NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Scoring has not been a problem for a Patriots team that is averaging 26.3 points per game, and it doesn't figure to be a problem this week when New England travels to Kansas City Monday night to face a Chiefs defense that is allowing 26.4 points per game and is ranked 26th in the NFL. New England's challenge this week, then, will be to slow the top-ranked Chiefs offense that can score with anybody and averages more than 422 yards per game.
Coming off a dominant performance against the Bills, New England's defense has the chance to either prove it has turned the corner and is ready to consistently return to its championship level or it will leave observers wondering if it is good enough to stop the likes of Indianapolis and Pittsburgh come January, assuming the 8-1 Patriots are in the postseason tournament.
Since Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law joined fellow starting cornerback Tyrone Poole on the injury list, it has been sensible to predict that fill-in starting corners Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland would be exposed as weak links. The Rams were supposed to torch a banged up Patriots secondary, but failed. Buffalo would surely attack and burn those inexperienced corners. It too failed.
Now it's on to Kansas City, where the no-name corners will have to hold up against one of the most prolific and balanced offenses in football. The Chiefs' power running game, the No. 1 ranked such attack in the NFL, and their diverse passing game give them exactly the type of unit that can give a healthy Patriots team trouble, never mind one playing with inexperienced corners that never heard their names called on draft weekend.
On the surface, New England will luck out this week since the NFL's best running back, Priest Holmes, is not expected to play as he recovers from a knee injury. But his replacement, Derrick Blaylock, rushed for 186 yards in a 27-20 loss at New Orleans, and that production was not lost on the Patriots, who rank 11th defensively and 13th against the run, allowing 111.3 yards per game.
So it's natural to assume that Kansas City could finally expose the Patriots' banged up secondary by virtue of its running attack's affect on the Patriots pass defense. The Rams played into the Patriots hands by throwing out of formations that allowed New England to flood the zones with cover-men, which forced Marc Bulger to hold the ball. The Bills hoped their running game would force strong safety Rodney Harrison into the box as a run defender, but it never did and Drew Bledsoe was trying to throw downfield into two-deep coverage all day.
Neither of those teams has nearly the caliber of offensive line Kansas City boasts, and that line will be the biggest area of concern for the Patriots as they head into a hostile Arrowhead Stadium. The Patriots aren't as likely to stop the run with seven defenders this week as they did against the Bills nor are they likely to generate pressure with a four-man rush as they did against the Rams.
"Priest didn't play (Sunday) but then Derrick Blaylock had like 200 yards (actually 186)," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "It is their offensive line. I look at that offensive line and I am impressed by the way they play physically and the way they play together. It's the best offensive line in the league, I think, and I have thought that ever since I have seen them play this year. They have a lot of offensive weapons, but I think their line most valuable part of that team."
The formidable front five consists of two nine-time Pro Bowlers, Willie Roaf and Will Shields, and quality across the board in former Eagle John Welbourn, Brian Waters and Casey Wiegmann. Waters was actually named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week following Kansas City's 56-10 romp over the Falcons in which it rushed for an NFL record eight touchdowns. It's a physical group that comes off the ball aggressively and forces a defense to commit that eighth defender into the box to stop the run. Buffalo tried to play that style of offense last week, but its offensive line is not nearly as talented nor was it effective.
"We felt like we could run the ball on them," Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe said after his team's 29-6 loss to New England. "We felt that was something we needed to do to get them out of their cover-2 scheme. We didn't do that well enough and allowed them to just play their base defense."
Kansas City's productive ground game allows experienced, Pro Bowl level quarterback Trent Green to attack through the air into lighter coverages using a variety of targets that includes future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez along with wideouts Eddie Kennison, Johnny Morton and Dante Hall.
And while those Chiefs passing options can make it difficult on any defense, the Patriots have to commit to slowing the ground game to create obvious passing situations where its coverage disguises and post-snap adjustments can force a mistake. If that means using Harrison close to the line of scrimmage, then so be it. Those corners will simply have to hold up on the outside on early downs and at the very least, prevent the big play and quick score.
"Offensively, I think this is probably as explosive an offense as I have seen," Patriots coach Bill Belichick warned. "They are very good in every area. There are no weaknesses. The line, the skill players, the tight end, the backs, the quarterback, they just keep coming."
The question for New England is: what defense will show up? It had no problem stuffing Buffalo's Willis McGahee last week and also held down Arizona, Miami, Seattle and the Jets on the ground, but it has had trouble stopping the run against balanced offenses as well as the better offensive lines it has faced. Buffalo is not in that group nor is St. Louis, Miami or Arizona, but Pittsburgh and Indianapolis both rushed for more than 200 yards against New England and did it in different fashions.
The Steelers simply overpowered New England's front, wearing it down with a superb effort by a strong offensive line along with physical, forceful running by Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. Indy did it against a defense that dared the Colts to run with Edgerrin James while it focused its efforts on stopping Peyton Manning and the Indy passing attack.
While Green is no Manning, the Chiefs offense can attack through the air similar to the Colts with an array of weapons or like Pittsburgh can on the ground since their offense line is actually better than the Steelers front.
So this might be a pick-your-poison week for the Patriots. And despite the fact that Kansas City has run 311 times and passed 297 - excellent balance - it's a good bet Belichick's game plan will focus on the Chiefs rushing attack.
SERIES HISTORY: 29th meeting. Chiefs lead series 15-10-3, but the Patriots have won the last two and three of the last four. New England is 0-3 all-time at Arrowhead Stadium, but 1-0 against the Chiefs on Monday Night Football. It is 2-8-2 against the Chiefs on the road.
Playing through injuries is not uncommon in NFL circles. Winning despite injuries happens less frequently. But the Patriots, amazingly, don't seem to miss a beat when a player goes down.
Last year, they endured a slew of injuries that forced 44 different starters into action and this year have been bitten again, losing their top wideout for the last seven games, their lead running back for a game and their starting corners for an extended period. Yet they play on and maintain their standard of success.
"I think we got a boost of confidence last year when we had a rash of injuries," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "I think the guys who were around last year really remember that situation where we are looking around saying, 'who else do we have?' We were able to survive and guys stepped up. There are a lot of guys coming in and out that we have a lot of faith in so when we are facing the same situation here this week, we believe it can be done. We expect it."
--New England's last trip to Kansas City came down to an Adam Vinatieri field-goal attempt. A 32-yarder with the Patriots trailing 16-14. Chip shot. Piece of cake for a guy who has since converted some of the most clutch field goals in NFL history - a 45-yarder in the Snow Bowl playoff win over the Raiders, a game-winning 48-yarder as time expired in Super Bowl XXXVI and a 41-yarder in the waning seconds that won Super Bowl XXXVII - among them.
But on this day in October of 1999, amidst a sea of screaming red clad Chiefs fans that shook the stadium, Vinatieri's kick bounced off the right upright and the Patriots remained winless at Arrowhead.
It was a bitter end to a game New England could have won despite having no business winning it. The Pats trailed 16-7 with 4:52 to play, and quarterback Drew Bledsoe had not completed a single second half pass. But he got hot and guided and 8-play, 77-yard drive than ended in a touchdown pass to Shawn Jefferson with 2:43 left.
The Patriots got the ball back at their own 33 with 30 seconds to go and no timeouts, and Bledsoe hit Terry Glenn for 8 yards, Ben Coates for 18 and Shawn Jefferson for 27 with :09 left.
But Vinatieri's miss made it all for naught. "I let the team down," the visibly upset kicker said afterward. "I'll probably go out and hit another 100 in a row. I just didn't hit one when I needed to."
Vinatieri has hit plenty when he needed to since. In fact, he has developed a reputation as the most clutch kicker in the game thanks to his postseason heroics. Since that miss, Vinatieri has connected on 11 game-winning field goal tries, three of which have come in the final seconds and seven of which have come in overtime.
--While the last meeting between the clubs in Kansas City was a low-scoring affair, the teams met two years ago at Gillette Stadium in what became a second half shootout. New England trailed the Chiefs, 10-9, at halftime of a Week 3 contest but went on to win 41-38 in overtime.
Quarterback Tom Brady completed a career-high 39 passes for a career-best 410 yards and tied his all-time high with four touchdown passes, three of which came in a hectic second half.
New England actually led 38-24 with 6:10 remaining in the game, but the patient Chiefs continued to pound the ball with Holmes, who rushed for 180 yards that day. He scored on a 6-yard run with 4:37 left and then on a 1-yard run to tie it on the last play of regulation.
The Patriots won the overtime coin toss and Vinatieri booted a 35-yard field goal to win it 4:40 into the extra session.
--The Patriots are 10-19 all-time on Monday Night Football, but are 3-2 under Belichick having won three of their last four ABC primetime games, including one over the Chiefs, 30-24, back on Dec. 4, 2000 at Foxboro Stadium.
--The Chiefs actually have two players who hail from Massachusetts. Backup quarterback Todd Collins is a Walpole native, played high school football at Walpole High just a few miles from the Patriots stadium and grew up an avid Patriots fan. Fullback Omar Easy went to Everett High School in Everett, Mass.
--Bill Belichick gave his players Monday and Tuesday off following the win over Buffalo and while they were in Wednesday morning, they were not made available to the media. Wednesday is usually the heaviest media day of the week, and includes conference calls with the opposing head coach and a top player, but since the teams play Monday night, access to the team and head coach was delayed until Thursday.
BY THE NUMBERS: 40 - the number of years since the Patriots last won a game in Kansas City. The last time a Patriots team won there was back on Dec. 6, 1964 when the Boston Patriots beat the Chiefs, 31-24, at Municipal Stadium.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I am glad I got an interception so that I can say I got one and not just Troy. I would be a little bit discouraged if Troy were the only one to get an interception, but we had a few guys get them last week. But Troy is a guy we can all count on." - Tedy Bruschi on wide receiver Troy Brown intercepting his first career pass last week vs. Buffalo.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Patriots, looking to upgrade a banged up defensive backfield that continues to play without starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, made a minor roster move this week, signing former Redskins defensive back Omare Lowe to the practice squad while releasing safety Scott Farley to create the needed space.
Before adding Lowe, the Patriots reportedly worked out former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, who earlier this season received an injury settlement from the Cardinals, but Jackson elected to re-sign with Tampa Bay, the team for which he earned that MVP honor.
Lowe, who is the only defensive back on the practice squad, was the Dolphins fifth round pick in 2002 and the 6-1, 195-pounder can play cornerback or safety. He has played for the Jets and Dolphins and been on the Vikings and Titans practice squad.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
- --CB Asante Samuel's absence from last week's game remains a mystery. Samuel
was probable on the injury report, was active for the game and coach Bill
Belichick said he could've played, but he did not. If Belichick held him out
to rest his injured shoulder he may not have wanted to reveal that because
he listed him as probable rather than questionable, although that is purely
speculation. Samuel will certainly be needed this week against the Chiefs'
top-ranked offense and will likely start opposite Randall Gay with Earthwind
Moreland filling the nickel back spot. Samuel, who plays the slot in the nickel
when Ty Law and Tyrone Poole are healthy, may move inside on passing downs
against the Chiefs. Troy Brown will continue in his role as the dime back.
- WR Deion Branch practiced late last week, but was held out of the Bills
game. He could be back on the field Monday night in Kansas City, which would
give the Patriots offense a boost while giving quarterback Tom Brady his full
complement of offensive weapons for the first time this season. He has been
without one of Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Branch or Corey Dillon in every game
- S Rodney Harrison will spend a significant amount of time near the line
of scrimmage Monday night. Not only will he be creeping up into the box to
play the run, but he also will be asked to get physical with tight end Tony
Gonzalez within the 5-yard legal limit. Harrison has plenty of experience
playing against Gonzalez from his days with the Chargers and will likely see
him man-to-man on several occasions.
- LB Tully Banta-Cain's improved play of late will continue to earn him more
time on defense. He has been rotating in to take some snaps at outside linebacker
in addition to his full workload on every special teams unit. He is tied for
second on the club with 11 special teams tackles and now has seven defensive
stops to go with 1.5 sacks, an interception and a pass defensed. He plays
a deep position for New England that includes Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest
and Rosevelt Colvin, so it takes an exceptional effort for him to earn defensive
snaps. But as he produces in his limited opportunities, Belichick will give
him more, as has been the case over the past few weeks.
- NT Keith Traylor has reassumed the starting nose tackle job while rookie Vince Wilfork subs in at both the nose and on the end for Ty Warren. Wilfork started the season opener and then five straight games between Week 4 and Week 8 before giving way to Traylor the last two games. Traylor is expected to draw the start in Kansas City as well, but Wilfork's actual playing time has not decreased significantly. Wilfork is second among Patriots defensive lineman with 31 tackles while Traylor checks in with 22.
GAME PLAN: Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has some interesting decisions to make this week. He has to focus on stopping the league's best rushing attack while also defending a prolific passing offense that features one of the game's premier pass-catching tight ends. Look for Crennel to bring Rodney Harrison closer to the line of scrimmage as an eighth run defender while also manning him up on TE Tony Gonzalez at times. With inexperienced corners playing in place of Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, the Patriots will play mostly zone defense against Kansas City's passing attack, but will be forced to play man-to-man at times if the Chiefs running game gets going as it has all season. The Patriots aren't likely to generate much pressure out of their four-man rush and will have to blitz to get to Trent Green, a scenario that will also call for more man coverage on the outside. Much like defending the Colts, the Patriots will be picking their poison on a play-to-play basis. Don't expect too much in the way of complex schemes against Kansas City since it is a power running team that can negate all the different looks by simply running consistently. This will be a basic game plan dependent upon sound fundamental football and execution.
Offensively, New England will run Corey Dillon until his legs fall off. That's not to say Tom Brady won't be looking to attack down the field as he has more frequently of late, but New England will try to control the clock with Dillon to keep the explosive Kansas City offense off the field and try to subdue a raucous crowd. Brady will attack deep down the middle of the field, an area that Chiefs have unsuccessfully tried shore up this season. Look for New England to work David Givens over the middle, an area he's had success in of late while also running tight end Daniel Graham deep between the hash marks. The Patriots will certainly try to work on the Chiefs man coverage on the outside early in the game to establish a passing edge that will make stopping Dillon that much more difficult.
New England also will spend some extra time on special teams coverage this week. It allowed its second return for a touchdown this season last week against Buffalo and has now allowed a scoring return on both a punt and a kickoff. Kansas City's Dante Hall is as dangerous as any returner in the league, so the Patriots will likely kick away from him as much as possible.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots ILB Ted Johnson vs. Chiefs RB Derrick Blaylock. Kansas City didn't miss a beat last week with Blaylock playing for the injured Holmes. The 210-pound backup carried 33 times for 186 yards. He is averaging 5.2 yards per attempt on 65 carries with five touchdowns, which is one more TD than New England's Corey Dillon has. Johnson has come on of late as a run stopper and will have to get off the blocks of some talented offensive lineman. The nose tackle will need a big game inside to help Johnson flow to the ball.
Patriots OLB Willie McGinest and DE Richard Seymour vs. Chiefs LT Willie Roaf and LG Brian Waters. Roaf and Waters make up arguably the best left side of an offensive line in football. Roaf has been to nine Pro Bowls and Waters is likely on his way to one. McGinest and Seymour have combined for 8.5 of the Patriots 26 sacks. Seymour leads all Patriots defensive lineman with 42 tackles and both are capable of making a big play that can ruin a game for an opposing offense. They will need to be disruptive this week.
Patriots RB Corey Dillon vs. Chiefs LB Scott Fujita. The offensive line will be occupied blocking Eric Hicks and Ryan Sims on Fujita's side of the ball and Dillon will have to contend with Kansas City's leading tackler. The Chiefs are allowing 116 rushing yards per game and Dillon is averaging 112.5, making this a matchup the Patriots must exploit to win in a tough venue.
Patriots WR David Givens vs. Chiefs CB Eric Warfield. Givens has become Tom Brady's go-to receiver and favorite target. He's made big plays consistently to move the chains and jump start drives. He's had four 100-yard receiving games and leads the Patriots with 42 receptions for 710 yards and is a first down machine. Warfield leads KC with four interceptions and will be asked to man up on Givens regularly throughout the game. At 6-1, 200, Warfield matches up well with the physical Givens, who will have to beat press coverage to get open.
INJURY IMPACT: The Patriots' injury report is as short as it has been in some time. Ty Law remains out and Tyrone Poole has been upgraded to doubtful, which gives him very little chance of playing this week. That means that Randall Gay, Earthwind Moreland and Asante Samuel will be called upon for duty on the corners once again. Troy Brown could also see some snaps again this week in the dime package. Wide receiver Deion Branch has missed seven straight games with a knee injury and after being doubtful for six weeks, he was upgraded to questionable last week yet did not play. He could return this week, although next week against Baltimore might be more realistic. Special teamer Matt Chatham remains questionable with a hamstring injury that has plagued him on and off all season. He very well could miss his second straight game, which means Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel will likely share his full-time duties in the kicking game. Quarterbacks Jim Miller and Tom Brady remain probable with right shoulder problems. Brady will play and Miller will remain the emergency quarterback.
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