If you saw the Monday Night slopfest between the Ravens and Jaguars, you may have been left with the same impression as me: "Holy crap, the Ravens are completely inept."Who the hell are they? The team that shut down the Steelers and Jets, or the one that's now been handled by the Jaguars and Titans? Who knows? What is apparent is that flaws run deep among even the best teams in the AFC. Or what passes for them. And the Patriots -- despite being the worst defense statistically in the NFL in total yards allowed -- and the upstart Bills are the best teams in the conference. (Check out the NFL Playoff Picture from NFL.com). Unless the playoffs are moved up two months -- and that seems unlikely -- it doesn't really matter who the best team is on October 25. But taking stock of what the rest of New England's competition has done and needs to overcome shows how well-positioned the Patriots seem coming off the bye. Ravens (4-2)Monday night's performance was disturbing. Joe Flacco isn't getting enough time, his receivers aren't getting enough separation and he seems squirrelly as hell (52.1 completion percentage). Terrell Suggs is giving offensive game plan recommendations. They convert 32.9 percent of third downs. Defensively, they are still daunting but the Jaguars ran all over them Monday. Steelers (5-2)Sunday's game against the Patriots could determine where the AFC Championship is played. But Pittsburgh's problems are worrisome. They don't turn opposing teams over (just two picks and a fumble recovery so far), their offensive line is usually a disaster and -- despite the spin from the past few weeks as they've bludgeoned bad teams -- their defense is getting old in a hurry. Chargers (4-2)They're so dumb I can't believe it. Bengals (4-2)Please. Raiders (4-3)Also, please. Texans (4-3)Not as easily dismissed. They don't strike me as a very "tough" team. Two of their wins came against Miami and Indy. Matt Schaub soils himself frequently when things get dicey in big games. But their running game is solid and their offensive skill position guys -- even with Andre Johnson out -- are impressive. Losing Mario Williams for the rest of the year because of a pectoral injury was a mammoth blow, though. Jets (4-3)They are a team that rides emotion and momentum and they picked up a bunch on Sunday when the Chargers went full moron against them. You make your own luck, it's said, so give the Jets credit for creating the necessary luck to have the Chargers hand them the game last week and for being able to play badly and still win by 18 against the horrific Dolphins on Monday night the week before. Bills (4-2)They, along with the Patriots, have been the most consistently predictable team in the conference. Their losses -- 23-20 at Cincy and 27-24 at the Giants -- hinged on just a couple of plays unlike every other team in the conference (except New England) which had full meltdowns in their losses. That indicates to me a surprisingly mature team that plays complementary football: offense struggles, defense is there to pick up the slack, etc. Dismiss the Bills as a cute story at your own peril. Their talent on both sides of the ball is right there with the rest of the conference and Ryan Fitzpatrick is one of the five best quarterbacks in the conference right now.
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.
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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.