FOXBORO -- Last Sunday nights thrashing of the Jets put the Patriots on a clear path to the AFC East title and, perhaps, one of the top two seeds in the conference. With a less-than-imposing schedule the rest of the way, the Pats challenge is simple: Take care of business.
Which is as good a description of their 34-3 victory over the Chiefs Monday night as anything else you might want to say about it.
Scoring, summary, statistics
Facing a beat-up opponent with a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start, there seemed little chance the Patriots would lose or even be seriously challenged Monday night, and they werent. The Pats sacked Tyler Palko three times, picked off three of his passes, and generally coasted to a victory that increased their record to 7-3 and moved them into a tie with Baltimore and Houston for the best record in the conference.
"We got good contributions from our offense, our defense, our special teams," said coach Bill Belichick. "It was a good, solid team victory."
And yet, impossible as it may seem judging by the final score, the Chiefs not only kept it close, but actually had the edge in play for most of the first half.
A 26-yard field goal by Ryan Succup with 1:34 to play in the first quarter put Kansas City ahead, 3-0, and the Chiefs protected the lead with an aggressive, blitzing defense that had Tom Brady and the Patriots offense stopped in its tracks. A strip-sack of Brady by Wallace Gilberry forced a fumble that ended New Englands only successful drive in the first 22 minutes of the game, and one particularly fruitless three-and-out included two sacks of Brady that resulted in a fourth-and-21.
"We couldn't do anything in the first half," said Brady. "We had a hard time moving the ball; at every position, we didn't really execute well."
But the Pats found their rhythm at last on their fifth possession, which started on their own 15-yard line with 7:36 left in the half.
Passes of 13 and 9 yards to Aaron Hernandez helped get New England out from the shadow of its goalposts, and Brady moved the Pats to their own 48 in five plays. The Chiefs then blew a coverage and left Rob Gronkowski wide open in the middle of the field. He caught the ball at the 35-yard line, broke to the right sideline, avoided a tackle attempt by Lewis Kendrick at the 10, and scampered into the end zone to put the Patriots ahead, 7-3.
Kyle Arrington, the NFLs interception leader, stopped the next Kansas City drive with the first of his two picks on the night and returned it 28 yards to the New England 46 with 2:01 remaining. Brady efficiently drove the Pats to the K.C. 3 before missing on a short pass to Danny Woodhead on a third-and-goal, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 21-yard field goal that gave New England a 10-3 halftime lead.
The Pats increased their lead to 17-3 with a nine-play, 85-yard drive after the second-half kickoff that culminated in another Brady-to-Gronkowski touchdown pass, this one of 19 yards and featuring a) another Gronkowski broken tackle this one against Donald Washington at the 20 and b) a Gronk somersault into the end zone.
"He's tough, he runs hard, obviously he's great with the ball after he catches it," Brady said of his second-year tight end. "He's a tough matchup, and he made some big plays for us tonight."
From there, it was just a question of how big the margin of victory was going to be. The answer was 31 points, thanks to a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown by Julian Edelman that made it 24-3, a 19-yard field goal by Gostkowski that pushed it to 27-3, and a four-yard TD run in the final minute by Shane Vereen for the 34-3 final.
One other interesting sidenote: A leg injury to starting left tackle Matt Light late in the fourth quarter sent him to the sideline and, in Lights absence, cancer survivor Marcus Cannon made his NFL debut. He played right tackle, with Sebastian Vollmer moving over to the left side.
With the victory, the Pats now hold a two-game lead over their two closest division rivals, the Jets and Bills. The odds of them relinquishing first place seem as long as the odds of an upset loss Monday night; after all, their remaining games are against the Eagles (4-6), Colts (0-10), Broncos (5-5), Redskins (3-7), Dolphins (3-7) and Bills (5-5). That 20-40, .333, combined record of their opponents gives them the easiest schedule in the NFL the rest of the way.
But these are the Patriots. You can imagine how they respond to such talk.
"I don't think we're really where we hope to be at this point," said Brady. "But we have our whole season ahead of us. And hopefully we can come out, have a good week of practice and move forward."