FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When you think about the New England Patriots, your first image is usually of Tom Brady directing an offense that at times is unstoppable.

The defense, with the likes of Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler and Dont’a Hightower, typically goes unnoticed.

Andy Reid, the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, doesn’t think that’s right.

“You hear about a lot of these defenses and I don’t think they get enough recognition for what they’ve done,” he said. “They play hard, aggressive, played a lot of guys there … It’s a good group.”

At the heart is a defensive line that improved as the season progressed. And it must be at its best Saturday when the Patriots play the streaking Chiefs in an AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.

Kansas City has won 11 straight games. Despite losing star back Jamaal Charles for the season with a knee injury in the fifth game, the Chiefs have one of the NFL’s best running games, averaging 127.8 yards. They are coming off a 30-0 win at Houston last weekend in the wild-card round.

“They’re a good team and they’ve already won,” said defensive tackle Alan Branch of the Patriots. “They have a really solid offense, so we have to go out and be technically sound and play with a lot of passion.”

Of course, one member of the defensive line has been in the news and not because of his considerable on-field talent. End Chandler Jones, who led the team with 12.5 sacks and was one of the seven Patriots selected to the Pro Bowl, was admitted to a hospital Sunday after seeking help from the Foxboro Police Department for what’s being called a medical emergency.

Jones hasn’t missed a practice this week, although he was listed on the team injury report as being limited in practice Wednesday. He missed the final regular-season game in Miami because of an injured toe.

His teammates are standing by him. “Chandler has got a lot of great support in this locker room,” said wide receiver Danny Amendola to the media gathered at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday. “He is a great football player. And I’m excited to see what he does this week.”

Coach Bill Belichick has rotated a long list of players through the defensive front this season, hoping to keep them fresh for the end of the game. And it appears to have worked. The Patriots had one of the NFL’s best run defenses, allowing just 98.8 yards per game, ninth in the league, and recorded 49 sacks – a high in the Belichick era. Thirty-eight of those sacks came from defensive linemen. The rushing average was the team’s best since 2007 (98.3) and fifth-best under Belichick.

“We just go out there and work hard,” said Branch. “We focus on our responsibilities and basically just do our job. We’re not too much of a flashy group. And we really enjoy each other’s company.”

This run defense compares favorably to those of New England’s past Super Bowl champions. In 2001 the Patriots gave up 115.9 rushing yards a game; in 2003 it was 89.6; in 2004 it was 98.2; in 2014 it was 104.3.

Branch, Akiem Hicks (acquired in a trade from New Orleans earlier in the season) and Malcom Brown (the team’s top pick in last May’s draft) have provided a stout interior while also capable of collapsing the pocket on passing plays. Hicks and Brown each have three sacks.

Jones, Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard (eight sacks) and rookie Geneo Grissom come hard from the outside, presenting a formidable challenge for any offense.

“I think we just all rely on each other because we all play a part on the defense,” said the 6-foot-2, 320-pound Brown. “If one of us is out of whack then we all could be.”

Ninkovich, who has played in 114 consecutive games, said communication has been a key even with the constant rotation of players.

“Like I’ve said many times, there’s always going to be change throughout a season,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the business, so I think we’ve done a great job. I think the coaching staff has done a great job of putting us in the best position possible to be successful. I think practice helps with communication, so having a really good week of practice this week is going to go a long way.”


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