The Patriots (2-1) are tied for the top spot in the AFC East heading into their third road game in the first four weeks of the season, a Monday night trip to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs (1-2). Andy Reid's squad was already a popular preseason pick to be a team to take a step back after surprising success a year ago, and that was before the team was bombarded with early-season injuries. But Arrowhead Stadium is indeed one of the best home field advantages in the NFL and Bill Belichick's team hasn't exactly hit its early season stride. Tom Brady's passing attack and protection are a work in progress. Darrelle Revis and the defense have yet to face a true test. It's all about improvement from week to week and New England certainly will look to do that a week removed from a home scare at the hands of the Raiders. Monday Night Football on ESPN has been very kind to the Patriots over the years, with the Patriots posting a 10-2 record since the early-week primetime games moved to cable TV. There's a little extra time prior to Monday night's kickoff to prepare for a somewhat unfamiliar foe. Take that time to enjoy this Show Me State, something-to-wash-down-the-local-barbecue Patriots at Chiefs Pregame Six-Pack!
- Protection, protection, protection** - It's never a good thing when the offensive line is the main story of the week and the topic of sport talk radio. But that's certainly been the case in New England this week after Brady was battered a bit by the Raiders, the second time in three games that the front really struggled to protect the 37-year-old franchise passer. Things don't get any easier this week. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali combine to form one of the better edge duos in the game. They notched 11 sacks each last fall and have already combined for five in three games. Nate Solder, in particular, could use a bounce-back performance after giving up a couple big hits on Brady by Khalil Mack and Justin Tuck last week. The Chiefs also have an interior rusher in Dontari Poe. So the entirety of a line - one that's still not settled on a consistent five-man unit - remains under scrutiny. Everything on offense begins up front and that's been a problem through three games. Dave DeGuglielmo's group of linemen is in the crosshairs of criticism and face a challenge from a talented Chiefs front. If the line isn't better and if Brady doesn't have time to throw then the passing game will probably struggle the way it has through the last few weeks. And if Brady keeps taking big hits, his health is going to become a growing concern. Solder and Co. simply have to protect better. Failure is not an option.
2. Succeed running Ridley - A week ago it seemed like a good idea to establish the running game against a Raiders defense that had allowed 400 yards on the ground through two games and a 5-yard average per carry. The Patriots didn't think so, as Brady opened the game with three straight passes out of the shotgun on the way to a punt. New England ran four straight times on the next drive before penalties derailed things and forced another punt. At the end of the day the Patriots tallied just 76 yards on 32 carries for a 2.4-yard average in the win over Oakland. Stevan Ridley led the way with just 54 yards on his 19 carries. It wasn't nearly the production you'd have expected against a suspect run defense. The Chiefs enter Week 4 allowing 5.1 yards a carry on the ground, ranking near the bottom of the league. The Patriots running game is averaging a disappointing 3.5 yards a carry on the season, ranking near the bottom of the league. But this is another chance to improve on that and it certainly makes sense to try to do so in this matchup. Not only is it a weaknesses of a Chiefs front without the injured Derrick Johnson and a way to stagnate the pass rushers, it's also a way to take the home crowd out of the game. Watching a team run the ball on your defense certainly takes the wind out of even the best of crowds. The plan is simple - run Ridley against a suspect run defense. But the execution behind an inconsistent line is far from simple at this point for the Patriots.
- Gronk spike** - Clearly Rob Gronkowski hasn't lived up to his own elite reputation through three weeks. While he leads the Patriots with a pair of touchdowns, he's barely averaging 10 yards a catch. Coming back from a torn ACL is a progression. It can be slow. But this might be a good week to have a spike in production from big No. 87 against a team with its best safety - Eric Berry - dealing with an ankle injury that kept him sidelined of late. There has been plenty of talk of the need to get more production from the complementary receivers in the Patriots passing game, but just as big a boost could come from Gronkowski getting back to his dominating ways. He's a guy that can thrive in energetic environments and he'll certainly face that in Kansas City. The Chiefs also don't match up well with the big tight end. He showed slight signs of improvement last week against Oakland. Put it all together and this is a week for Brady to get more out of his Gronk, who has said he's ready for a bigger workload.
- Rising pressure** - The Chiefs have given up sacks at a faster rate than all but one team. The Patriots pass rush - driven by versatile athletic guys up front like Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower - has been productive but inconsistent. It was six sacks against the Vikings and then none last week. Alex Smith has been sacked 11 times in three games. He has a young left tackle in former No. 1 pick Eric Fisher. The Patriots have been pretty creative and aggressive in the pass rush at times. But getting after the athletic Smith is both a good idea and a challenge. He can run, even if he isn't necessarily going to beat you with his legs. Really, though, it's about the Patriots front continuing to build on its decent early season success and take the opportunity at hand to get after Smith, as Kansas City's three previous opponents have been able to do.
- Don't ignore the noise** - Belichick tells his team often to "ignore the noise." That's in relation to the media and any distractions that might derail a team. This week, though, it's important to acknowledge and deal with the noise that's a legitimate factor at Arrowhead. The Patriots have likely spent the week working with music blaring at practice and preparing for a noisy environment. There will be hand signals and silent counts. For a team that's struggled on the line and in its ability to have the receivers on the same page as the quarterback those tactics in a noisy night game have to be a concern. The Chiefs are going to be trying to get the crowd going even more than normal in an effort to take back the Guinness Book of World Records title for crowd noise from Seattle. So there is no ignoring the noise this week for Belichick's team, it's about dealing with it. If Brady and the Patriots can't do that, it might be a long night. That also might be a factor in whether this game makes sense to start rookie center Bryan Stork. Might not be the best environment for a rookie center to make his NFL starting debut. Regardless, the line has to deal with the noise as much as it does the Kansas City pass rush.
Check out photos of Patriots practice and media access leading up to New England's week three game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
- Tackle the challenge** - Heading toward Monday night it looks like dangerous Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles is going to return from a high ankle sprain. That will be a major point of emphasis for the Patriots defensive front, especially for the linebackers both in the running game and on passes to the speedy back. Tight end Travis Kelce is also a force to deal with in the middle of the field. That's something to keep an eye on in terms of a Patriots safety position that's continued to rotate bodies through the lineup early in the year. The Chiefs are a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of points scored and near the bottom of the league in yards. But they do have some playmakers on offense, especially with Charles on the field, assuming he's at a decent level of health. Dwayne Bowe is not the playmaker he once was, but he can't be ruled out in the passing attack. Nor can veteran Donnie Avery, even though he averages just 9.2 yards on his team-high 12 catches. Tackling is always a defensive key. It's more so against a team like the Chiefs that utilizes a short passing attack. And is certainly a premium need against an elite playmaker like Charles. If the Patriots defense tackles well, the rest should fall into place against a questionable Chiefs offense.
I'll be honest, I'm completely torn on this one. My mind and my eyeballs tell me that based on the way the Patriots have played through three weeks and the difficulty that opposing teams generally have at Arrowhead that this could be a really tough road battle. But history tells me that the Patriots are due. This is a team most of us thought was a Super Bowl contender. This is a team that doesn't play poorly for an entire month. A team that generally proves the critics wrong when it's most doubted. And the Patriots are very much doubted right now, primarily based on offensive struggles. I don't see those being rectified overnight. I think there probably will be some problems with the Chiefs pass rush. But I'm also going to say that Ridley does get the running game going early and that opens up some chances through the air, especially for Gronkowski just behind the linebackers. That combination, with a little Julian Edelman mixed in should be enough to score more points than the Chiefs. I also don't have a lot of respect for the Kansas City offense other than Charles. Given that he's coming off the always-tough high ankle sprain, I find it dubious whether he'll be at his best or even be ready for a full load. I also expect Chandler Jones to get to Smith at least once and for the Patriots front to continue to mix things up to find a successful recipe. Mix it all together and I think there will be challenges on the road but it will end up with a 26-13 Patriots victory. It may not always be pretty. May not be the breakout performance that fans are looking for. But it will be a respectable road win.