Patriots

'Good news' has Burkhead feeling positive before Patriots playoff debut

patriots_rex_burkhead_081917.jpg

'Good news' has Burkhead feeling positive before Patriots playoff debut

FOXBORO -- Rex Burkhead gambled on himself last offseason, accepting a one-year deal to join James White and Dion Lewis in a talented Patriots backfield that quickly became even more crowded when Mike Gillislee was signed as a restricted free agent. The results have been mixed.

Burkhead has proven to be an easy fit in an offense that has benefited from his varied skill set, but staying on the field has been an issue. He played in 10 regular-season games, and his workload in terms of snaps was about half of what both Lewis and White were given. 

In 195 plays Burkhead took 64 hand-offs and was targeted in the passing game 36 times, meaning on more than 50 percent of his snaps played he was the focal point of the play. On the one hand, he's proven to be more than a reserve runner and special-teamer, which was his role in Cincinnati for the first four years of his career. But on the other, his durability has come into question after dealing with a rib injury that kept him out a month early in the season and a knee injury that forced him to miss the final two games of the year.

How teams will be willing to spend on Burkhead as a free agent this upcoming offseason will be fascinating to track, but the Patriots are just hoping to have him available this weekend against the Titans. He's been limited in recent practices, but he showed some optimism on Wednesday. 

"I'm just excited . . . After the injury, you never know what is going to happen so that's always in the back of your head," he said. "But when you get good news, it helps you to look forward to these games a little better."

If the Patriots could get Burkhead on the field -- giving them a full complement of pass-catching backs with Lewis and White, who is expected to play after missing the final two weeks of the season with an injured ankle -- he could be particularly useful against Tennessee. 

The Titans are one of the better run defenses in the NFL, limiting opponents to 3.45 yards rushing in their last eight games. But in the passing game, Tennessee is statistically the NFL's most generous defense when it comes to covering backs. According to Football Outsiders, the Titans are allowing a league-high 58.3 yards per game to pass-catching running backs on 8.7 targets.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

EX PATS PODCAST: Recapping Patriots win in AFC title game over Jags

ex-pats-podcast17.png

EX PATS PODCAST: Recapping Patriots win in AFC title game over Jags

1:45 - Mike Giardi and Dan Koppen break down the Patriots comeback win over Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl LII.

4:20 - Leonard Fournette not looking like himself but Blake Bortles making the right plays against the Patriots defense.

7:40 - A couple of mistakes from the Jaguars, punting before 2 minute warning which gave the Patriots an extra timeout, and kneeling at the end of the 1st half with 2 timeouts and 50 seconds remaining.

12:10 - Dion Lewis struggling to find room and make anyone miss against the Jaguars defense.

13:20 - How serious Tom Brady's thumb injury was and if it had any affect on how he was able to throw the ball.

16:05 - Brandin Cooks has his best game as a Patriot, and how he was able to draw two pass interference penalties against the Jaguars secondary.

18:45 - If the hit by Barry Church on Rob Gronkowski was a dirty hit and if it is better to hit a receiver up high or down low.

24:25 - Danny Amendola with several clutch catches, once again coming back big in the postseason for the Patriots.

Cooks shines on his biggest stage yet

cooks_patriots_12218.jpg

Cooks shines on his biggest stage yet

FOXBORO -- You’ve always wanted something more from Brandin Cooks. I mean, 65 catches for almost 11-hundred yards is nothing to turn your nose up at yet we have.  But there’s something very un-Patriot like about his style.

We’ve grown accustom to seeing smaller receivers who fight for every inch, from Troy Brown to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They would scrap and claw to get that extra yard, sometimes risking their own health. Cooks isn’t that guy, despite a similar build of the aforementioned players. He’s a willing blocker, but as a runner will go out of his way to avoid contact. I wouldn’t say that changed in Sunday’s AFC Championship game. He’s still not running slants or crossing routes with any regularity or success, but the 23-year-old wide receiver shined his brightest in his biggest moment and is now headed to the Super Bowl.

MORE PATRIOTS

“It’ s a blessing,” he said pausing briefly before repeating “It’s a blessing.”

Cooks himself helped kick start a sluggish Patriots offense late in the second quarter with his team trailing 14-3. Almost nothing had gone right for the Pats since putting up a field goal on the game’s opening drive. With 1:28 on the clock, Tom Brady threw a pretty pass to Rob Gronkowski running down the seam. He appeared to make the catch for a brief moment before safety Barry Church knocked both the ball from Gronk’s hands and Gronk from the game. Church was flagged for unnecessary roughness, putting the ball on Jacksonville’s 40 yard line. But with Gronk staggering toward the sideline, you couldn’t help but feel a slight air of “oh bleep” in the air. Enter Cooks. 

Jags cornerback A.J. Bouye appeared as if he was going to get up in Cooks’ face before backing away just prior to the snap, surrendering some 8 or 9 yards off the line of scrimmage. But with that elite speed, Cooks got on top of Bouye quickly, forcing some contact. Instead of whimpering through the physicality, Cooks pushed back and pushed forward, again causing Bouye to use his hands. This time though the ball was already in the air and out came the penalty flags. A 32-yard pass interference call had the Pats sitting pretty at the Jags 13. Brady went back to Cooks on the very next play, picking up 12 more yards before James White crashed into the end zone for a touchdown. We had ourselves a game again, 

“You just gotta keep fighting {in those moments} because you can never put it into the hands of hoping you’re going to get a PI {pass interference},” said Cooks. “You just want to fight an make sure you get the ball or no one does.”

After his flawless first half, Cooks let one slip through his hands just as it appeared the Pats were poised to answer a Jacksonville field goal with points of their own. Instead, isolated one-on-one with a linebacker, the lithe wideout couldn’t reel in a potential big gainer and the Pats drive stalled. As the game wore on, you couldn’t help but circle back to that drop and wonder if that was an ominous sign. 

“Obviously you want to make every catch,” said Cooks of the play. “I didn’t but had to keep playing. I hoped I’d work to get another chance….Tom trusts me to put the ball in my area and let me make a play.”

It came to start the Pats’ second touchdown drive of the game, this one not beginning until 12:03 remaining on the game clock. Cooks’ speed forced Bouye to overreact, turning his hips and committing to a deep route. Instead, Cooks’ slapped on the brakes and hauled in an 18-yarder, giving him the first 100-yard receiving game of his brief playoff career. 

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Cooks. “Winning is everything.”

Cooks didn’t make any more catches the remainder of the game, but his speed influenced the Jags to switch Bouye off him and put Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey on. Cooks got Ramsey too, drawing a 36-yard pass interference call later in the 4th. It didn’t lead to points but did help flip the field which eventually did lead the game-winning touchdown.

“It’s football,” he said. “We knew it’s not going to be easy. You’re talking about a great team, one of the best defenses. We knew it was gonna be hard. We knew we had to play 60 minutes of football. Not get too high. Not get too low. Just play till the clock says 0:00.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE