By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
There’s a modicum of stress that goes in to watching every Pats game but the level has been ratcheted up this season. Whether it was the uninspiring play of the defense, the struggles of the offense a few weeks ago or the rash of injuries and personnel mistakes that have seemed to dominate the general conversation regarding the team pretty much since the third or fourth week of the year, the worry-wart meter feels like it’s been at least a little bit beyond what might be considered comfortable. That’s why a game like Monday night’s 34-3 waxing of the Kansas City Chiefs was comes as such a relief. Outside of a few tense moments in the first quarter (and into the second) during which the Pats offense was overcoming its now seemingly weekly sluggish start and figuring out what wrinkles former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, now in the same position for the Chiefs, was showing them, the game was breezy, fun and mostly stress free if not a little bit artistically uninspiring. But who cares about art when you get points on six of your last seven possessions while simultaneously getting another stifling performance out of your mostly anonymous defense, again featuring a secondary comprised of undrafted free agents, cast-offs and wild-eyed wide receivers? The Chiefs certainly aren’t a good team and they came in without a handful of their top talent and had to play a journeyman, backup quarterback making his first career start. But the Pats got big time plays out of every area, even the special teams, which broke free of its shackles and got an electrifying, 72-yard punt return for a TD out of the previously useless Julian Edelman (yep, the same Julian Edelman who was also referenced earlier as that wild-eyed wide receiver playing on defense). A very satisfying win paving the way for the most satisfying of holidays, what with Thanksgiving just hours away and the easier part of the schedule on the very near horizon. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, featuring ample amounts of both white and dark meat.

Quarterbacks: B
Brady hasn’t looked so hot in the early stages of games lately and Monday night was no exception. The Pats had 40 yards to show for their first 14 plays from scrimmage and Brady looked lost in the face of the Chiefs constantly changing looks and blitz packages (it goes without saying that so did the offensive line, but we’ll get to them). Finally, trailing 3-0 and in the midst of what felt like the first real threat of the night, Brady was blitzed, sacked and fumbled and that stress-o-meter started to shoot skyward again. But that turnover was the last time all night the Pats would look anything less than superb on offense. Suddenly, the line started picking things up, the running game throttled to life and Brady started being Brady, utilizing his tight ends and the short passing game of which he’s become the ultimate master, to near perfection. Now with time to throw, Brady just started taking what the defense was giving him and that, after some initial double teams, was Rob Gronkowski running free in the middle of the field, making a catch in stride and doing the rest himself en route to a 52-yard TD. Brady would find Gronk for another TD and finish with a rather modest line of 15-of-27 for 234 yards and the two scores. He was plagued early on by protection issues and inconsistency. And the Chiefs completely taking away Wes Welker (two catches, 23 yards, all late in the fourth quarter) didn’t help, especially considering how little Brady has to work with elsewhere in the receiving corps. But the combination of adjustments to the Chiefs varying looks, the running game starting to roll and the mere fact that even when he’s not at his best, like all the greats, Brady can still find the way to make plays and carried the offense for as long as was needed. Those 400-plus yards games of the season’s first month are long past but that’s OK. Brady still gets it done.

Running Backs: B+
There’s not been much to cheer about regarding the Pats running game over the past few weeks so when things started out pretty much in neutral again on Monday night, it wasn’t terribly surprising. But just like the passing game, things started to get on track right around the midpoint of the second quarter. It started with Danny Woodhead, who was a factor for the second straight week and is finally starting to resemble the difference maker he was all of last season. Woodhead carried five times for 27 yards, all out of passing formations and also caught a couple of balls for 28 more yards. I’m sure the Pats will take nearly eight yards every time Woodhead touches the ball. And then, there was the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, stuck in Nowheres-ville for going on a month now, getting back to his decisive, power-running roots. BJGE started looking to take guys on again; he looked healthy and powerful on Monday night, getting over some early Maroney-esque dancing and stutter-stepping to find holes, hit them hard and with authority and even drag a few unsuspecting Chiefs along with him for extra yards on a few occasions. The coaches gave BJGE a couple chances to get back into the end zone for the first time sine Week 5 against the Jets but even though he couldn’t quite get there, his game was most encouraging, especially headed into the last month of the year and the requisite frigid weather. And lastly, on a very pleasant note, the second of the Pats two rookie runners, Cal-Berkeley’s Shane Vereen, saw his first real action in the fourth quarter/garbage time and really delivered, gaining 39 yards on just eight carries, ripping off a 19-yard scamper and chalking up his first career TD to close out the scoring. Vereen, a smallish, bowling ball-looking dude (reminded me of a slightly smaller Maurice Jones-Drew) looked like someone who can help going forward (though we also said that about fellow rookie Stevan Ridley a few weeks ago and he didn’t play a single snap on Monday night) and you can never have too many weapons on offense. Really good, really welcome stuff (35 carries, 157 yards, 4.5 YPA) from the backs in this one.

Wide Receivers: C-
Hey, you can’t really fault Welker. Crennel, of course given how often he and Belichick used to do it here, is a big believer of taking away an opponent’s best weapon so that basically eliminated Welker from the proceedings. The league’s leading receiver didn’t catch his first pass until there were less than six minutes left to play in the game and while it was nice to see the Pats able to not only function without Welker for much of the night but even flourish from time to time, the fact that the receivers as a group had just four catches for 41 yards on the night is a bit alarming. As nice a player as Deion Branch is and as much as we love him around here for what he accomplished during his first Pats incarnation, he isn’t what he used to be, isn’t remotely a threat further than 10-12 yards down the field and is pretty inconsistent to boot. After that, what is there? Chad Ochocinco, who some thought may have busted out after his maximum two catches against the Jets netted 60-something yards as opposed to 20-something, returned to invisible status, playing just 11 snaps, making zero catches and not having a single ball thrown his way. Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien again went out of their way to talk about how hard Chad works, how Chad was open a number of times, how important Chad is. But it’s in one ear and out the other at this point. The next time Chad does anything of import while wearing a Pats uniform will be the first. Sorry to fuck up the good vibes with yet another negative bunch of sentences on Chad. Maybe I’ll just ignore him from here on out. Brady, when he’s not talking him up post-game, sure seems to.

Tight Ends: A
Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further. Gronk is a cyborg. He’s the T-1 million. There’s some sort of super metal exoskeleton thing going on underneath that No. 87 jersey and pads. His eyes may as well be glowing red spheres. Slow him down and you may see a small control panel door on the back of his giant dome. Open it up, punch in a couple of codes and simply step aside while he goes out, annihilates would-be pass rushers and run stuffers, outruns coverages, beats defenders quicker and faster than him, watches wannabe tacklers bounce right off him even when they do the right thing and go for his legs, delicately balances himself along the sideline like a goddamn ballerina, flips 10 feet in the air and lands on his head, gets up, staggers around a little bit while the computer wiring straightens itself out then unleashes a monstrous spike that likely puts a dent in the Gillette Stadium Astro-turf (Bill Belichick called one of Gronk’s spikes, “drilling for oil,” and admitted he’d never coached a player who spikes the ball harder). Gronk, aka the best tight end in football, caught four passes for 96 yards and scored two more TDs, giving him 20 for his one-year plus 10-game career. That’s the fastest any tight end has gotten to 20 scores in NFL history. Cyborg Gronk, coming soon to a stadium near you. It almost makes you feel bad for Aaron Hernandez, himself an outstanding, young tight end, who also caught four passes on Monday night but is nowhere near Gronk in either the folk hero category or the cyborg category. Oh well, that’s OK. We love you too, A-Herb. If you can get yourself converted to one of those liquid metal models, maybe you’ll even catch up to Gronk.

Offensive Line: C+
Things were really ugly up front for a stretch. One of the variety of looks featured by Crennel and the Chiefs defense was a simple, three-man rush and at times, particularly when pressure came up the middle, the Pats couldn’t handle it. Dan Connolly, so good as the fill-in center earlier in the year, has taken a step back and is now basically sharing time with Ryan Wendell. Neither of them is Dan Koppen and while that’s obvious, it also hurts from time to time, particularly when Logan Mankins isn’t available to help in the middle. And Sebastian Vollmer, who is probably still a little bit behind thanks to his back injury from earlier in the season, had a hell of a time with Chiefs pass rushing end/demon Tamba Hali. The two were locked up for most of the evening and while things got better for Vollmer as the game wore on (Brady was hardly touched from that midpoint in the second quarter), he clearly was a step slow early on. And Mankins, once again, as he does every week, didn’t miss a chance to get either his weekly false start penalty or his weekly holding or unnecessary roughness call either. Mankins is great – the fact that he’s the highest paid interior lineman in the league is a richly deserved honor. But wouldn’t it be nice to get through one game without having to hear his number called after a couple flags were thrown? Other than that, things were OK, even good, after the Pats first few drives. Matt Light got his ankle rolled up on late in the game and left the stadium in a boot but it doesn’t seem to be serious. If he misses a game, look for Vollmer to move over to the left and rookie Nate Solder, again hugely successful as a tight end on Monday night, getting 20 snaps and playing the majority of them on all three of the Pats scoring marches, will play on the right. Monday night showcased both the best and worst of the Pats O-line. When they struggled as a group, the Pats were helpless on offense. When they adjusted and controlled the line of scrimmage both in the running and passing games, the Pats blew the doors off. Brady, Welker and Gronk are clearly the catalysts of the Pats offense. But if the line doesn’t play well, none of them will have a chance to make plays. Let’s hope going forward that the team gets more performances like the second half of Monday night’s game than the first.

Defensive Line: A-
The primary reason for the Pats D looking so much better over the past two weeks (and for a good portion of the Giants game the week before that) has been the line and Monday night was no exception. Now that Albert Haynesworth is gone, youngsters Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick are healthy, veteran bust Shaun Ellis has basically been put out to pasture and Andre Carter and Mark Anderson have been turned loose, the D-line has a real identity complete with defined roles and clear priorities. Gone are the three-man rushes in front of eight man deep zones, a surefire recipe for one 20-plus yard completion after another. Now, with Carter and Anderson rushing from the edges, Vince Wilfork moving all over the line regardless of the situation to contain the run and offer some occasional pressure on the quarterback, and either Deaderick, Brace, Kyle Love (who made one of the most bone-crushing hits of the year while blocking on an interception return in the third quarter) or Gerard Warren providing depth and support, the Pats have rolled up eight whole sacks in two games, a stat that has allowed the makeshift secondary more room to grow with less onus put on it. Carter and Anderson continued their torrid pace, combining for 11 tackles, three for a loss, three sacks and five more hits on overmatched KC quarterback Tyler Palko. And everyone else fell into line. The Chiefs have a pretty good offensive line and a decent running game; in fact in the early stages, their three-pronged running attack (Thomas Jones, Dexter McCluster and Jackie Battle) all were finding creases with Jones, the long-time veteran ripping off six yards per carry. But once the Pats got ahead and Palko had to throw more, that was pretty much it and the Chiefs managed just 32 rushing yards in the second half. These guys are the key going forward, particularly Carter, who has emerged as the best player on the defense. The way he’s being used reminds somewhat of Willie McGinest. He’s standing up and rushing or falling into coverage from the outside sometimes and staying down in others and it all seems to be working. He played every snap Monday night and why not? He’s been the catalyst for this defensive revival. He can’t be out there enough.

Linebackers: B
Not too much to say either good or bad about these guys; they were just fine. Without Brandon Spikes again and with newbie Jeff Tarpinian out sick, Gary Guyton made his not-so-triumphant return and acquitted himself decently by not doing anything too stupid or getting burned too badly. Guyton played in most of the Pats base formations; when the subs came in, Tracy White took his place and for the second straight week looked like a lot more than just a special teamer. He had six tackles in under 20 snaps, one of which featured him throwing down a ball carrier with one hand and it looked like a flick of the wrist. White won’t play as much when Spikes comes back but maybe he should. He inspires more confidence than Guyton. Elsewhere, Rob Ninkovich didn’t quite reach the heights of his career game against the Jets last week but he was soild and them some once again. Along with his six tackles, he had another sack and blasted Palko right as he let go of the ball on that same INT that featured Love’s monstrous hit. Ninkovich represents everything that’s right about the Pats fancying the hard-working, lift-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, anonymous guys. He’s one of them and he’s one of the best. And finally, cheers to Jerod Mayo, who presided over this blowout and actually made an impact play while he was at it, stuffing Battle on a third and-1 from the Pats 36 on the Chiefs second drive of the game, forcing a punt. Baby steps, Jerod.

Defensive Backs: B+
Antuwan Molden played every defensive snap in the game. That’s all of them. Kyle Arrington had two more picks and now not only leads the league with seven, he has more by himself than a handful of entire teams. Sterling Moore started at safety again and not only held his own in nearly playing the whole game, his highlight reel hit this week was actually laid on an opponent and not a teammate. Phillip Adams had his first career pick. James Ihedigbo was shaken up early and it felt like a major blow. And Edelman played another 13 snaps at dime corner, made another sick, perfectly executed tackle for a short gain and looked instinctive and proficient in doing it. Yep, this is the Pats secondary, with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung on the sideline. Granted, Palko is a 28-year old backup who was making his first career start. He threw three picks, each one worse than the last, and finished with a passer rating under 50. But the Pats still had to run some guys out there to cover, play back and make things happen and for the second week in a row, this group of castoffs and scrubs and unwanteds did just that. There is not another passing game on the Pats schedule that invokes goosebumps except maybe Buffalo’s, but the Bills are in total freefall. This bunch, which will eventually be fortified with McCourty and Chung, looks up to the challenge. And that, more than anything else, could be the stunner of the year.

Special Teams: A
Gotta love Edelman. The guy has looked so helpless on punt returns all year, some know-it-alls have even wondered aloud why he’s even on the team (hello!). So naturally, he goes out Monday night and not only runs one back, he looks like an All-Pro in doing it. Edelman fielded the ball, dodged one man, cut it back, broke a tackle and was gone, just like that. It was by far the best special teams play of the year for the Pats and it completely turned the game in the Pats favor, effectively ending the night with a full quarter left to play. He may not do anything near it again all year but at least he did it Monday night, if for no other reason than we’ve now been reminded that he’s capable of it. Just a great, great showing for No. 11. The kick return game wasn’t as successful although, in the interest of full disclosure, the Pats only had one kickoff to run out to their own 17. Stephen Gostkowski booted a couple chippies. And our man Zoltan had another week for the ages, averaging 51 yards on his four punts. What a relief to finally see the special teams make a big impact on a game. One of the best, most fun A’s to dole out all year.

Coaching: B+
It took a little too long for the Pats to adjust to what the Chiefs were chucking at them on both sides of the ball. And the fact that this was the fifth straight game with such a sluggish start is a bit alarming. But again, the most important thing is that they won and they did it again with more nobodys than somebodys. Belichick’s secondary was even thinner than against the Jets thanks to McCourty’s absence but you could make a case that this group was even better than last week. That, once again, is coaching. And even though it took a quarter plus a few minutes, the Pats did not suffer from potentially looking past an opponent, even one as riddled with injuries and problems as Kansas City. Despite all of their flaws and inconsistencies, the Pats are on a roll again. At 7-3, they have a two game lead in the division and if the season ended today, would be the No. 1 seed in the AFC. That’s right, with this roster, the Pats are on course for the top seed in their conference. That’s coaching. Belichick may not be so great at shopping for the groceries these days. But he sure as hell can still cook the meal.