1. Justin Houston – Given the serious struggles on the Patriots' offensive line, it can’t be much of a comfort that Houston - a pass rushing demon - will be lined up across from them. A fourth year man out of Georgia, Houston has risen from third round pick in 2011 to premiere, Pro Bowl linebacker, as his 29.5 sacks, 24 of which have come since the start of 2012 including 11 in just 11 games last year, will attest. He’s rolled up three more in the Chiefs first three games of this season and may have a little extra motivation given that he’s playing for a new contract. And if the Pats can contain him, that hardly means they’re out of the woods because the other side of the Chiefs’ defense features…
2. Tamba Hali - … Another pass rushing monster. Hali is ferocious, a big, fast, strong, instinctive player who drew big time praise from Bill Belichick this week, with the Pats’ coach calling him “probably one of the best technique pass rushers in the league.” Hali, primarily a right outside backer, is a nine-year vet with 75.5 sacks, 11 of them last year and a career high of 14.5 back in 2010. He’ll get a chance to go to work against the weakest of the weak spots on the Pats’ O-line, the left side, where Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon must step up and improve on what’s been a mostly putrid showing for both through the team’s first three games. Hali was on the Chiefs injury report all week with an ankle problem and although he’s probable to play Monday night, anything that might possibly slow him down would be beneficial for the Pats.
3. Jamaal Charles – Hali isn’t the only Chief dealing with ankle issues. Charles, the Chiefs’ star running back who signed a big contract extension during training camp, suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2 against Denver and sat out last week when the Chiefs earned their first win of the season. It seems a bit odd that a high ankle sprain can be healed in just two weeks, especially for a running back (and more so when his backup, Knile Davis, has 211 yards and three TDs in his absence). But Charles is listed as probable for the game and was reported to have “done everything” in practice on Saturday, so he most likely gets the call. When healthy, Charles is as dangerous as any skill player in the NFL, he’s averaged at least five yards per rushing attempt in each of his previous six seasons, topping out at 6.4 in 2010 when he ran for 1,467 yards. He’s a receiving threat too, amassing almost 2,000 yards through the air in his career and posting a career-high 70 catches last season. Charles is Kansas City’s most potent weapon on offense and has the ability to single-handedly take over a game.
4. Alex Smith – It took Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick, years to gain a foothold on the starting job with his original team, the 49ers. Then when he did, he took them to the NFC Championship game in 2011. He lasted just half the season the following year before losing that job to Colin Kaepernick. So the Niners let him go, and Smith wound up in KC, as so many ex-San Francisco QBs do, flourishing last season to the tune of a 9-0 start and the Chiefs first playoff appearance since 2010. Smith isn’t a big armed guy but he can complete most throws with accuracy and is more than mobile enough to get outside the pocket and keep plays alive. Smith is a safe QB, the kind of guy who won’t necessarily put a team on his back to win games but hardly ever makes enough mistakes to lose them. He’s thrown just 20 picks in his last 44 games. The Pats will have to work extra hard to force him into making mistakes.
5. Travis Kelce – At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, the second year tight end out of Cincinnati is borderline Gronk-esque. He leads the Chiefs in receiving yards with 166 and has 10 catches, good for second on the team. Veteran Dwayne Bowe is still the No. 1 target for Smith but Kelce looks to be next in line, especially in the red zone, where his size could make him dominant. They’ve been much better at it this season but a real trouble area for the Pats the past few years has been covering tight ends and backs in the middle of the field. To that end, don’t be surprised to see Jamie Collins or even Jerod Mayo spending some quality time with Kelce in this game.