KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs did their homework all week. Yesterday they passed the test.
After six days spent studying every move the Patriots' receivers made this season and every throw Tom Brady delivered to them, Gunther Cunningham's defense hounded and harassed Brady into four interceptions, tipping balls, tapping his receivers, tipping him upside down, and trashing his running game until there was little left of what once had been New England's offense.
Gone was the element of surprise the Patriots had relied on to scorch so many opponents in the past. Gone, too, was the immobilizing fear the three-time Super Bowl champions once inspired. All that was left was a too-often empty threat.
''We looked at what they do and where they align their receivers and got good breaks on some of Brady's balls," said Chiefs safety Greg Wesley not long after he'd broken so well on three of them that he picked them off to play a key role in a 26-16 thrashing at Arrowhead Stadium. ''We studied them hard all week. They did what they always do."
Like the loss in Denver five weeks ago, the Patriots fell desperately behind early, trailing, 26-3, in the third quarter before they mounted a brief rally that was little more than a mirage. The reality was they were not coming back in this game, just as they didn't in Denver, because they neither could stop their opponent nor attack it with consistency or the element of surprise.
For the seventh time in the past eight games the Patriots allowed a team more than 400 yards of total offense (420), and the only reason it's not eight in a row was that the Buffalo Bills fell 6 yards short last month. Those yards came in two ways yesterday, first by repeatedly gashing the heart of the Patriots defense with the powerful running of Larry Johnson. He rumbled through holes between the guards that sprung open because New England's interior line was being knocked off the line of scrimmage and its inside linebackers were being pushed back and chipped so often that they never got a clean shot at Johnson early in the game. Sixty-six of Johnson's 79 first-half yards came on runs up the middle and not even the presence of Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel made a difference where Kansas City chose to run.
Secondly, things were no better when Trent Green went back to pass. Green became the fourth straight quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards against the Patriots (323), and as has become its trademark, their injury-riddled secondary allowed five completions of 20 yards or more, with the burns being fairly evenly divided between Asante Samuel, Michael Stone, and Ellis Hobbs. Kansas City was able to throw to the left, to the right, and down the middle at will, and as every top tight end has done to them this season, Tony Gonzalez torched them, averaging 15.8 yards a catch on four receptions.
''We didn't play well enough," coach Bill Belichick mumbled, in the understatement of the day. ''We didn't play well enough on offense and we didn't play well enough on defense, and we didn't play well enough on special teams. We need to do a better job of coaching, so I think that [the problems are] across the board. They played better than we did."
They not only played better, they were better-prepared. On the first play of the day, Heath Evans was stuffed for no gain. On the second play, Brady threw incomplete. On the third play, he threw another incompletion on a play on which no one was open. When the Chiefs got the ball, Johnson ran for 15 yards on the first play, although it was called back because of a penalty. On the next play, wide receiver Eddie Kennison torched Samuel for a 42-yard gain. Four plays later it was Gonzalez wide open in the middle of the field for a 9-yard catch on third and 6, and after that it was a steady diet of Johnson. His 1-yard run made it 7-0 Chiefs.
On the next series, Brady threw the first of his four interceptions on a ball that flew over Deion Branch, and the Chiefs were at it again, beating New England's defense on third and 5 with a 21-yard Gonzalez reception. Ultimately the defense would stiffen, but only enough to hold the Chiefs to the first of four Lawrence Tynes second-quarter field goals. On one of those drives Green didn't see Kennison wide open in the end zone and on another Johnson tripped and fell at the 2 or he would have walked into the end zone. Had that been the case, it would have been about a 27-3 deficit by halftime, yet even though New England held the Chiefs out of the end zone in the second quarter, no one had any delusions about what had happened.
''They attacked us pretty well," defensive end Richard Seymour said wearily. ''They kept us off balance the whole game. We couldn't tell what they'd do. They had such a balanced attack [112 yards rushing on 37 carries, 323 passing on 26 throws with a touchdown each way]. It's tough when they can do a variety of things to you. We started slow. They were ready to play."
Not only were they ready to play, they apparently had a pretty good idea of what the Patriots would be trying to do and when they'd do it, shutting down their feeling-the-pain running game (42 yards minus Brady's scrambles and two end arounds by Tim Dwight) while sacking Brady three times and knocking him around many more. Pressured most of the day, Brady ended up with a passer rating of 42.5, the third-lowest of his career, and had no illusions that things were other than what they seemed to be.
''Early in the game we had a hard time doing anything -- throwing, running, catching," Brady said. ''They pressured us pretty good. They got us off the field on third down. They played a lot of man coverage and we had a hard time throwing it or catching it."
Clearly, the Patriots have even bigger defensive problems that are not going to be solved this season, not only in the secondary but also against strong running teams. They have allowed six of their last eight opponents to rush for more than 100 yards and they're getting picked to pieces by every passer who gets a reasonable amount of time to throw, which lately has been everyone they face.
None of those problems should affect New England's chances of reaching the postseason in the abysmal AFC East, but the fact is they are life-and-death with nearly everyone they face these days, and that can lead to unexpected problems on any Sunday when the offense isn't precise and exceedingly productive.
Injury has had much to do with that, but it is not the only problem. The defense is struggling in the middle even with Bruschi and Vrabel in the lineup, and Brady is being hit too often. That finally led to a day in which it seemed he was wild high when he was pressured and wild high when he wasn't, a result that was to be expected under the circumstances.
''I thought he got a little rattled today," Wesley said of Brady. ''Taking hits like that, a guy will be a little rattled. He didn't know what we were going to do."
Brady tried to claim he had plenty of time, but the facts, and his performance, belied his words. There was no comfort zone for him because the Chiefs got after him early, stuffed the run, and kept the pressure on while the secondary dogged his receivers. The converse was not true when New England was on defense, however. They didn't slow down Johnson until the fourth quarter and never found a way to cover Gonzalez or avoid the periodic deep ball completions that have plagued them because of the weaknesses in their secondary and because they put so little pressure on the quarterback (31st in NFL in sacks with 16). What that all led to was another difficult day that has left some of their best players wondering what to expect next.
''Right now we don't know what type of team we have," Seymour said. ''This is a different team than we've had. What we've done [in the past] has no bearing on the present. This was a day where, if we'd been in school, we would have just been marked present. That's all we were today."