It's been an odd season in New England, where the Patriots defense springs the odd leak and Tom Brady turns the ball over more than usual. The Albert Haynesworth experiment fizzled. Chad Ochocinco has been quieter than anyone thought. The Patriots secondary is beset by injury. And yet the Patriots, after a thorough 34-3 victory over the Chiefs on Monday night, sit atop the AFC East at 7-3 with a two-game lead over the reeling Bills and Jets. Is New England Super Bowl ready? Are the Chiefs toast in 2011? Those questions will be answered in time, but here's what we learned Monday night.
1. For all of Bill Belichick's defensive innovation as a head coach, New England's complexity and diversity on offense is also something to behold. Some teams are blessed with one good tight end. The Patriots have two tight ends who may one day be classified as great in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Historically, teams with two tight ends use one as a blocker and the other as a pass-catcher. New England utilizes Gronkowski and Hernandez as offensive weapons, sometimes on the same play, leaving defenses all but handcuffed. Belichick has also lined up rookie tackle Nate Solder at tight end to bulldoze linemen in the running game. Belichick is always evolving, which is why the Patriots continue to win.
2. Tom Brady is facing heavy blitzing in 2011. Maybe it was just the sight of Brady against the Chiefs (the team that ended Brady's season in 2008) but the Patriots quarterback has been under duress from defensive coordinators of late. After taking 25 sacks last season, Brady has been sacked 19 times this season, including three times against a Chiefs defense coached by Romeo Crennel, the former Patriots defense coordinator. While that's not an extraordinarily high number of sacks, Brady's still taking some shots. For all of Brady's gifts, he is not the same quarterback with defenders charging at him up the middle, a fact that Crennel tried to exploit by calling a game that was heavy on the blitz. In the first half, it appeared to work as Brady looked off. In the second half he stood tall in the pocket, delivered some beautiful throws, and ultimately made Kansas City pay for its aggression.
3. Tyler Palko has some learning to do. Palko could not have brought a thinner resume to Gillette Stadium (CFL, UFL, practice-squad lifer) but there he was against the Patriots, lining up in the shotgun and under center, rolling to his left and making a few plays in his first NFL start before a raft of turnovers unsettled him. With the Chiefs placing Matt Cassel on injured reserve Monday, Palko will get a few more spins for Kansas City this season and it's reasonable to guess that he will only get more comfortable. (Cassel didn't have the Chiefs offense moving much anyway). In the unpredictable AFC West, where anyone can beat anyone, the Chiefs may not be dead yet, but Palko is going to have to grow up fast.
4. While Haynesworth brought nothing to New England, free-agent signees Andre Carter and Mark Anderson continue to impress. In recent years, the Patriots have not put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but that has changed with Carter and Anderson, two defensive ends who have helped New England's transition to a 4-3 defense. In their previous stops, Carter and Anderson were viewed as little more than solid veterans. In New England the duo is knocking down quarterbacks. Playing alongside a space eater like Vince Wilfork, who attracts so much attention from opposing offensive lines, can make almost anyone like good. Almost. Haynesworth failed to capitalize on the opportunity. Carter and Anderson are cashing in.
5. Rob Ninkovich is becoming a mainstay of the New England defense. While the Patriots linebacker did not start a single game on defense in his first five years in NFL (including his first season in New England in 2009) he has quickly developed into the swiss-army knife kind of defender that Belichick loves. While not at the level of a Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel (yet), Ninkovich has developed a similar knack for making plays. He picked off two Mark Sanchez passes last week and, this week, lined up all over the field against the Chiefs, rushing Palko, dropping back into coverage, doing what Patriots linebackers do. Being a general nuisance. How valuable has the former backup become? He's started every game this season.