I wouldn’t allow it.”

Truth be told, Gilmore said, the responsibility of covering Kelce was less complicated than others he had accepted this season. Gilmore added that he hadn’t taken a single rep against the Patriots’ tight ends in practice. New England coaches, including Bill Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores, simply walked over to Gilmore in the fourth quarter and handed him his new assignment.

“It’s easier because I’m used to covering fast guys,” said Gilmore. “He’s not very fast, so it’s easier for me.”

The same cannot be said of Hill. Another All-Pro, Hill and his 4.2 speed demanded extra attention, and that’s exactly what New England gave him.

All night long, Hill had a shared shadow with security Devin McCourty above and Jonathan Jones or Keion Crossen below. Hill’s only catch – a 42-yard first-half player – came against Crossen. The seventh-round rookie had played less than 40 defensive snaps during the year, but was likely called in for fresh legs due to the way Hill tends to wear down opposing defensive backs.

“We moved a few games tonight, tried to mix them up,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “They are great players. They are difficult to defend.

Hill saw both of his second-half goals fall incomplete, including a near-interception from Jones on Kansas City’s final touchdown. The maligned nickelback led a top-down regular season where he was often picked in place of Gilmore and Jackson. Jason McCourty supplanted him for a while in the lunge.

But on Sunday it was all his, and he and McCourty stopped Patrick Mahomes from pulling the trigger towards Hill. Instead, they forced him to find Sammy Watkins – followed for the first three quarters by Gilmore – who relished the goals and opportunities and running back Damien Williams, who tied with eight targets, a top in the team.

It was good for New England

The defense accomplished what they set out to do: eliminate their opponent’s best weapons. In this case, the most powerful tandem in the whole league.

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