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NFL Preview - Kansas City (4-5) at New England (6-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The last time the New England Patriots faced the Kansas City Chiefs, an injury to Tom Brady created an opportunity for Matt Cassel to earn himself a job as an NFL starting quarterback.
More than three years later, Cassel's unavailability has opened the door for another unproven player to try to take advantage of.
Tyler Palko will make his first career NFL start in place of an ailing Cassel when the Chiefs visit Gillette Stadium to battle the AFC East-leading Patriots in a Monday night matchup that offers plenty of intriguing storylines.
The opening game of the 2008 season turned out to be one of the darkest days of Brady's splendid career. Midway through the first quarter of the Patriots' clash with the Chiefs that afternoon, the two-time league MVP tore multiple ligaments in his left knee after taking a shot from safety Bernard Pollard, causing him to miss the remainder of that campaign as a result.
The then-unknown Cassel stepped in and performed capably, helping lead New England to an 11-5 record and a near-playoff appearance that year. And the Chiefs, with longtime Patriots personnel director Scott Pioli now in charge of the front office, took notice of those exploits, with Pioli orchestrating a trade to land Brady's former understudy and have him serve as Kansas City's new primary signal-caller following the season.
Cassel has started nearly all of the Chiefs' games since the swap, but was forced to exit last Sunday's 17-10 home loss to the surging Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter with an injured throwing hand that required surgery and will likely sideline him for the rest of the year.
In his place will step Palko, a 28-year-old who's been cut by three different NFL teams and had brief stops in both the UFL and CFL during a nomadic five- year pro career. The left-handed passer has attempted just 13 throws with the Chiefs and hasn't started a game of any kind since his senior season at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006.
Palko, who completed 5-of-7 passes for 47 yards in relief of Cassel last week, has said he's ready for the long-awaited challenge.
"I don't think you can ever prepare yourself for this exactly, but I think the big thing is just mentally preparing, and they say mental reps are important," he stated. "This is where you really are tested, if you're paying attention or not when Matt was in and asking questions and just being involved with him."
Palko will get to face a maligned New England defense that's allowed a league- high 308.9 passing yards per game but is coming off one of its better efforts of the season, intercepting New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez twice and sacking him five times en route to a critical 37-16 triumph at MetLife Stadium that halted a two-game losing skid and put the Pats back in sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
Brady did his part as well, carving up the Jets for 329 yards and three touchdowns -- two of which went to standout tight end Rob Gronkowski -- on a crisp 26-of-39 passing. He'll be taking on a Kansas City defense run by veteran coordinator Romeo Crennel, who spent four seasons in the same capacity for New England from 2001-04 and was part of three Super Bowl champion squads during that period.
The up-and-down Chiefs come having lost back-to-back contests, including a humiliating 31-3 blasting by then-winless Miami at home in Week 8, after getting back into the AFC West race by reeling off four consecutive victories following an 0-3 start. Kansas City presently trails Oakland by 1 1/2 games in the division standings.
With a win on Monday, New England can open up a two-game advantage on both the Jets and Buffalo in the AFC East.
Kansas City holds a 16-12-3 lead in its all-time series with New England, but the Patriots have won four of the last five meetings between the teams. As previously stated, the most recent encounter took place at Gillette Stadium in the 2008 season opener, a 17-10 New England victory marred by Brady's injury. The Pats also bested the Chiefs at home in 2000 and 2002, and Kansas City has lost four straight as the visitor in this set since a 37-7 rout at Foxboro Stadium on Dec. 2, 1990. The Chiefs last topped New England in 2005, a 26-26 home decision.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 6-2 in his career against the Chiefs, having compiled a 4-1 record during his 12-year reign in New England and a 1-1 mark during a previous stint with Cleveland. Kansas City's Todd Haley will be taking on both the Patriots and Belichick for the first time as a head coach.
Belichick and Haley were both members of the New York Jets' staff under Bill Parcells from 1997-99, with Belichick then the defensive coordinator and Haley an offensive assistant and later in charge of the team's wide receivers.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
A Kansas City offense that's averaged just 15.7 points per game (27th overall), ranks 28th in total yards (306.7 ypg) and was already without two key injured contributors in speedy running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki is now further short-handed because of Cassel's plight, as the consensus among scouts and general managers is that Palko isn't regarded as an NFL-starting talent. Haley is hoping his fill-in quarterback can at least be a serviceable caretaker in the interim as he leans on a running game that's been decent even with Charles on the shelf, with new lead back Jackie Battle (403 rushing yards, 1 TD) and diminutive change-of-pace option Dexter McCluster (291 rushing yards, 29 receptions) each averaging a respectable 4.6 yards per carry in the revised arrangement. The duo combined for 106 yards on 17 attempts in last week's loss, and the Chiefs do rank 10th in the league in rushing yards (124.4 ypg). Palko will have a few worthwhile targets to work with when he does attempt to throw, with No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe (41 receptions, 663 yards, 4 TD) a Pro Bowl honoree in 2010 who led the NFL with 15 touchdown catches a year ago and veteran Steve Breaston (33 receptions, 2 TD) just two games removed from a seven-reception, 115-yard outburst against the Dolphins. Rookie Jonathan Baldwin (8 receptions, 1 TD), the team's first-round choice in last April's draft, appeared to break out with a five-catch, 82-yard display in a Monday night win over San Diego in Week 8, but has just two grabs in two games since.
The Chiefs' dilemma at quarterback should be good news for a New England defense that's often been ravaged by enemy signal-callers this season and probably won't have starting cornerback Devin McCourty in uniform after the 2010 first-round pick injured his shoulder against the Jets. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes also isn't expected to play while he recovers from a knee injury, which could be another blow to a unit that ranks ninth in the league (103.1 ypg) against the run. The Patriots still possess two players along the front seven who have been to Pro Bowls in defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (25 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (38 tackles), while strongside starter Rob Ninkovich (42 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) is a solid all- around performer who came up with two interceptions in last week's win over the Jets, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He was still overshadowed by end Andre Carter (37 tackles, 8.5 sacks), however, with the 11th-year veteran amassing a franchise-record 4 1/2 sacks on the night to give him eight over the past four games. The secondary's main playmaker has been cornerback Kyle Arrington (45 tackles, 8 PD), who enters the week tied for the NFL with five interceptions and has been the most consistent member of a backfield that's enabled six quarterbacks to throw for only 300 yards this year.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
With one of the game's elite quarterbacks in Brady (3032 passing yards, 23 TD, 10 INT) at the controls and a wealth of high-caliber pass-catchers at the perennial All-Pro's disposal, the Patriots possess an aerial attack that's as dangerous as you'll find. New England tops the NFL in passing yards (326.0 ypg) and is second in total offense (436.9 ypg), and Brady bounced back nicely from a two-interception outing in a Week 9 loss to the New York Giants by shredding the Jets' well-regarded secondary last Sunday. While the prolific Wes Welker (72 receptions, 1006 yards, 6 TD), the league's current leader in catches and receiving yards, remains the go-to guy among a deep collection of receivers, Gronkowski (52 receptions, 709 yards, 8 TD) was Brady's preferred choice in last Sunday's win and responded with a career-best 113 yards and two scores on eight catches. and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez (37 receptions, 5 TD) and steady wideout Deion Branch (37 receptions, 4 TD) give defenses two other quality weapons to account for. Leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis (460 rushing yards, 5 TD) provides the offense with a physical presence when the Patriots opt to run the ball, while backfield mate Danny Woodhead (186 rushing yards, 12 receptions) offers yet another capable receiver for Brady in his third-down role. New England is also deadly within the red zone, having scored touchdowns on 63.4 percent (2nd overall) of its possessions inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Slowing down the Patriots' powerful passing game figures to be a stern test for a Kansas City defense that's dead last in the NFL with a mere nine sacks, though outside linebacker Tamba Hali (39 tackles, 6 sacks) is a proven disrupter from his post in Crennel's 3-4 scheme. In spite of that lack of a pass rush, the Chiefs are still tied for third in the AFC with 13 interceptions and field two good cornerbacks in the pairing of Brandon Flowers (41 tackles, 4 INT, 15 PD) and Brandon Carr (28 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PD), both of whom will need to be on their toes in this tough matchup. Kansas City did limit Denver's run- happy offense to just 69 net passing yards last week, but Miami's Matt Moore put up 244 yards and three touchdowns on the group the previous Sunday and isn't in Brady's class as a quarterback. The Chiefs also surrendered 244 yards on the ground to the Broncos in Week 10 and rank only 26th in run defense (134.0 ypg), with inside linebackers Derrick Johnson (71 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Jovan Belcher (54 tackles) teaming up for 19 tackles in a losing cause.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Realistically, the Patriots don't stand much of a chance of losing to the undermanned Chiefs as long as they don't self-implode. New England has had four turnovers in a game four times this season and lost two of those tests, however, so taking care of the football is a must in preventing what would be a most shocking outcome.
In order for Kansas City to pull off the upset, it's essential for its defense to mount a pass rush capable of threatening Brady and taking him out of his comfort zone, and for someone other than Hali to step up in this area. The Chiefs aren't known as a heavily-blitzing team, but Crennel may have to construct a more aggressive game plan with a few wrinkles to throw the Patriots off guard.
Palko's credentials suggest it would be a major stretch for him to go into one of the league's toughest venues and exit with a victory in his first professional start. He's still an unknown quantity, however, and that could work to Kansas City's advantage if the Patriots don't take this game seriously.
There's little if any evidence to make a strong case for an injury-plagued Kansas City team with a practice-squad caliber quarterback knocking off one of the AFC's heavyweights in its own building, especially when factoring in that the Patriots have lost just one time in their last 32 regular-season home games in which Brady's been under center. Barring another catastrophic injury to New England's franchise quarterback like the one that occurred when these teams last squared off, the Chiefs simply don't have the firepower or shutdown defense to give the Patriots a severe test.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 35, Chiefs 10
11/21 10:15:30 ET
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