Patriots pull away from Chiefs

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Patriots pull away from Chiefs

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."

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."