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Thursday Night Preview: Will New England Cruise Past Kansas City?

Tom Brady and the Patriots are installed as commanding 9.0-point favorites. Can the Chiefs make this a game?

It's back. Football is actually here, in the flesh, for us to view, and it's time to get this puppy started. Each Thursday, we will break down that night's game from multiple angles, including looking at some of the betting information.

Last year, we were treated to a lot of stinker matchups on Thursday nights. That could very well be the case again in 2017, but at least this week, we have a great matchup between two of the NFL's better teams. The New England Patriots take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium as we get things underway.

The Patriots, per our team rankings, which are based off of our nERD metric, are the league's best squad. Not too far behind, the Chiefs check in 12th.

Who will come out on top on this matchup? Let's dig in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

Setting the gold standard at the quarterback position, Tom Brady will look to slice up this KC defense.

Among the 34 quarterbacks who recorded at least 200 drop backs in 2016, Brady ranked second in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back at 0.35. In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP -- Brady checked in 6th with a Success Rate of 51.45%. For the third consecutive year, he has ranked inside of the top five -- second, fourth, and fifth, respectively -- in Passing NEP per drop back.

Breaking news: Brady is very good at football.

On the opposing sideline, Alex Smith is the man in charge, and he's far less effective. In that same group of passers, Smith was 18th in both Passing NEP per drop back (0.14) and Passing Success Rate (47.39%) in 2016. He was a pretty average signal-caller, and he will likely need to be far better tonight to top the Patriots.

New England has a decided edge at the quarterback position, but how do the running games stack up?

Running Back Play

Let's start with the Chiefs backfield, which seems a bit clearer to understand. Spencer Ware was set to open the year as the starter for KC, until this happened during a preseason game in Seattle.

Due to that injury, rookie Kareem Hunt will take over the reigns for the Chiefs. In four collegiate seasons at Toledo, Hunt rushed for 4,945 yards and averaged 6.32 yards per carry, and in his senior season, threw in 41 receptions to boot. Hunt appears set to the Kansas City's featured back in this one.

The New England running back situation is a bit murkier, and it's due to the number of weapons they have. Mike Gillislee, James White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead are all in the mix.

Let's start with Gillislee, who was fantastic in backing up LeSean McCoy in 2016. In terms of Rushing NEP per attempt, there was no one better than Gillislee last year as he ranked as the league's top running back (0.30), per our metrics. While he only toted the rock 101 times, his Rushing NEP per attempt mark was nearly double our second-most efficient running back, which happened to be McCoy (0.16).

According to their depth chart, however, Lewis and White are listed as the starting backs. They combined for 103 rushes (64 for Lewis and 39 for White) last season, and in that small sample size, both were effective runners with Rushing NEP per attempt marks of 0.10 for Lewis and 0.09 for White.

With Lewis injured for a majority of the season, White definitely owned the Pats' pass-catching role last season. He racked up 86 targets, 60 receptions, and a Reception Success Rate of 71.67%. Among the 28 running backs with at least 40 receptions, White ranked 6th in Success Rate.

And we haven't even mentioned Burkhead, who advanced analytics also love and who figures to be in the mix somewhere.

Defensive Matchup

These were two very strong defensive units in 2016, and they will look to build on those numbers in 2017. Per our schedule-adjusted per-play metrics, the Chiefs' unit ranked 10th while the Pats' defense slid in just behind them at 11th.

In breaking down the Chiefs, their pass defense shined brightest, ranking fourth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Their rushing defense was not quite as effective, ranking 15th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. The team did sign Eric Berry to a long-term extension, but defensive lineman Dontari Poe left for the Atlanta Falcons, so it will be interesting to see how this unit adjusts without him.

The Patriots, meanwhile, were strong at both, ranking 11th against the pass and 8th against the run, according to our models. After signing ace corner Stephon Gilmore to a large free-agent deal and re-signing Dont'a Hightower, this unit could be one of the NFL's premier defenses this season.

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