Patriots

Key roster battles on tap vs. Bucs

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Key roster battles on tap vs. Bucs

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
TAMPA BAY - Checking in with a few of the Patriots for whom Thursday night's preseason game against the Bucs is more than a tuneup. Jonathan WilhiteThe fourth-year corner out of Auburn got juked badly on an 84-yard kickoff return last week. With the Patriots' secondary pretty deep at the moment and Wilhite closer to the bottom than the top, he needs to play well on special teams and in the regular defense. Darius ButlerSame boat as Wilhite. Last week against the Jags, he got picked on and abused. He seems to play tentative and in fear of getting beat. Probably not long for this roster which is a tough reality since the team spent a second-rounder. Darnell JenkinsThe Patriots were high on him last year, giving him a fairly generous practice squad deal. But the likeable wideout may be faced with a numbers crunch at the position. With Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Taylor Price, Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate in the mix, an as-yet unproven Jenkins needs a surehanded performanceLee SmithThe strapping tight end from Marshall was drafted in the fifth round. At 6-6, 269-pounds, he's shown that he can block and catch during camp. There's a little battle going on to see who will be the third tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Will YeatmanThis is the other guy in that competition with Smith. A6-5, 268-pounder, Yeatman went undrafted out of Maryland. How that happened is hard to understand because he's been every bit as impressive as Smith during camp. Brandon MeriweatherHe's not had an amazing camp. It may not be poor enough to warrant all the conversation he's generated, but the former first-round safety continues to be a player who can't own the free safety spot at the top of the depth chart. When he plays and how well he carries out his assignments will help decide if he can quiet the wolves at his door. Sergio BrownThe 6-2, 210-pound rookie free agent in 2010 keeps getting as many reps as Meriweather. The team isn't in a position to release any safeties - only Brown, Meriweather and Chung are healthy - but Brown could be the one to make Meriweather expendable. All Those DLsThere are the defensive tackles - Gerard Warren, Myron Pryor, Kyle Love, and Darryl Richard and Kade Weston- fighting to make this team and play alongside Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth. Then there are the defensive ends - Andre Carter, Eric Moore and Mark Anderson - battling to be the edge guy. Some talented players are going to be left behind when the cuts get made.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Patriots hit heights in altitude of Mexico City against Raiders

Patriots hit heights in altitude of Mexico City against Raiders

In a conference call last week, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio wondered if Sunday's game in Mexico City with the Patriots might show how two contrasting approaches to handling the altitude could impact the outcome. 

Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady made sure of it. 

The Patriots utilized a hurry-up attack during their first drive -- a 16-play sequence -- that tested Oakland's conditioning early. Who would handle it better? The team that spent the week training at altitude in Colorado Springs? Or the team that wanted to beat the effects of the altitude by training at sea level and traveling to Mexico City the day before the game?

PATRIOTS 33, RAIDERS 8

Judging by how Raiders rookie defensive back Obi Melifonwu asked to come out of the game, and seeing linebacker Nicholas Morrow doubled over on the sidelines during the series, the Patriots initially looked like the more well-conditioned club. 

Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola had to leave the game briefly because they were dehydrated, but the final score, 33-8, suggested that the Patriots were better prepared.

Brady certainly had no issues playing at Estadio Azteca. He finished the game having gone 30-for-37 for 339 yards and three touchdowns. He had a quarterback rating of 131.9. 

At various points, Brady's name was chanted at the stadium, which he said caught him by surprise. He recently watched the television copy of last year's Texans-Raiders game just to get a sense for what the crowd would be like, and he remembered hearing Raiders fans dominating the crowd.

"That was very much a surprise," Brady said of the cheers. "Especially since seeing some of last year's game; they were very pro-Raider. But it seemed like we had a lot of Patriots fans here too, so that was great to see."

Rob Gronkowski said that the interaction with the fans in Mexico -- which included walking from the locker room through the stands to the sidelines -- was one of the things that made the trip a memorable one. 

"We really didn't get to do that much, explore around or anything, but we got to interact with the fans and everything coming out of the tunnel," he said. "That was a cool experience, seeing all the fans go wild and everything, giving them high-fives, so that was super neat.

"I wasn't sure what to expect, never played down here. It was a great experience, though. The way the fans were interacting was actually unbelievable. They were super loud. They sounded proud, and it was just a great experience overall coming here. Having that type of experience definitely makes it worthwhile and awesome."

Stephen Gostkowski, who turned in one of the plays of the day with a 62-yard field goal at the end of the first half, was similarly grateful to play in such a unique environment. 

"It was just an unbelievable atmosphere," Gostkowski said. "The stadium was great. The fans were unreal. Just a fun experience. To have a hand in a win, see the excitement from all the guys, it was really cool."

"That was pretty cool," Brady added. "I've been around a long time so if you're a fan of the NFL, you've probably seen me at some point, but it's still an incredible experience to come here and play football and see the reception and hopefully there's more games here, and the game continues to grow, and other people get to see it in person and experience it because it's a game that I love and so do a lot of other people around the world."

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Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

John Elway created a stir this week when he said his Broncos, after a 3-1 start, had “gotten a little bit soft." Elway, the Broncos GM, said that after five straight Denver losses – the last two by the combined score of 92-39

Denver’s head coach Vance Joseph said Elway’s remark bothered him. He talked to his players about it. On Sunday, the Broncos went out and did something about it. They lost by just three at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yay.

They’re pretty much all soft in the AFC this year. Check out the AFC West. There’s Denver. And the Raiders – who the Patriots handled with disturbing ease on Sunday, 33-8. The 6-4 Kansas City Chiefs, who, after starting the season 5-0, just lost on the road to the one-win Giants.

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The AFC East is soft. Miami was 4-2. It’s lost four straight including a 40-0 loss to Baltimore. The Jets were 3-2. They’re now 4-6 (which is a minor miracle given how ragged their roster is). The Bills were 5-2. Now they’re 5-5, having lost by a combined 101-34 the past two weeks as coach Sean McDermott willingly stuck a butter knife in an electrical outlet and replaced Tyrod Taylor with a not-ready-for-preseason-Week-4 Nathan Peterman.

The AFC South is led by the Jaguars and Titans. Jacksonville -- which can play some defense -- isn’t as bad as the rest. The Jags have won four straight and play cutthroat defense, but they had their hands full with the 0-10 Browns on Sunday. During the week, running back Leonard Fournette complained about having to play in the cold in Cleveland. At least he showed up Sunday and ran for 111. The Titans are awful when they leave Tennessee, which was further proven last Thursday when they lost 40-17 at Pittsburgh. Since October began, they’ve been outscored 122-43 in four road games. Their one road win in that span was a 12-9 decision over Cleveland. 

The big, bad AFC North contingent led by the Steelers at 8-2? Talented. But led by a forever-whining, passive-aggressive quarterback who openly and annually mulls retirement and two “me-first” skill guys in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Their greatest strength may be in executing elaborate post-touchdown skits. Vital.

Meanwhile, here are the boring-ass Patriots. Yeah, they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and continuity in the program and coaching staff, but the gap between them and everyone else in the conference is that they don’t worry about the cold or the road or the five-act plays after they score.

They stayed a week in Colorado Springs to get ready for the altitude. Two Patriots -- Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola -- had to be treated for dehydration in the second half. After five PLAYS, Raiders rookie Obi Melifonwu was asking out of the game, saying he couldn’t breathe.

The Raiders -- a team that went 12-4 last year -- haven’t improved a bit defensively all season. They are, under head coach Jack Del Rio, one of those “we do what we do” defenses the Patriots love to face because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Brady is now 8-1 against Del Rio-led teams/defenses and the numbers against Del Rio’s teams are absurd: 225 completions on 310 attempts for (73 percent) for 2,387 yards, 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It just feels like the AFC is a collection of teams, with an overwhelming majority of them in turn-it-on, turn-it-off mode. Their coaches are just kind of casting about, constantly open to suggestion and willing to give anything a shot because, hell, they better try something to get hot or they’ll be passing out resumes at the Combine in four months.

The Patriots remaining schedule goes like this: Dolphins, Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, Bills, Jets. Shake me awake on December 17 when the Steelers game comes. And we have a mountain of data explaining how that one will go, too.

I’m not weary of the team. It’s historic and fascinating, like watching a hooded Mozart compose and a helmeted Van Gogh paint every week. But the exercise of trying to conjure scenarios where the Patriots play November football with the exquisite ineptitude of their opponents is not easy.

They are doing this without Julian Edelman or Dont'a Hightower. They played Sunday without Chris Hogan, David Andrews, Marcus Cannon and Matt Slater.

Offenses can’t score against them. Defenses can’t stop them. They create points on special teams. They manage the game, the clock and their opponents like simple arithmetic while every other team’s doing trigonometry. What was broken in September has been long fixed.

The time will come again when the Patriots appear just as inept, clueless and mired in mediocrity as every other AFC team appears right now. But it won’t be this year.

So embrace the softness? I guess?

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