Patriots

How the Patriots turned their season around

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How the Patriots turned their season around

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- After the first month of the season, about the only thing that made sense for the Patriots was the play of Tom Brady. The rest of the team? Safe to say it looked nothing like this uber-squad that had some (yes, me included) talking about the potential for an undefeated season. The Pats were 2-2 and had lost -- gasp -- a pair of home games, giving up 42 to the Chiefs and 33 to the Panthers. What in the name of Rod Rust was going on?

Flash forward to a half-dozen weeks later. The Pats may not be winning games exactly in the manner we expected, but they’re getting there. They’ve now ripped off five in a row and are tied with the Steelers for the best record in the AFC. I’ve seen Pittsburgh play; the Pats are better, at least in the here and now.

How did this team transform itself from a disappointment to the best team in the conference? Let me count the ways . . . 

PERSONAL PRIDE

After that Carolina debacle, Devin McCourty called the defense’s play “embarrassing.” Duron Harmon said of the team's defensive scheme: “We can’t play no more simpler than that.” That’s a Code Red for Pats players. They were visibly hurt by what had transpired over the first month of the season. 

So what’s changed? A call to give more of yourself, whether it be in the film room, the meeting room, the weight room or the practice field. The secondary in particular, but the defense as a whole, demanded more accountability and the results have been more commensurate with what was expected, not just by fans and media but, more importantly, by the players themselves. You say as professionals, why shouldn’t this be the norm? I agree, but look around the league. Did you see Janoris Jenkins turtle in Sunday’s Giants/49ers game? Or the Browns safety who decided not to move a single step during the a running play in the red zone? When adversity strikes, some teams/players don’t know how to handle it. This one does.

COMMITMENT TO THE RUN GAME

Tom Brady can lift all boats, or his team in this case. Even at the age of 40, he’s one of just a handful of quarterbacks that no situation, no amount of adversity, seems too great to overcome. Lose your best receiver? That sucks, but we’ll figure it out. Get smashed to smithereens over the first four games and hurt your non-throwing shoulder? Not ideal, but I’ll be there next week . . . and the week after that and so on. Find yourself with just three healthy receivers for a big game in Denver, including one who’s barely made an impact during the first half of the season? Brady will just have the best statistical game at Mile High EVER. Yes, the old man is playing like a young kid with all the advanced degrees. “I have the answers to the test.” 

However, Brady’s still standing upright -- and that shoulder is healing -- because of a commitment the Patriots made to the run game following that loss to Carolina. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew he was putting his QB in harm’s way too often. So the Pats magic number of 25 or more rushes became the target weekly. Only once have they failed to get there since:

GAME CARRIES YARDS
at Tampa Bay 23 113
at N.Y. Jets 25 118
Atlanta 36 162
L.A. Chargers 32 97
at Denver 29 99

The line play has improved dramatically over the win streak and the guys up front have said having more of a 50/50 run-pass ratio allows them to get into more of an attack mentality. Instead of always taking your first step back and bracing for a hit, they can instead deliver. It helps to wear out those elite pass rushers. Ask Von Miller. Or Joey Bosa. Or Melvin Ingram. Or Vic Beasley. Should I continue?

SPECIAL TEAMS

Always one of the premier groupings in the entire league, the Pats got off to a rocky start during that first month. They were without Matthew Slater, one of the best gunners in the game, and the rest of the unit missed his energy and attention to detail. You want to talk about accountability? No one on special teams wants to disappoint Slater.

But Slater's back and guess what? The Pats special teams have been riding high. Versus the Chargers prior to the bye, the Pats nailed punt returner Travis Benjamin for a safety, got a 71-yard kick return from Dion Lewis and continually pinned L.A. inside its own 20 on kickoffs. Hard to top that, right?

Wrong. 

Sunday night against the Broncos, Jon Jones forced a fumble on a punt return in the opening quarter, a fumble that was recovered by Jacob Hollister and led to a touchdown. Dion Lewis returned a kickoff 103 yards for a score. Rex Burkhead blocked a punt, leading to more points, and the Pats retained possession of the ball when they caught the Broncos with 12 men on the field during a punt return. 24 points -- directly or indirectly -- came because of how well the special teams  played. 

Bill Belichick always stresses playing complementary football and three phases of the game. The Pats aren’t just winning on special teams, they're crushing teams’ souls.

MATT PATRICIA DOING MORE WITH LESS

This might be the Pats’ defensive coordinator’s best job yet. His front seven is littered with subs, castoffs and players not in their prime, past their prime or just straight underperforming. Yet since losing to Carolina, the Pats defense has held opponents to 17 points or less in five straight games. How is that possible? Well, for starters, that pesky “bend but don’t break” mentality has come back into focus. The Pats are giving up yards -- Denver marched it up and down the field repeatedly Sunday night -- but are tightening up in or near the red area and forcing field goals. Patricia won’t celebrate that -- he wants no yards and no points -- but deep down, the DC is pleased with his team’s execution when their backs are up against the end zone. 

Patricia has also tabbed Kyle Van Noy to be his new Dont’a Hightower. With Hightower, the lynchpin of the front seven, down and out for the year, the Pats have asked Van Noy to do more than ever. He’s wearing the green dot and lines up inside, outside, anywhere they feel his speed and improved intelligence can help. It’s not perfect. Few linebackers have the physical skill set Hightower does. But Van Noy has become a foundational piece for a defense that needed the concrete to harden quickly after that putrid first month.

THEIR COACH IS SMARTER THAN YOURS

Bill Belichick didn’t panic when the Pats were 2-2. He went on some interesting media rants about the stupidity of predicting perfection to dispelling the notion that any team should be as good in September or October as it was the previous January or February. (Note to Bill: I have no idea who said that. Seemed like a strawman to me . . . ) Those moments made you reach deep for some sort of inner meaning. I took it as Belichick trying to shift the focus off his team and onto himself, even if it carried the conversation for just a day or two. 

Meanwhile, the coaching staff just kept pushing buttons, trying to find the right fits for some of their newer players. I’d say they’ve accomplished that. Stephon Gilmore is no longer miscast as a zone corner. He’s playing a lot of man and playing it well (ask Mike Evans and Demaryius Thomas). Rex Burkhead is being featured more as both a runner and receiver. Dion Lewis is now getting carries that previously belonged to Mike Gillislee. We’re seeing more of fullback James Develin and that toughness that he brings. Devin McCourty has found himself playing closer to the line of scrimmage than ever before and had really been as sound a tackler as you’ll see. Hell, the staff has even gotten something out of Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi defensively. 

Belichick also told Alan Branch to stay home for that Tampa game and didn’t lose the player. He reduced Malcolm Butler’s snaps in Week 2 versus the Saints, and while the corner hasn’t played up to his 2016 level, he too didn’t stray off the reservation. Noted distraction Martellus Bennett, who has left previous stops in Dallas, New York, Chicago and Green Bay with bridges burning, returned this past week and caught three passes in limited duty and said after that Belichick just knows how to talk to him. Yep, the man knows how to coach schemes and personalities better than anyone does it now and maybe anyone has done it ever. 

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Cowboys edge Raiders 20-17 by slimmest of margins

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Cowboys edge Raiders 20-17 by slimmest of margins

OAKLAND, Calif. - Dallas kept its playoff hopes alive by the slimmest of margins.

Dak Prescott converted a fourth-down sneak by the width of an index card to set up Dan Bailey's go-ahead 19-yard field goal, and Derek Carr fumbled the ball inches from the goal line with 31 seconds left to give the Cowboys a 20-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday night.

"We know where we're at, our season is on the line as far as going to the playoffs," tight end Jason Witten said. "It's good to just see us find a way to get the result that we did. ... Good to get lucky and see the football gods help you out a bit. I've certainly been on the other end of it over the course of my years."

The first key play came when Cowboys coach Jason Garrett decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 39 with about five minutes left in a tie game. Prescott ran into a pile that took officials time to untangle.

Referee Gene Steratore then called for the chains to come out, but even that wasn't clear. He then tried to slide what appeared to be an index card between the tip of the ball and the end of the chain. When the card didn't slide through, Steratore signaled a first down for Dallas (8-6). He said he had decided it was a first down before the odd measurement.

"The final decision was made visually. The card was used nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done," he told a pool reporter. "My decision was visually done based on the look from the pole."

That explanation didn't satisfy Raiders coach Jack Del Rio.

"I had a different viewpoint. I saw air," Del Rio said. "It was pretty obvious. Again, they do the best they can with a tough job."

Prescott then hit Dez Bryant with a 40-yard pass that set up Bailey's short kick with 1:44 to play that gave the Cowboys the lead.

But the game was far from over. The Raiders (6-8) got a gift when Jourdan Lewis committed a 55-yard pass interference penalty on a fourth-and-10 from their own 30. Carr then scrambled on third-and-3 from the 8 and reached out for the end zone. But the ball came loose before crossing the goal line and went out of the end zone for a touchback that all but ended Oakland's playoff hopes. The Raiders are tied for ninth in the AFC.

"I tried to hold onto it," Carr said. "It wasn't like I didn't try. But there's obviously a lot of different things . throw it away, kick a field goal, run out of bounds. OK, cool. But in that moment I was just trying to win for my teammates."

Dallas is in a three-way tie for seventh place in the NFC, a half-game behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot. The Falcons beat the Cowboys head-to-head.

The Cowboys got their third straight win without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who returns from a six-game suspension next week. But Dallas' three straight losses at the start of the suspension created a hole the team is still trying to escape.

"We continue to scratch, we continue to claw," coach Jason Garrett said. "It wasn't our most perfect performance in any phase of our football team, but the fight was there."

FAKE IT OUT

The Cowboys took a risk in the third quarter on a fourth-and-11 from their own 24. Punter Chris Jones kept the ball and ran 24 yards for a first down. Dallas then drove down the field and took a 17-10 lead when Prescott ran in from 5 yards out and then was given a shower of drinks thrown by fans in the Black Hole.

MILESTONE THROW

Carr set up Oakland's first TD with a 32-yard scramble that was his longest run since his rookie year. That led to a 2-yard TD to Michael Crabtree that gave Carr 100 career touchdown passes. He joined Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck as the only players with at least 100 TD passes in their first four years in the NFL. Carr added a second TD pass to Crabtree in the fourth quarter that tied the game at 17.

TAKE IT AWAY

Sean Smith intercepted two passes for the Raiders, doubling the team's total from the first 13 games. Smith got his first on the opening drive of the game and then added another just moments after Oakland got on the board for the first time. Bruce Irvin hit Prescott on the throw and Smith came up with the floater . He was initially given a TD return on the play but was ruled down by contact on replay and Oakland settled for a game-tying field goal from Giorgio Tavecchio.

INJURIES

The Raiders lost LT Donald Penn (foot) and DT Treyvon Hester (ankle) to injuries in the first half. ... Dallas LT Tyron Smith left in the second half with a knee injury.

UP NEXT

Cowboys: Host Seattle on Sunday.

Raiders: Visit Philadelphia on Dec. 25.

GOAT-to-GOAT: Brady puts trust in Gronkowski with Steelers game on the line

GOAT-to-GOAT: Brady puts trust in Gronkowski with Steelers game on the line

PITTSBURGH - Down five points with a little over two minutes to play, Tom Brady knew what the Patriots offense had to do. But with precious few of his receivers actually getting open consistently, the quarterback knew whose number to dial up again and again and again. Rob Gronkowski’s phone was ringing off the hook and the tight end knew who was on the other end.

“There were two minutes left,” he said. “I knew we had to go down, make a drive and just do what you have to do. If the ball is coming to you, you have to make some plays. It just went well.”

Gee, you think? Gronkowski dominated the Pats’ final drive of the game, accounting for 69 of the team’s 77 yards and then added the all-important two-point conversion.

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“I thought he did a great job of separating and making the catches,” said Brady. 

The game-winning drive nearly ended in disaster long before it finished with Gronkowski dancing and flexing in the end zone like he had temporarily lost his mind. On first down from the Pats’ 23, Brady went Gronk’s way, but the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and safety Sean Davis had the ball slip through his hands for an interception that surely would have sent the Pats to their second straight loss in December. Instead, Davis was unable to go back across his body and snag the football. What usually happens when you give Brady a reprieve? Let’s review.

The very next play was when it started. With Gronkowski working out of the left side of Brady as the slot receiver in trips, the tight end worked down the seam but then angled his route more toward the post and reeled in a 26 yarder with Davis desperately in a chase position. How does someone who’s 60 pounds lighter - as Davis is - find himself in that position? Allow Matt Slater to offer a theory.

“It is hard to describe special players in this league,” he said. “There are certain guys - when the moment is big - they just become bigger. The moment wasn’t too big for those guys. They’ve worked at it for years now, that connection, and it was certainly clicking tonight. It was fun to watch. The confidence they have in one another hasn’t happened overnight. It is something that they’ve built on.”

With more ground to cover, Brady would once again go back to the Gronk well. But this time, the Steelers weren’t content to sit back and let it happen. They blitzed, playing zone behind it. Lined up as the wide slot in twins, Gronk once again got over the top of Davis and found a soft spot in the coverage. The window wasn’t huge, but Brady fit the ball in there. Another 26 yards and the Pats were now well-positioned on the outer rim of the red zone.

“I have so much trust in him,” said Brady. “It may look like it’s 50-50, but it might be 95-5. You try and develop that chemistry over time, and Gronk’s earned it.”

So much so that Brady went to him yet again. It came on a play that maybe Gronk doesn’t make if he hadn’t changed up some of his training and embraced the pliability that Alex Guerrero - yes, that guy - preaches. The 28-year old went down and got a low throw from Brady, plucking the ball off the blades of glass like he was picking daisies to bring back to his mama.

“That was unbelievable,” admired newcomer Kenny Britt. “I’ve never seen anything like that between two people. That’s some connection they have built over the years. Hopefully we can keep seeing it.”

“Awww man, I’ve seen it so many times but to see it firsthand on this team was incredible,” said Dwayne Allen. “It was incredible. Tom and Rob just carried us to the win.”

To prove he isn’t a one-trick pony, the Pats ran off Gronk’s backside on the game-winning touchdown jaunt by Dion Lewis. The big fella sealed off 303-pound defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt like he was just a little fella who took a wrong turn and ended up playing with the big boys. Then needing a two-point conversion to make it a field goal game, Gronk flexed out wide right. Davis tried to jam him, but the attempt was futile. The Steelers’ safety had been emasculated. Gronk caught the fade and shook and flexed and generally acted like a fool. 

“It was just spontaneous,” he said.

The Steelers may remember it, but so what, they have never been able to stop it. Hell, no one has had any success stopping the Brady-to-Gronk connection.

“That’s the GOATS, man,” smiled Duron Harmon. “Gronk’s turning into the GOAT. Tom’s the GOAT and Gronk’s turning into one. Those two did what they had to do for us on that drive, man. That’s what happens. Your best players play their best in situations and those two are our best players.”

No arguments here, nor, it would seem, from the Pittsburgh sideline.

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