New England fans have myriad reasons to give thanks this holiday season, the latest a satisfying 33-8 win over Oakland at Mexico City. The Patriots spent 10 days at altitude, training at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs after the previous week’s handling of the Broncos. The travel plans seemed to pay off, as New England almost literally raced out to a 17-0 lead at halftime and led 30-0 before the Raiders could find the end zone in the fourth quarter.
At the beginning of the season, these games at Denver and at the Raiders looked like a rough patch for the Patriots. While neither of those teams has lived up to expectations, New England continues to plug away, outscoring both by a total of 74-24.
Another strong all-around effort from all sides brings the Patriots to an 8-2 record. They host the Dolphins next week in search of an even firmer grasp on the AFC East lead.
I got a pie in the oven, so let’s move on to our notas de juego...
Braider Nation: Or would that be “Brady-er?” Anyway, hard to have more efficient numbers than what Tom Brady compiled last Sunday. On New England’s opening drive that ended in a touchdown pass to Dion Lewis, the quarterback hit his first nine targets. He started the game going 12 for 12 for 91 yards and ended up completing 30 of 37 passes (81 percent, which is high for a free-throw shooter, ridiculous for a QB) for 339 yards and three touchdowns. New England’s game plan became clear during their first possession, with a hurry-up pace that made it difficult for the home viewer to breathe, much less a struggling NFL defense 7,200 feet above sea level.
The 16-play drive took over seven minutes off the clock and saw Brady connect on all nine passes to six different receivers. A five-yarder to Brandin Cooks (that short distance served as a misdirect considering the receiver’s later contributions). A 10-yarder across the middle to receiver Danny Amendola on third and three. Four divvied up between running backs Rex Burkhead and Lewis. One each to tight ends Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen (don’t worry, we’ll get to Rob Gronkowski in a sec). Lewis scored on a 15-yard play where he caught the ball at the nine and spun inside to avoid linebacker Cory James, making James look like Rocky when he first tried to catch that chicken. Lewis then sliced through two defenders like a carving knife on a turkey to make it 7-0 for the visitors.
And, yes, I am getting hungry.
As strong as that drive looked – and as much as it seemed to tire the hands-on-hips Raiders D – the next touchdown drive exemplified what Brady can do. With 8:55 left in the second quarter, Brady lofted a 52-yard missile to Cooks after the receiver split a double-team of defenders as if they were fresh-baked dinner rolls (ooh, boy). From Oakland’s 28, Brady made an underrated play that seemed merely expected of him. As he waited for Gronkowski to get clear of linebacker James, Brady got plastered by uber-defender Khalil Mack, yet somehow shot a hip-level pass to Gronkowski away from coverage. Given the pressure, the timing, and a passing window with a diameter only slightly larger than a Habitrail, the QB showed off many of the qualities that make him great.
As Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell sit on injured reserve, Chris Hogan hasn’t been active for weeks. Let’s give that the ol’ seven-second ponderoo: none of Brady’s top three most productive wide receivers from 2016 have been available since Hogan caught five passes vs. the Chargers in Week Eight. Got it? Cool. Back to your regular programming…
The drive ended with a five-yard scoring pass to Amendola, who pulled a full Magellan, circumnavigating the Raiders’ zone defense to find open territory near the end line. That made it 14-0, Patriots, with 5:23 remaining in the half. Just an impressive, relentless effort by the offense. You can watch a well-done breakdown of Brady’s efficiency vs. Oakland in Brian Baldinger’s Instant Playbook, courtesy of the NFL Network.
It’s D. Lewis, It’s Delightful, It’s De-Lovely: When the Patriots signed Lewis in 2015, he seemed like a nice, complementary addition to the backfield. He had played two years with the Eagles, then suffered injuries that prevented him from getting on the field for the Colts and Browns. Well, on Sunday Lewis led the team in rushing with 10 carries for 60 yards, adding four receptions for 28 yards and a TD. Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal credited Lewis with nine broken tackles in Bedard’s Breakdown (a subscription I highly recommend). Lewis helped extend his team’s lead to 27-0 midway through the third quarter as he bolted up the middle for 11- and 10-yard gains on a field goal drive. On the 11-yarder (the one where it looked like he fumbled but he actually lost his red shoe), Lewis bolted past the defensive front, shimmied his way by the linebackers, and bashed into two defensive backs for extra yardage. Lewis engages in Minority Report rushing: it’s as if he knows where the defenders will be ahead of time.
Coach Bill Belichick likes smaller running backs because, as he has said, they can be hard to find for a defense. (He was also a huge fan of 5-foot-7 Joe Morris back in the day.) New England’s lucky Lewis wasn’t too hard to find for them. I guess, especially this week, they should be thankful. Right?
Should I mention Mike Gillislee as a healthy scratch? Guess I just did. Anyhoo…
Thanksgiving Cooks: Good Heavens, I haven’t even mentioned Cooks’ 64-yard bomberooski yet (highlight here). New England started the third quarter with the ball, as they are wont to do, and got two five-yard completions (Lewis and Amendola) for a first down. Hurrying to the line like kids to the cake table, the offense went deep. Cooks feigned an out route, then dashed down the seam for a wide open touchdown, in the process burning rookie safety Obi Melifonwu as if he were the top layer of marshmallows on mom’s sweet potatoes damnit how much longer?
I suppose now is as good a time as any to revisit my pre-draft Patriots pick of Olifonwu as the Freakishly Athletic Guy. I mean, a 44-inch vertical and 11-foot-9 broad jump? Can you blame me?
Melifonwu was no match for Cooks, but the Oakland safety had a lot of company last Sunday, as Cooks pulled in six passes for 149 yards (24.8 avg.). His long touchdown catch served as a reminder to the Raiders that no comeback was about to happen. So far this season, Cooks has 45 catches for 786 yards (17.5 avg.) and four touchdowns. More importantly, he earned the coveted “Nobody works harder” description from Coach Belichick, as noted in this piece by NESN’s Doug Kyed.
Fourth And None: Yes, the Raiders are in the midst of what one might call “a rough go of it,” but we should not forget how well New England’s defense has been playing. After having their own rough go over the first four games, the group has made a turnaround transition more complete than the set of Noises Off. (Ooh, deep cut.) With 4:45 left in the third quarter, Oakland went for it on fourth and one at their own 44 because, hey, why not? Fullback Jamize Olawale got nowhere, as defensive lineman Alan Branch became the bottom row of a human pyramid and line mate Lawrence Guy stalemated his blocker, allowing D-end Adam Butler and cornerback Johnson Bademosi to fire in as safety Patrick Chung wrangled Olawale as if he were an unruly child in the 1970s. An overall team effort that kept the home team hopeless.
By the way, what is the deal with teams not giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch? The man runs like a jacked postman through a pit of weiner dogs, yet coaches don’t think he’ll convert one yard? Weird.
A Fistful Of Flowers: Another notable play by the defense came at the most opportune time. With the Patriots leading 14-0 in the second quarter, the Raiders embarked on their most cohesive drive of the day to that point, taking 10 plays to move from their own 25 to New England’s 17 with just over a minute remaining. On the 11th play, receiver Seth Roberts got the first down at the three, yet inexplicably (and ill-advisedly) struggled to gain extra yardage. As he tried to extract himself from cornerback Jonathan Jones’ tackle, linebacker Marquis Flowers punched the ball free. Chung recovered at the seven, ending the scoring threat. Another example of a team effort paying off for the Patriots, with Jones and Flowers entering this season as backups and now filling in for injured starters.
Sack Solo: I suppose it might be time to harden my heart against what a well-tuned offense could do to the Patriots D considering the lack of pressure they provide, but overall they did a fine job varying looks and rushes vs. David Carr, one of the better QBs in the league. Carr ended up completing 28 of 49 passes (57 percent) for 237 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. At halftime, he had connected on eight of 14 passes (57 percent) for only 65 yards. The QB did find himself scrambling on occasion, finally getting corralled on one play as linebacker Kyle Van Noy and end Trey Flowers sandwiched him to share New England’s lone sack of the day.
Yes, to be fair, Carr’s receivers showcased more drops than a physics class project involving eggs. But Oakland failed to score until trailing by 30.
Did It In A Minute: New England’s tendency to score in the waning minutes of the first half continued to amaze. After forcing the aforementioned Roberts fumble with 33 seconds remaining before halftime, the Patriots put out a tester play to the middle of the Raider defense. Once Lewis scurried for 20 yards to the 27, the quest for points began. Brady soon found Amendola for 18 yards and Gronk for 10, setting up Stephen Gostkowski for the longest field goal in franchise history, a high-arcing, 62-yard beauty that had distance to spare. (You can see that highlight on the NFL’s Twitter page.)
This makes seven games in a row that the Patriots have scored within the final two minutes of the first half. Two weeks ago at Denver, Brady found Allen for the tight end’s first touchdown (and first catch) in a Patriots uniform for a 27-9 lead with 25 seconds on the clock. The week before that, Gostkowski booted a 36-yarder with 20 second remaining to take a 15-7 lead over the Chargers. You get the picture. This is why New England tends to defer the coin toss: to score at the end of the first half, receive the kickoff to start the third quarter, and take a toll on your opponent.
Altitude Kickness: Let’s ponder for a moment that a 62-yard attempt puts the line of scrimmage at the 45-yard line. That means the ball is held at the offense’s own 48, i.e., Gostkowski kicked that ball from beyond midfield. That’s cuckoo. He added a 51-yarder, chip shot 40-yarder, and embarrassingly short 29-yarder in the second half, going four-for-four on the day. Certainly the high elevation helped with distance, but Gostkowski’s seven-for-seven day (good on all three extra points) will only help his confidence going forward.
Another strong outing for New England’s special teams, especially in comparison to Oakland’s punter Marquette King, who only managed to place one of three punts inside the 20 and handled the other two with all the finesse of a finger painter wearing boxing gloves.
A Dwayne On Oakland’s Defense: Well, hello again, Mr. Allen. The tight end has seemed to actually join the offense over the past two games, as he had double his season total catches last Sunday (two for 24 yards) and blocked well. Most importantly, he recovered Burkhead’s fumble on the opening drive, going after the ball as if it were a Disney Princess doll on Black Friday. All seven of Brady’s receivers had multiple catches vs. the Raiders; it seems that Allen has begun to make himself more of a target.
So, looks like it’s time to retire our Backup Tight End 2017 Reception Count. For the final time: rookie Jacob Hollister three, Allen three.
From Marsh To November: Good luck to edge defender Cassius Marsh, whom the Patriots released this week. I don’t mean that sarcastically: it’s difficult enough to lose a job in the NFL, it’s more difficult still during the holidays. After New England’s season-opening loss to the Chiefs where Marsh got burned on a pass play, I noted I was “still maintaining positive expectations” on the player. After the Pats lost to the Panthers to go 2-2, I said “I continue to expect good things from” Marsh if he “cut down on the mistakes.”
Well, that never happened. Marsh played two snaps against the Raiders, one of them the 25-yard run by Lynch with 5:20 left in the half. On that play, Marsh advanced too far into the backfield, creating a lane at the left defensive end spot where he should have remained. This allowed right tackle Vadal Alexander to engage Marsh and turn his body for one second, keeping him away from Lynch just long enough for the running back to follow the seam in the defense and gallop along the sideline. If you get to watch a replay of this run, pause it when Lynch takes the handoff and veers left. You can see that, while Trey Flowers, Branch, and Guy have established their positions along the line of scrimmage (all seeming to step on the blue digital line), Marsh’s heels rest two yards upfield. He just never seemed to get in synch with his teammates. Too bad, really. As you can see from previous columns, I had high hopes for the guy.
New England signed Eric Lee off of Buffalo’s practice squad. ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss has an in-depth look at what the 6-3, 260-pound Lee could bring to the team, as well as a link to a series of tweets reviewing film of Lee as a Texan during their preseason game against the Patriots.
Ted Talks: Kudos to Ted Karras for playing backup center and having no one lament the absence of starter David Andrews. Praise also to LaAdrian Waddle stepping in for starting right tackle Marcus Cannon. Mack got one sack on the day after Brady took a second too long to get rid of the football. Cam Fleming actually came in for Waddle on that play after the latter got his legs trampled in a human pile-up. Again, the Raiders pass defense encourages more throws against it than a backstop, but the ability of the offense to function with 40 percent of its starting O-linemen missing says a lot about team depth and the value of Coach Dante Scarnecchia.
The Dolphins currently rank 17th in passing yards allowed (229 per game) and are tied for 26th in sacks with 17 (with the Patriots!). If the O-line can keep its consistency, this could be another productive day for Brady.
Romo At Home: Commendable job by Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, as expected. Some solid points made with enough humor to keep things entertaining during a game that lost suspense pretty early. Strong broadcast overall, too. Some positives included:
• Romo had a succinct, compassionate summary after Carr’s pass bounced off receiver Johnny Holton’s helmet and nestled in the arms of Pats safety Duron Harmon. “They gotta catch the ball. Another drop. That’s their season!”
• I’m a fan of Romo’s tendency to voice what players are saying on replay. After Brady missed Cooks downfield near the end of the half, a replay clearly showed his mouth forming colorful language. Romo’s description was, “He says, ‘Gosh darn it!'”
• Romo gave a sound prediction at the 6:30 mark of the second quarter, noting that, in terms of scoring, the Patriots “are unbelievable in the final two minutes of the half. We’ll see.” And indeed we did.
• As noted at the beginning of this column, Brady made an impressive pass to Gronk to set up Amendola’s TD. Romo noticed, too, saying on the replay, “That’s a great throw there, down and away.”
• Strong work by Romo explaining the Patriots’ defense when they gave up the touchdown to Amari Cooper with 12 minutes left in the game. Despite having inside help, Malcolm Butler shifted toward the inside of the field, allowing Cooper room on the outside. Simple, clear example of how corners can get beaten.
• I enjoyed how CBS showed Lynch sitting on the bench after the Raiders failed their fourth-and-one attempt, looking about as happy as one might expect. It answered the question, “Hey, where in the hell is Marshawn Lynch?”
• I think all games played in Mexico City should have many more cuts to announcer Armando Quintero’s commentating in Spanish. His call on Gostkowski’s 62-yarder sounded like the Patriots won the World Cup. Just awesome.
• I typically run down the replays that I would have liked to see, but I’ll give CBS a pass here due to New England’s frenzied offensive pace. The network wanted to show Lewis’ five-yard catch and run that opened the second half but had to stop midway through because the Patriots were already on the line. Good job getting in a quick replay after Lewis lost his shoe. I’ve watched that play multiple times and it still looks like the ball rolling onto the ground.
With the sweet, a little salty (and, yup, I’m still hungry):
• Nantz pronounces “Estadio Azteca” like he’s trying to impress the pretty Spanish teacher at the community school. Or maybe he’s auditioning for the stateside version of “Sábado Gigante.” (No one tell him it’s not around anymore.) Settle down, Nantz.
• Romo said of Oakland, “They have not ran the football good enough this year.” Listen, I’m not typically a stickler for grammar (note: I totally am), but this seems a bit much in terms of the whole aw-shucks persona, doesn’t it? If a first-grader who was not my child said this, I might let it go. Adults who get paid to talk for a living should do gooder.
• New England’s first possession saw a few snafus by the duo. First, Nantz called Burkhead “Buckhead,” which is understandable if you’re a fan from Atlanta, but not if you’re a play-by-play announcer. Romo mentioned Gillislee, mistakenly calling him “Gillespie.” A little later on, Nantz noted that the Raiders had converted all three of their third-down attempts when he meant to say the Patriots.
• I mean, it’s fine, but it seems a little on the nose to play “La Bamba” going to commercial after Cooks’ TD. I’m sure Mexico has a pop song or two they could have broken out.
• I have issues with the network switching over to the Cincinnati-Denver game. Competitive or no, I think a top AFC team’s fans, Oakland’s historically rabid fans, plus Latin American fans, would have made up a bigger audience for the end of Pats-Raiders than whatever those two orange-clad catastrophes cobbled together. But I guess, as announcer Trent Green said near the end of Cincy’s win, “Ultimately, it’s about points.” Yes, Trent. Yes, it is.
Let’s take a commercial break, shall we?
He Can Keep Waiting: In the CBS ad for “Kevin Can Wait,” we see Kevin James staring into a turkey’s open nethers. I think turkey prop comedy reached its zenith once Joey from “Friends” got his head stuck in one. But what do I know from comedy gold? Carry on, CBS sitcom lineup.
Happy Honda-days: Music can do everything for a commercial. I’ve had “Holiday Road” stuck in my head all week due to Honda’s “Holiday Road Trip” offering, and I don’t regret it. Whoa-oh-OH-oh-oh-oh…
Quite A Pair Of Stones: Saw a couple of ads for diamond stores. Can’t remember what they were, but I think it’s funny how diamonds are still popular. They’re rocks. That’s it: just old, hard rocks. Apparently DeBeers is losing hold on their diamond monopoly, so maybe they should focus on something else to promote as a pricey commodity. Like, I would love to see them try to market cilantro.
“If the woman you love enjoys the taste of minced green bell peppers soaked in dishwater, hurry to your cilantro store this holiday season to show her how much you care…”
Yes, Virginia, There Is A Whiskey: I would enjoy the Virginia Black whiskey commercial more if I it didn’t make me lose my bearings. So, Drake is hitting on Nicole Murphy, who dusts him for Drake’s father, right? But, if both Drake and his father have a tumbler of Virginia Black whiskey in their hands, shouldn’t she go with Drake? Isn’t he closer to the desired demographic? Plus, Drake’s dad hands over the whiskey to his son, negating the reason why she should want to be with him. Isn’t the drink the point? And why does Drake’s dad look so much like a Tim Meadows character?
I don’t know. If you told me this was an SNL commercial, I’d have a tough time arguing.
Two Hearts Beat As One: Yes, McDonald’s delivery/Uber eats seems like a great idea, but I can’t figure out their new commercial with two versions of the same guy. It looks like a creepy crime thriller in the vein of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It appears that what they’re saying is, if you order McDonald’s breakfast ahead of time, your life will be vastly improved and/or you might not become a topic of “Mindhunter.”
Tell you what: skip McDonald’s for a week and have a protein bar and a smoothie instead. Just see how it goes.
Buy Celtics: You know, I enjoyed watching last year’s Celtics team. They were hard-working and entertaining. But how crazy-fun has watching this year’s version become? It seems like Coach Brad Stevens has a group of guys who can consistently execute what he wants to see on the court. Amazing potential.
Talking Dread: Not a bad recent episode of “The Walking Dead,” if you edit out the first 12 minutes. I’ll never understand how the writers of a zombie show could ever think that a group of people sitting around a table negotiating makes compelling television. Especially if it’s a flashback. Really weird start to what eventually became an intriguing show (if you also edit out a tiresome fistfight).
And one of the longest days in TV history gets longer. At this pace, “The Walking Dead” is starting to make “24” feel like time-lapse footage. And yet I continue to watch.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: “Dolphin” evolved from the Greek word “delphus,” meaning “womb.” Weird, I know, but according to this website, the word “Adelphi” means “of the same womb,” so it would follow that those who named the animal understood how smart and human-like they are.
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: Miami stems from the Native American word “Mayami,” from the Calusa language, that means “big water.”
As we give thanks today, I wanted to offer condolences to the family of Terry Glenn. The former Patriots receiver died Monday morning in a car accident. He will always be a part of New England sports lore as the first recipient of a Tom Brady touchdown pass. More importantly for the Patriots and their fans, he helped the franchise climb toward respectability in the 1990s. Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston has a writeup on Coach Bill Belichick’s reaction to the news.
The Patriots host Miami Sunday at 1 p.m. Enjoy the weekend and stay safe, everyone.
Chris Warner will bring the pie. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @cwarn89.