AFC contenders are finally in focus


AFC contenders are finally in focus

All things considered, it was a mighty successful bye week for the Patriots. First and foremost, there were no significant injuries (while the already-injured had a chance to re-charge). Second, no one got into trouble (there were no leaked photos of Gronk passed out naked at a sorority party, no controversial tweets from Brandon Spikes, no reports of Wes Welker getting drunk and taking a bat to Bill Belichicks mail box). And lastly, while they kept it cool off the field, the Pats took a stab at improving things between the lines, with the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib.

Some have argued that a fourth round pick was too much to give up for Talib whose promise and potential is only out-weighed by his horrible reputation. But I think a fourth-rounder is fine.

After all, in the 12 years since Belichick arrived in New England, hes made 16 fourth-round selections. Of the 16, only two materialized into Pro Bowlers (Asante Samuel and Stephen Gostkowski, although Aaron Hernandez should become No. 3), only four others developed into serviceable pros, even if only for a short time (Jarvis Green, James Sanders, Greg Robinson-Randall and Dan Klecko). And the other nine aka more than 50 percent of Belichicks fourth round picks, aka Rich Ohrnberger, Jonathan Wilhite, Kareem Brown, Garrett Mills, Dexter Reid, Cedric Cobbs, Kenyatta Jones, Rohan Davey and Jabari Holloway were a waste.

Considering how desperate the Pats are in the secondary, Id say a fourth-rounder is worth the risk of bringing in a controversial first-round talent. Naturally, only time will tell, but theres more reason for optimism now that Talibs around than if the Pats had sat back and done nothing at the deadline.

And thats that. The bye week is over, and today, New England gets started on the second half of their season. It hasnt been an easy road to 5-3, but expectations remain the same. Its Super Bowl or bust. Super Bowl or freak out. And while many questions still linger as to whether they'll get there, after nine weeks, the rest of the AFC is finally taking shape around them, and the path to New Orleans is far clearer than it was before the Pats left for London.

First of all, lets close the book on the Bills, Jets, Bengals, Browns, Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Chiefs theyre not making the playoffs.

Lets send some love and respect towards the Dolphins and Colts, two teams that have already reached heights that seemed impossible when the season began, but are still at least a year away from doing any post-season damage.

Lets recognize that theres a chance the Chargers sneak into the last playoff spot theyre 4-4 with an easy-ish schedule but that theres no fear of them having any success once they get there.

And finally, lets take a look at what remains. In a way, I think we all knew that this is what it would come down to, but at this point, its not a matter of thinking; its fact. After two months of parity and inconsistency, the AFC big wigs are established and quickly separating themselves from the pack. Its Houston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Denver and New England. The only five teams with a chance. Five teams that will spend the next eight weeks jostling for position, ideally avoiding injury, and setting the stage for one of the more unpredictable, up-for-grabs AFC postseasons in recent memory.

Each contender faces its own line of important questions. For the Ravens, it's their broken down defense, and whether Joe Flacco can play big in the biggest games. For Denver, it's about whether Peyton can hold up over the long haul and whether losses to Atlanta, Houston and New England are a sign that they aren't quite up to snuff. For Houston, it's the unknown; the fact that they're still a young team, with a quarterback who's yet to even start, nevermind win, a playoff game. Pittsburgh faces questions of depth and health. Can they count on Troy Polamalu? How many hits can they take in the backfield and still maintain an even remotely balanced offense?

And as for the Pats, we all know about the questions they're facing. We know that they're far from perfect. Far from the juggernauts that we watched in 2003, 2004 or 2007. But the good news is that they don't have to play those teams this year. They don't have to be the best team in Patriots history. They just have to be better than the four remaining contenders in the chase for a berth in Super Bowl XLVII. And right now, coming out fresh after a productive bye, with Talib set to join the secondary in Week 11, the Pats remain on the path to doing just that.

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Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 


The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.

Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip


Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip

While being away from home isn’t uncommon for the Patriots - just think about all those Super Bowl trips - Tom Brady believes each excursion takes on its own feel, its own flavor and - eventually - its own meaning.

Back in 2014, the Pats went from playing in Green Bay and losing to the Packers straight to San Diego for a week on the West Coast prior to a rousing victory over the Chargers. That week, many players said in the aftermath, helped propel the team to great heights,.  You’ll recall, that season ended in grand fashion, a triumph in Super Bowl 49 over Seattle, at the time - and maybe still - the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

“I think all these experiences are pretty unique,” Brady said Friday from Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy. “That was a very unique experience. This is different.”

Brady spoke about the number of stops the Pats have and will have to make on this trip - from Denver to Colorado Springs then on to Mexico City Saturday before a Sunday night return to Foxboro and their own beds for the first time in 10 nights.

“When you’re on the road like this, there’s less to do,” he said. “You know my family is not here, my kids aren’t here. There’s nobody telling me what I did wrong in the house. It’s just being at home and now it’s being here and trying to figure out a way to win a game.”

Brady quickly smoothed over any possible ill-will at home - why make Gisele mad? - smiling and saying “I didn’t mean that so I’ll take it back.”

Kidding aside, the 40-year old signal caller seemed pleased with the work the Patriots have put in during this long trip. A week of team-bonding can’t be a bad thing, especially for a group that seems to be hitting it’s stride both on and off the field. There’s the five wins in a row and also a locker room that has a better understanding of one another than it did during the first month of the season. But Brady is not ready to make any grand proclamations. That just wouldn’t be his style.

“I think it’s still work in progress,” he said of team chemistry. “You look at still adding a player like Marty (Bennett) last week. Things are always changing and evolving. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re doing well and after 8 or 9 weeks, you start to figure those things out. Now we have to work hard at those things, try to really own them, and use them going forward to try and win the most important games. We have a lot of important games coming up, starting with this one. Hopefully we can play our best football going forward.”

Brady said he’s been fired up for this game with the Raiders south of the border ever since the schedule was released all those months ago.

“I’ve never been to Mexico City,” he said. “It’s been a game you kind of look forward to. We’re playing against a really good football team in a pretty cool environment. It will be very memorable. I think everyone is excited.”