The New England Patriots begin their Super Bowl defense Thursday night.
Their opponent: the Kansas City Chiefs, who posted the AFC’s second-best record last season before losing at home in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
As we count down the final hours until kickoff at Gillette Stadium, here’s a quick look at the players we’ll have our eyes on:
PATRIOTS PLAYERS TO WATCH
DONT’A HIGHTOWER, LB
The Patriots’ star linebacker sat out all four preseason games, so we’ve yet to catch a glimpse of where he will be lining up this season. The best guess is as an edge rusher — a departure from his usual off-the-line position and the role rookie Harvey Langi played for much of the summer. The appeal of moving Hightower to the edge is obvious: He’s the Patriots’ best pass rusher, and injuries, cuts and Rob Ninkovich’s retirement left them low on numbers at defensive end.
PATRIOTS RUNNING BACKS
Is this kind of a cop-out? Sure. But with the Patriots boasting four starting-caliber running backs in Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, it will be difficult to predict — and fascinating to watch — who gets the lion’s share of touches each week. This is a nightmare for fantasy owners and opposing head coaches alike. New England should have its full complement of backs healthy and ready to go Thursday, as neither Burkhead nor Gillislee appeared on this week’s injury report after being limited at points during the preseason.
CHRIS HOGAN, WR
Don’t be surprised if Marcus Peters, the Chiefs’ All-Pro cornerback, zeroes in on Brandin Cooks in this game. That could spell a big night for Hogan, as Kansas City’s depth at corner drops off precipitously after Peters with fellow starter Steven Nelson on injured reserve. Hogan, the Patriots’ top deep threat in 2016, should see more time in the slot this season following Julian Edelman’s season-ending ACL tear.
CHIEFS PLAYERS TO WATCH
TYREEK HILL, WR/PR
One of the NFL’s most dynamic players, Hill is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. And expect him to touch it a lot this season, despite the fact Kansas City no longer is using him on kick returns. Hill scored six receiving touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and three more on returns as a rookie in 2016, and he enters Week 1 as the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver after the departure of Jeremy Maclin. Andy Reid has had five months to plan for this game. He’ll find creative ways to get his most dangerous player the ball.
TRAVIS KELCE, TE
Perhaps the second-best tight end in the game behind the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, Kelce is Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith’s favorite target. His 1,125 receiving yards in 2016 more than doubled the total of Kansas City’s second-leading pass-catcher, and he was rewarded for his efforts with a first-team All-Pro selection. A calf injury limited Kelce earlier this week, but he appears good to go. Expect Smith to look his way often.
CHIEFS PASS RUSH
The best way to get Tom Brady off his game is to hit him, which is what linebacker Justin Houston and the Chiefs, who led the NFL in takeaways last season, intend to do Thursday night. Houston is Kansas City’s best pass rusher, and he’s fully healthy after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. He and fellow linebacker Dee Ford, the Chiefs’ sack leader last season with 10, will test the fortitude of a Patriots offensive line that returns all five starters. Keep an eye, too, on second-year pro Chris Jones, who was one of the NFL’s most disruptive interior rushers as a rookie.
Thumbnail photo via James Lang/USA TODAY Sports Images