What a difference eight days make.
Last Sunday afternoon, the Patriots, Jets and Bills were all 5-3 and locked in a battle for the top spot in the AFC East as Tom Brady was faced with the daunting task of traveling to the Meadowlands to beat the renowned Jet defense.
Today, the Bills and Jets are each 5-5 after another round of embarrassing defeats in Week 11, and the Patriots are looking to improve to 7-3 with a win at home against the inauspicious Kansas City Chiefs. A two game lead over fast-unraveling Buffalo and dysfunctional New York might just give New England the edge they need to keep a hold on the division for good.
"Diligence is the Mother of Good Luck"
Ben Franklin's words ring true even in the game of football, as it's been said time and again that there is a certain element of luck when it comes to winning. Opportunities come around, and good teams capitalize on the breaks they are given. This week the Patriots have been handed one of those breaks, and can maximize their profit off of such luck by continuing the defensive momentum they started last week in the Meadowlands.
Matt Cassel is a serviceable quarterback with solid receivers and excellent support from his running backs. He also might be more familiar with the Belichick defense than any opposing quarterback in the league - he practiced against it for four seasons as a backup-turned-starter right here in New England.
Yet on Monday night the Patriots won't have to worry about any of that, as Cassel will be out of the game after sustaining an injury to his right hand in their loss to the Broncos last Sunday. Replacing him will be Tyler Palko, whose start on Monday Night Football will be the first of his less-than-illustrious NFL career.
It would have been easy to overlook the Chiefs to begin with, considering their inconsistency this season. They lost their first three games, won the next four and then lost the last two. Their pass defense is mediocre, their rush defense is ranked 26th in the league, they average just 182.2 passing yards per game and they have only one win in 2011 against a team over .500. Now adding insult to injury, they are missing their starting quarterback and his replacement is a guy who was released and signed to the practice squad in September of last season. Palko finally made it back on the Kansas City 53-man roster in December of 2010.
If ever there were a time for New England to lock in and go full steam ahead, it's now. They can, should and must.
Not only do Andre Carter, Vince Wilfork, Mark Anderson, Kyle Love and company on the defensive line get the opportunity to take advantage of an inexperienced quarterback, but the Patriots' secondary gets a another chance to prove they can at least consistently stop the weaker quarterbacks in the league. On the offensive side of the ball, Tom Brady and his arsenal benefit from a weakened Chiefs' pass defense - their best cornerback Brandon Flowers is questionable with a back injury.
The Week 12 version of the Kansas City Chiefs is the type of team that the Patriots should roll over if they are to be taken seriously as a contender to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Looking around the conference it's possible that if the Pats can keep benefitting from their easy schedule while the NFC North teams keep beating each other up, they could actually secure themselves the number one seed and a bye in the playoffs.
Here are five things to watch for from the Patriots in Monday Night's prime time matchup with the Chiefs:
1. Continued emphasis on the pass rush
The Patriot defensive line looked better than ever against the Jets last Sunday as they pounded Mark Sanchez all night. They didn't just play smart. They played aggressive, physical football and wore down the offensive line early to gain their second half advantage. After last week's 4.5 sack performance by Carter earned him the honor of AFC Defensive Player of the Week, its obvious New England has the talent to give quarterbacks some serious trouble in the pocket. Belichick absolutely must continue to make the most of the their talent at defensive end and defensive tackle, as the pressure on the quarterback forces mistakes that guys like Kyle Arrington and Rob Ninkovich have proven they can exploit.
2. The secondary capitalizing turnover opportunities
They might not be able to force the turnovers, but the Patriot secondary still know how to make a play when a turnover opportunity comes their way. Arrington is in a four way tie for first place in the league in interceptions, with five so far. Obviously he has been doing something right, even if it's just being in the right place at the right time.
3. Targets to Chad Ochocino
Last week was Chad's coming out party with the Pats. He only had two catches, but they were for a combined 65 yards and they were each big plays in which he stepped up to the challenge. Before last week, his critics rightfully wondered if he could handle the pressure of being on the receiving end of a Tom Brady pass. It's seems as though Brady might finally have found a way to trust Chad. His targets have increased significantly over the past two games and if he can continue to run the right routes and create separation from the coverage, he has the opportunity to open things up for other offensive threats like Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Deion Branch.
4. Tom Brady's first half efficiency - Brady and his offense are only averaging 7.6 points in the first half over their last three games. Although TB12 is probably the best in the business when it comes to late game comeback drives, it's always better to make that the exception rather than the rule. It might be okay to fall behind early to the sub-.500 teams that they are facing for the rest of the regular season, but in their recent playoff losses Brady has seemed out of rhythm and off his timing and accuracy. It would be encouraging to see him get going in the first quarter with the same type of speed, accuracy and cadence that he has been showing in the fourth quarter this year. He's also had an inordinate amount of passes that have been tipped and picked off or nearly picked off and it's evident he's dealing with some healthy problems with his shoulder. Keep an eye on the height of his release on his passes this week to see if there are any signs of improvement in that area, as that could be either encouraging or worrisome.
5. The reincorporation of BenJarvus Green-Ellis - Earlier in the season it seemed he was easing back into the groove he had developed in his 1,000 yard showing in 2010. As Belichick slowly incorporates Kevin Faulk in the mix, you should start to see BenJarvus Green-Ellis with more carries as well; especially if the passing game is on point and the Pats have some room to experiment a little bit with their offensive play-calling. Their offense looked it's best this year when Green-Ellis and rookie Stevan Ridley were combining for 10-15 carries a game. It's time to get back to balancing their attack to diversify their repertoire down the stretch, and Kansas City has been allowing 134 yards per game on the ground. Don't be surprised if Bill looks to take advantage of that this week.
This home game is a perfect opportunity for the Patriots to establish themselves as leaders in the AFC, as well as continue to develop their identity on the defensive side of the ball.
My Prediction: New England Patriots - 34 Kansas City Chiefs - 17