We’ll get to New England’s 41-16 dismantling of Denver in a minute, but first, a quick story. When the Red Sox were making their way to the 2013 World Series, I watched a reporter asked a fan in his early 20s what he was thinking when the Sox were behind. The young man never had a doubt. “I knew they’d pull through,” he said. “That’s what the Red Sox do.” I remember watching that clip and getting the sensation that my jaw had broken through my downstairs neighbor’s ceiling. Because, as anyone of a certain age knows, pulling out victories was decidedly not what the Red Sox did.
This new way of thinking now applies to the Patriots. After a run of success going back to the beginning of this century, I should have known better.
Sure, they got off to a difficult start. They lost their best receiver to injury, got frat-paddled by Kansas City, and not only failed to stop a late Carolina drive but helped it along with a silly penalty. But, again, I should have known better. I should have remembered that Patriots 2-2 starts can end up in success (2003 and 2014), and that the team tends to improve over the course of a season (like after a 1-3 start in 2001). I’ve got to keep in mind that, after decades of fans hoping for nine wins a season, New England hasn’t had fewer than 10 since 2002.
It’s still there, that nagging sense that something will go wrong. I couldn’t fully relax until the Patriots capped off their scoring on a six-yard Tom Brady pass to James White with 9:04 left in the game. It wasn’t the score as much as the time of possession (7:31 elapsed over 16 plays that covered 94 yards). It provided a fitting end to the night, demonstrating the Patriots’ superiority over the home team, with a few silly penalties by the Broncos thrown in to the mix (too many men on the field during a Patriots punt? Oy). So, yes, this 2017 edition of New England footballers looks ready to compete. Of course they do.
The Patriots have been hanging out at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs this week to acclimate themselves to higher altitudes, as they travel to Mexico City to take on the Oakland Raiders at 4:25 on Sunday.
Some notes on an effort so satisfying that a 103-yard kick return was about the third-most notable play below…
No Upbraiding Brady: As former UCLA hoops coach John Wooden used to say, be quick but don’t hurry. Brady seems to embody this notion, as he somehow manages to create calm amidst chaos. On at least two occasions, the quarterback got his offense to the line before the Broncos’ defense was ready, allowing an easy third-down conversion run on one second-quarter play and facilitating a touchdown run by Dion Lewis against an undermanned D on the other. Brady completed 25 of 34 passes (74 percent) to nine different receivers, compiling 266 yards and three touchdowns. Three running backs and three tight ends caught passes, including little-utilized fullback James Develin and never-utilized tight end Dwayne Allen (an 11-yard TD). What’s most impressive about Brady’s work is how few of his passing yards have come from YAC (yards after catch) in comparison to last year. That’s a loss of the Edelman Factor, yet New England’s offense has remained efficient enough to maintain possession and keep drives going.
Of course, the old man had some help.
Waddle It Be? Kudos to right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, who stepped in for injured Marcus Cannon and helped keep Denver’s pass rush in check. Waddle had a great block during Lewis’ third-quarter touchdown rush, as the big tackle pushed Denver safety Darian Stewart three yards into the end zone. On the day, Brady was sacked only once (a blitz by safety Justin Simmons) and enjoyed far more time to pass than he’s used to at Mile High. From left to right, Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Waddle helped their QB feel only a bit more pressure than a lukewarm soda can. Elite rusher Von Miller had zero sacks and one tackle on the night. He also dropped into coverage and failed to keep Allen out of the end zone. (Dropping Miller into coverage seems like using your Lamborghini to transport firewood: it can do the job, but it was built for something else.)
Denver’s defense is not what it used to be: the highly-touted unit has seemed to disappear more quickly than The Foreigner did from movie theaters.
“But, Chris, I’ve never heard of The Foreigner.”
You are making my point. The good news is, the Raiders rank last in sacks with 13. The bad news is, they had a bye this past week. Some crazy defensive formations and/or blitzes notwithstanding, the New England offensive front has a chance to repeat last week’s performance.
He Left Them Complete Rex: The Broncos might be sitting around this week wondering how they could have overlooked running back Rex Burkhead. While he didn’t have remarkable stats in any one field, Burkhead’s overall work came into focus like one of those paintings you have to stare at to see the full, satisfying picture. Ten rushes for 36 yards, three receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown, plus a blocked punt where he seemed to sprout out of the ground and swallow up the football like a mutant Venus fly trap. Seriously, that play happened so quickly I thought the punter was faking and the ball had gotten snapped to an upback. Burkhead resembles Lewis in that he runs like a wolverine through a thicket, low and mean, while his passing routes are about as easy to track as those god damn chipmunks doing whatever the hell they’re doing under my backyard lawn.
He’s a small, tenacious creature, is what I’m saying.
Turn Off The Mike? Running back Mike Gillislee got the old healthy scratch designation Sunday night, which shows that the Patriots rushing crew has more depth than the continental slope. While he should contribute in other weeks, Denver’s failure to match up against smaller, quicker backs made it a night for the little guys. The Raiders sit in the middle in terms of defending the run (14th in yards per carry allowed, 21st in total rushing yards per game), so Gillislee could very well make a return in Mexico City.
Sunday night gave you some evidence in “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” way of thinking. White had three catches for 11 yards and a touchdown. Lewis led the team with 55 yards rushing on 14 carries, not a high average (3.9), but enough to keep possession and make Brady’s play-action fakes effective. Lewis also had the aforementioned kickoff return, a real downer for the home crowd after their team had closed the gap to 7-3. On the return, Lewis bounded through a gap in coverage and slipped to the sideline, where he sloughed off the kicker like a disposable poncho and powered through a literal pat-on-the-back attempt to push him out of bounds. You can see the return here. When you do, keep an eye on Lewis’ teammates when they greet him in the end zone. They show the same excitement after the muffed punt and punt block: nothing seems to get a team riled up like a great special teams play.
For a fun rundown of the night’s special teams activities, as well as a closer look at a certain tight end’s nullified touchdown (more on that below), check out Michael Hurley’s column on CBS Boston.
Allen The Family: How you doing, Dwayne Allen? After an end zone drop in the second quarter where he appeared to have salad servers for hands, Allen made a nice outstretched snag for a touchdown and a 27-9 lead at the end of the first half. Allen also should be commended for his much-improved blocking Sunday night, both on runs and helping out with pass-rushers. He and Develin combined for stout blocks during Lewis‘ kickoff return, going Moses on the Broncos’ Red Sea and helping Lewis get to the sideline.
Strong night for the tight ends overall. Rob Gronkowski hauled in four passes for 76 yards, including a couple of third-down conversions where he took hits that would have felled mere mortals. (Plus, Gronk totally caught that ball in the end zone.) Familiar-yet-fresh face Martellus Bennett did serious work in the first half with three catches for 38 yards, with his intro to the orange-and-blue-clad crowd a cross-field drop off that he turned into a 27-yard gain. And rookie Jacob Hollister pounced on punt returner Isaiah McKenzie’s early muff, giving the visitors a chance to open the scoring with Burkhead’s TD catch. As ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss pointed out in his handy snap-count analysis, the Patriots could use all four tight ends moving forward. Interesting to see how many more snaps Bennett (an eye-opening seven plays, given his production) or Hollister (two) get in the future.
Don’t Worry, Tom’s Driving: The Patriots showed their mettle on their first possession of the second half. Denver had just driven 75 yards in 13 plays for their first touchdown of the game (we didn’t know at the time if it would be their last) to cut the deficit to 27-16. With the Patriots facing second and 11 from their own 24, Brady threw to Gronkowski for a 26-yarder where the big tight end swatted away a defender to pick up 16 after the catch. The QB then found Brandin Cooks on a post-corner to the right sideline for 25, and he tagged Phillip Dorsett for five yards on the receiver’s second catch of the night. Lewis then followed up with three bursts up the middle for six, six, and eight yards, the final effort a touchdown that seemed to demoralize Denver’s defenders.
Feeling Seven Up: Sound work by New England’s front seven. Led by linebacker Kyle Van Noy (five tackles) with Adam Butler (two tackles), Alan Branch, and Lawrence Guy up front (three each), the Patriots limited big running plays (C. J. Anderson had one 21-yard gain; Jamaal Charles had one 11-yarder) as Denver rushed for 118 yards total, not enough to keep Brady and Co. off the field. Nothing flashy or spectacular; just a steady, reliable performance from the defense’s first two levels.
A License To Gilmore: Another solid overall performance by cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who overcame a nitwit holding penalty in the first quarter (no harm done, as the Broncos got their punt blocked four plays later) to keep Demaryius Thomas in check for much of the night. Thomas had a decent showing (five receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown), but it wasn’t enough from the home team’s top-ranked pass-catcher. As we have seen, Gilmore works best as a one-on-one matchup, not in zone. He’s like that solitary bounty hunter who keeps getting asked by local law enforcement to become part of the group.
Nope. Just give him the assignment and let him track down his man.
Mal Adjusted: Tough start for corner Malcolm Butler, as Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders opened the game with a 31-yard catch and run along the sideline where the diminutive wideout looked more open than a bottle of wine on Mommies’ Book Club Night. Butler missed a pass knockdown on third and three and got back-doored on a great stop-and-catch by Sanders gathering in a balloon pass from Brock Osweiler. At times, Butler looked as though he was stopping to watch a play, but mostly (as during the swat-and-miss), he got close to the right position but just missed. He has a great chance to learn from the experience and move on to a better performance on Sunday.
You Used To Call Me Paranoid: Not quite enough pressure from the Patriots defense. Defensive end Trey Flowers slapped the butt of the football as Osweiler threw it, only to watch it helicopter into Thomas’ hands for a third-and-long conversion. The lanky QB did have to abandon the pocket a few times, and he had only one touchdown drive (that had help from the aforementioned tip-toss). Raiders QB Derek Carr is currently the 19th-ranked passer in the league in terms of yards per game. He has thrown for 13 TDs this year, with seven interceptions. For comparison, Brady has 19 and two, while Tampa Bay’s Jameis Wiinston has 10 and six.
The Patriots may mix up the rush a bit, sending an occasional linebacker or defensive back (Malcolm Butler had a hurry, while Van Noy and Elandon Roberts showed blitz up the middle). Unless they can find some favorable match ups, it looks like pass-rushing could remain a weak spot this season.
Al In The Family: Commendable job by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on Sunday Night Football last week, as usual for that crew. NBC kept us on the field when possible, doing good work to keep the viewers involved on some of the Veteran’s Day activities at Mile High. My one big issue with SNF remains the fact that I watch the opening and forget the theme song six seconds later. Think about it: visualize Carrie Underwood walking through that studio backlot “city street” as Dont’a Hightower rolls down the window of his limo. Now tell me what the song is. Try to hum it.
I tell you, I got nothing. Every time. I always go back to Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” the tune of a previous SNF theme song.
Anyway, some positives during the broadcast included, but were not limited to…
• A comprehensive replay view of Burkhead’s touchdown reception, including (as Collinsworth pointed out) Denver’s defense giving him room due to their triple-team of Gronk.
• Two complete views of Burkhead’s fourth-down conversion run with 1:15 left in the first from the end zone and sideline, including Allen’s all-consuming block on linebacker Shane Ray.
• Collinsworth gave a noteworthy breakdown of the Patriots’ offensive game plan after Allen’s TD at the end of the half, narrating replays of the visitors winning match ups with their tight ends and running backs vs. linebackers and safeties.
• Collinsworth also pointed out the audio of a mystery New Englander on the sideline who, when Brandon Bolden ran the ball with one minute left in the game, shouted, “Get down, Brandon! Down, down!” Bolden went down inbounds. Nice little detail regarding the team’s efforts running out the clock.
• Big fan of showing the Marine Corps drill involving bayonets. I would call it the sea urchin drill due to its circular/prickly endpoint, but I believe it’s a demonstration of the Corps’ Silent Drill Platoon. Impressive to watch, even if only for a few seconds.
And now, the not-as-good aspects of the broadcast. Only a few worth mentioning.
• Michaels topped off the game call with “Broncos take over at the 25. Here are their starters,” except the Patriots offense took over, as the ensuing graphic showed.
• Both commentators praised safety Will Parks with breaking up a pass to Allen in the end zone, when the replay clearly showed the ball clanging off of Allen’s hands. Even after the replay, Collinsworth continued his praise of Parks’ effort.
• The only replay I wanted to see that NBC failed to show at all came with 2:20 left in the third quarter, when linebacker David Harris broke up a pass to Broncos tight end Jeff Heuerman. Harris’ well-timed hit deserved a second look, especially considering the veteran’s shaky reputation as a coverage linebacker.
• SNF also could have used more complete replays on a couple of downs. New England stopped Denver on a third and short pass to Thomas. Collinsworth said Thomas dropped it, but Gilmore might have broken up the play. Hard to tell without a better angle. Also, we could have used a different angle on the punt block, as an official obscured our look at Burkhead’s rush, while the second angle only showed the running back gobbling up the ball the same way I hork down a coffee danish during my morning “me time.”
Other than that, though, a clean broadcast from the SNF folks.
AFC Beast: Got to love both the Jets and Bills losing on Sunday. The 7-2 Pats now sit two games ahead of the 5-4 Bills, three ahead of the 4-5 Dolphins and maybe 3.5 ahead of the 4-6 Jets (I’m never sure about those half games). While New England has won five in a row, all three other teams have lost recently, with the Dolphins struggling in their past three games.
I should have known better.
Tonight I’m Gonna Party Like It’s Late 2009: Two Sundays ago, the Jets got some extra publicity with their dancing defense, where all 11 defenders got down during a timeout. This became a “Jets dance to anything” meme, to much celebration. Because they showcased their moves while stomping on the Bills, it made sense that pundits would latch onto this as a team-building moment for New York. (For example, Bob Glauber’s “These Jets are together on the field and in the locker room,” from Newsday.)
But as I watched that – as fun as it seemed – I wasn’t so sure. And then it hit me: New England’s defense tried the whole “let’s dance and get pumped up” thing during the 2009 season, as captured in the “Bill Belichick, A Football Life” documentary filmed that year. While leading the Jaguars by five touchdowns, the defense started hopping around, getting the crowd pumped up. Didn’t work for them, though, as Jacksonville drove right down the field and scored, ruining the home team’s shutout. If you go to the 1:08:47 mark of this video, you will hear Bill Belichick light into his players like one of those crazy dads coaching a youth football team. Twice, Belichick yells “You understand that?” in the way where he’s not asking.
Not to blame the Jets’ defense for their 15-10 loss at Tampa. I just thought a nationwide perception of New York’s resurgence seemed a bit premature.
The Burfict Storm: What, exactly, would make the Bengals get rid of Vontaze Burfict? Within three plays at Tennesse Sunday, Burfict got a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty where he bumped a referee and got ejected. Burfict already missed out on three games this season, having gotten suspended for an illegal hit in the preseason (he speared Chiefs running back Anthony Sherman in the helmet while Sherman had his head turned looking for a pass).
Last year, I wrote about the Bengals’ disciplinary issues and Burfict’s in particular (skip down to the “Mission To Marvin” sub header in this link). Still holds true: if Coach Marvin Lewis won’t hold his players accountable, they have no reason to change.
Thus ends the “Show Some Respect, Whippersnappers!” portion of the column.
What’s that, you say? Commerical break? Now? Fine.
And … Now …. A …. Word… Yes, I like the GEICO ad with the sloth playing Pictionary, but it’s just a simplification of a funny scene from Zootopia, which is in itself an ode to the Slow Talkers of America routine from Bob and Ray. And if you haven’t heard of Bob and Ray, please check out the previous link as well as Komodo Dragon, my two favorite routines of theirs.
Here In My Car, Where The Image Breaks Down: Three car commercials to talk about, as I have fallen into the conundrum of being fascinated by how car ads bore me. The best? The ad for Toyota RAV featuring the song “Drone” by Fidlar. I’m not sure I enjoy the parents’ crazy schedule, but I do appreciate it. Second place, the Chevy truck ad “Names,” based on the premise that, when you love something, you name it. This reminded me of a co-worker from years ago who bought a used AMC Eagle and named it El Jefe. All these years later, still my favorite car nickname.
Third place? From the Buick Fireside Chat series, featuring a dude talking tailgates (“I can almost smell the brats from here”), despite a wardrobe that says otherwise. Guys wearing maroon sweaters with matching socks do not seem like bratwurst guys. Also, Matt and Kim’s song “It’s Alright” is not a tailgate song. Disjointed at best, Buick. Back in the day, my grandmother appreciated you. Time to figure out the new millennium.
Who Looks Outside, Dreams; Who Looks Inside, Awakes: I love the Bose ad “Young” featuring receiver Larry Fitzgerald on a neighborhood walk, taking a moment to play hopscotch. That’s what headphones are for, I think. And sometimes it’s fun to listen to something inappropriate for the time and place, like when I have Agent Orange coursing through my brain at the grocery store while checking the freshness of Fuji apples.
Thoughtful writeup of the current Bose campaign by AdWeek, paying attention to the effectiveness of the original music used in four various spots.
The Limping Dead: Not a bad week for “The Walking Dead.” I don’t’ like to give out spoilers, so suffice to say some characters – one in particular – got some background filled in. A couple of questionable decisions by the directors/producers, mostly regarding who could survive certain situations presented, as viewers’ suspension of disbelief got tested more than usual. Still, a compelling chapter to what is turning into the longest day ever. This is seriously becoming a season of “24,” except the presentation of real time might move more quickly without the flashbacks.
We’ll see what happens next week. I’m sure everything will be fine.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: “Raider” comes from the Old English rād, for “ride.” Hm. Thought that would be a little more exciting, there.
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: When claimed by Spanish settlers, Oakland sat in – you guessed it – a forest of oak trees. The town of Oakland was incorporated in 1852.
Probably the last chance to say this for a long time: we’re on to Mexico City.
A quick note to my buddy E: get better, you hump.
Chris Warner will not waste the next hour in a YouTube Joan Jett wormhole. Nope. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @cwarn89.