FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Minutes after an exhilarating win against the Chiefs in October, Patriots defensive back Duron Harmon summed up his night against Tyreek Hill in a dozen words.

“He is,” Harmon said, “by far the fastest person I’ve come in contact with.”

He’s a matchup nightmare, but then again so is his entire team.

Facing the Chiefs is a game of whack-a-mole. Prioritize Hill and Sammy Watkins pops up. He was on pace for 1,000 yards before a foot injury wiped out the second half of his season. Double-team Travis Kelce with a safety and you’re taking chances one-on-one elsewhere. You can’t stop it all.

“I think you have to put your chips on something,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. “You have to try to do something that you feel like is important in the game, try to do that well, have a plan for how you’re going to deal with other things and let the game declare a little bit, which it will.”

Is it possible to limit both Kelce and Hill?

If it is, nobody’s figured out the formula.

The Chargers shut down Kelce to the tune of one catch for 6 yards in the season opener. Hill went nuts for 169 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers held Hill to two receptions in Week 3 but allowed Kelce to catch eight passes for 114 yards. The Raiders limited Hill in Week 13 to one catch for 13 yards. Kelce destroyed them for 12 receptions, 168 yards and two TDs.

Only one team held both Kelce and Hill under 70 yards: The Chargers in a 29-28 victory in Week 15.

When the Patriots beat the Chiefs in Week 6, they allocated extra resources to both All-Pro pass-catchers. The goal was to disrupt Kelce’s release wherever he went. If Kelce was aligned from a traditional tight end position, that meant the defensive end (in many cases Trey Flowers) would bump him as he started his route. If Kelce was detached from the formation, a linebacker followed him and did the same.

The strategy was mostly effective, even though it meant subtracting a potential pass-rusher from the equation (sometimes Dont’a Hightower would jam Kelce and then rush a second or two later).

The Pats didn’t allow much to Hill in man coverage with a safety shading toward his side. But attempts to jam him were a waste.

On a third-and-17, Kyle Van Noy stood over Hill in the slot. Hightower followed Kelce outside the numbers. Hightower got a decent jam on Kelce. Van Noy didn’t get a hand on Hill. Because both linebackers were occupied, the Patriots could only muster a three-man rush. That enabled Patrick Mahomes to drift to his left, extend the play and find Hill 27 yards downfield.

Hill’s 75-yard TD in the fourth quarter also was against zone coverage and a three-man rush.

And Kareem Hunt’s 67-yard touchdown score? Two deep safeties. Also a three-man rush.

The Pats won’t have an identical game plan. Their personnel has changed with rookie J.C. Jackson emerging as a strong No. 2 cornerback. They might trust Jackson to man up with Watkins, a high-end No. 2 receiver, and let Stephon Gilmore chase Hill.

They know what worked and bombed the first time. There will be tweaks from the Patriots. They’re surely anticipating adjustments from Kansas City, too.

“When you’re dealing with (Coach) Andy Reid, a great offensive mastermind, he’s going to make it hard on the defense,” Harmon said. “It’s going to be like a chess match, something we’re excited and ready for. That’s what these types of games are. Championship games are (won) not just lining up and playing, but being able to adjust, to play fast.”

In the Week 6 matchup, the Patriots thrived when linebackers and defensive backs hovered over the ball before the snap, making it difficult for the offensive line to identify which players were rushing and which were dropping. That trend has continued late in the season.

As Reid said, “They’re bringing everybody. You’ve got to come up with a plan to put body-on-body. They’re moving people around and mess with you that way.”‘

On a third-and-4 at the Pats’ 24, New England showed seven potential rushers. Hightower and Van Noy retreated to the shallow middle at the snap. Devin McCourty and Harmon rushed with three defensive linemen, and the Kansas City offensive line didn’t make the read quickly enough. Harmon got a free run at Mahomes, forcing him to unload early. He missed Kelce on a corner route and the Chiefs settled for a field goal.

There’s danger in sending extra rushers at Mahomes; if he side-steps the tackler and flees the pocket, he’ll spot Hill inevitably running away from the one defensive back covering him.

As the Patriots learned in Week 6, there’s equal danger in rushing three and letting Mahomes calmly scan the field. There’s risk in pretty much everything against the Chiefs’ offense.

“Andy does a great job of putting the defense in compromising positions where you have to make choices,” Belichick said.

There are no perfect answers. The Patriots can simply hope the lane they choose ends up working just well enough.


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