Patriots regain dominance, face easy schedule
FOXBOROUGH, Mass.—The New England Patriots routed their last two opponents by a combined margin of 52 points.
Now comes the easy part.
With a two-game lead in the once-competitive AFC East and no remaining matchups against teams with winning records, the conference's highest scoring club faces a smooth path to a division title.
The Patriots, of course, won't say that. All that matters to them, they say, is Sunday's game at the Philadelphia Eagles. Stumble in that one and, if the New York Jets or Buffalo Bills reverse their recent struggles and win, the Patriots' division lead would shrink to one game.
But the way the offense returned to its dominance in the last two games after two subpar outings, there's plenty of reason for optimism -- even though Tom Brady is never satisfied, especially after the team's sluggish start Monday night.
"We're going to need to play better than we did offensively tonight if we want to start making serious improvements down the stretch," he said after a 34-3 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. "We're 7-3. I don't think we're really where we hoped to be at this point."
The injury-battered defense is approaching that goal.
It has allowed the most yards in the NFL for most of the season, but had three interceptions and three sacks against the Chiefs and quarterback Tyler Palko in his first pro start. The defense gave up 334 yards, 78 below its season average.
"We have the possibility of being a pretty good defense as long as we play well and get better each week," tackle Vince Wilfork said. "(We) can't get complacent. That's one thing we can't do. We can't sit back and say, `We only gave up three points and everything is all good,' because it's not. We always have to work on little things."
The defense held the Chiefs to just one drive of more than 50 yards. On its first five possessions, Kansas City punted four times and managed just a 26-yard field goal by Ryan Succop. Palko's numbers were respectable, 25 completions in 38 attempts for 236 yards, but his passer rating was a horrible 49.9.
Brady's was 109.2 for the game, getting boosts from touchdown passes of 52 and 19 yards to Rob Gronkowski, who ran most of the way on both catches and finished the plays by barely staying inbounds on the right side as he barreled toward the end zone.
"He ran his routes and a couple of times he was open," Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "You have a small margin for error when you play the Patriots, and Tom Brady did a good job when he got his opportunities."
The Patriots' toughest remaining game may be their next one. The Eagles (4-6) will try to build on a 17-10 upset of the New York Giants in which quarterback Vince Young played for the injured Michael Vick. Coach Andy Reid said Vick would start against the Patriots if his two broken ribs have healed sufficiently.
"Both guys have been productive and they have a lot of weapons to utilize," New England coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "They do a good job of getting them the ball."
After that, the Patriots' final five opponents are Indianapolis (0-10), Washington (3-7), Denver (5-5), Miami (3-7) and Buffalo (5-5).
New England's first 10 opponents had a combined record of 28-17 heading into each of those games. The remaining six are 20-40.
All the Patriots' losses have been close -- 34-31 at Buffalo on a last-play field goal, 25-17 at Pittsburgh when they trailed by just six points with 2:35 left, and 24-20 to the New York Giants on a touchdown pass with 15 seconds remaining.
The loss to the Giants ended two long streaks: an NFL-record 31 wins in regular-season starts at home for Brady and 20 straight regular-season home wins for the Patriots.
Their next home game was against the Chiefs and they began that one poorly with three punts and a lost fumble on their first four possessions.
"I thought we came out strong in the second half and took control in the third quarter," Brady said. "It's good to get a win at home after the loss last time."
They also started slowly in their previous game, leading the Jets 9-6 in the final minute of the first half before rolling to a 37-16 victory.
That weekend began with the Patriots, Jets and Bills tied for the AFC East lead at 5-5. The Patriots are 2-0 since then, the Jets and Bills 0-2.
New England's defense is getting by quite well with a secondary so depleted by injuries that Belichick used wide receiver Julian Edelman there against Kansas City.
Its offense is back to its overpowering early season form when it scored 30 or more points in its first five games. But that's not good enough for a team that's tied for the best record in the AFC.
The Patriots want to dominate from the opening seconds.
"We have to do a better job of starting the game with better plays, with better execution," offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien said. "Obviously, in the second half we played better. We just have to start faster."