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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Dillon has the magic touches

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs have problems of their own, but in taking one final glance at the New England Patriots, who bopped them over the head Monday night, then cruised out of town with a 27-19 win, the impression (aside from coach Dick Vermeil's succinct advice to "pay your respects and move on") was that somehow, some way, those danged defending Super Bowl champions are more balanced than ever.

"You expect Tom Brady to hurt you," said Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen. "But now they've got the running game to go along with him."

Let's be more precise. They've got Corey Dillon to go along with him. The running game is Corey Dillon. The offensive balance is Corey Dillon. The most important Patriots offseason acquisition is Corey Dillon.

Dillon has submitted far gaudier numbers this season than he did Monday night. He rushed for 98 yards and two touchdowns, leaving him a mere 6 feet from that magic 1,000-yard milestone for the season. But it wasn't just the number of yards he churned out. It was the willingness of the Patriots to hand one individual the ball without any qualms 26 times in a game. They did so not just to keep the defense honest, and to take some pressure off Brady, but also to eat up the clock, thereby keeping a struggling Chiefs defense on the field as long as possible. That, in turn, kept the mercurial Chiefs offense off the field as long as possible.

Oh yeah, there's one more reason the Patriots gladly hand off to Dillon: He produces. He's already got six rushing touchdowns this season, which is only three shy of what the entire team had last season.

The Patriots have proven it is not critical to have a high-producing running back to be successful. They won their two Super Bowls with Antowain Smith, a rugged, up-the-middle power back who seemed to get stronger as the season progressed. In fact, for much of 2003, he shared backfield duties with Kevin Faulk. Smith was a popular, team-oriented performer, but he didn't have Dillon's quickness, elusiveness, or big-play abilities. Really now . . . when was the last time you've heard anyone mention Smith's name?

In retrospect, it's hard to believe there was hesitation when the Patriots acquired Dillon for a second-round pick last April 19. He had toiled for the Cincinnati Bengals for seven seasons, tying or breaking 18 team records, but earning a reputation as a malcontent. When Bill Belichick traded for him, it seemed to fly in the face of Belichick's philosophy of surrounding himself with quality, company-line talent. Yet the coach insisted the new back was misunderstood and fit his desired profile perfectly. When Dillon arrived, he promised his teammates would find him to be a model citizen and team player, not some radioactive malcontent.

Dillon has lived up to the parameters he set for himself. He has not complained when he has been hurt, has not once mentioned how many touches he gets in a game, and is the leading spokesman for In Bill We Trust. Winning helps everyone's attitude. Dillon has, for the most part, also avoided on-the-field mistakes. In fact, when Dillon fumbled at the 3-yard line late in the fourth quarter against Kansas City, it was somewhat stunning. He had fumbled only one other time this season after not coughing it up at all in 2003.

That miscue aside, Dillon said he's noticing that opposing defenses are becoming more aware of the running game, instead of focusing solely on making Brady's life miserable.

"The run threat is good to have," Dillon said. "Obviously we're a good passing team, so if a team tries to take one away, we can always rely on the other.

"It's very much a balance. People are respecting the run to the point where we're sucking them up with play-action, and that allows us to get downfield with the deep ball and make things happen."

Dillon has been part of Brady's aerial attack, proving to be a fine option as a short-yardage receiver. He caught 43 passes for 298 yards in 2002 with the Bengals, and has 10 catches for 72 yards this season.

When he woke up this morning, Dillon was the No. 5 rusher in the league behind Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, Curtis Martin, and Tiki Barber. He already has rushed for 100 or more yards five times, beginning Sept. 19, when he cranked out 158 against Arizona, the most a Patriots back had in one game in six years. He rushed for 105 yards in a 30-20 win over Seattle and scored the winning touchdown. The next week, he became the first back all season to rush for more than 100 yards against the New York Jets (115). He racked up 112 yards against St. Louis and 151 against Buffalo two weeks ago.

The Patriots have lost only one game all season, to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that is the only game Dillon missed all season. A coincidence? Maybe yes, maybe no. In his absence, the Patriots rushed six times for a grand total of 5 yards.

He will be on course Sunday to break the 1,000-yard mark quicker than any back in Patriots history. Martin needed only 11 games to do it in 1997; barring some freak injury, or some glitch to this otherwise dream season, Dillon should do it early in the first quarter against the Ravens.

Dillon's contributions do not guarantee the Patriots will win it all again. They do guarantee a more balanced offensive attack. They do guarantee that New England will run the ball with confidence.

No wonder the Chiefs are ready to pay their respects and move on.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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