Haters grasp at straws as Patriots -- as usual -- begin to pull away

Haters grasp at straws as Patriots -- as usual -- begin to pull away

The Patriots are hitting their stride while the rest of the league is reaching for its torches and pitchforks. Same as it ever was.

In a primetime win in Denver over the fast-imploding Broncos, the Patriots gave the kind of soup-to-nuts performance that served notice to the rest of the NFL that their arrow is pointed decidedly up. And the rest of the NFL -- predictably agitated about that major development -- will kick rocks, mutter and anonymously shiv the Patriots about the minor one they can seize on.

That would be the return of Martellus Bennett.

But, but, but  . . . they can’t just DO that!! Can they?!

Probably they can. The fact Bennett quit on the Packers, then made it known any non-Foxboro based team claiming him was getting a guy who had a looming date with a scalpel, probably wasn’t the most ethical thing for Bennett to do.


But the Patriots didn’t game the system. Bennett did. He exercised his rights as a private contractor and made it known he’d withhold services from any team he didn’t want to play for. Is it the Patriots' fault he wanted to play for them? It will surely be framed that way.

Where’s the honor? Where’s the sportsmanship? Where’s the sense of fair play? Those questions will hammer like rain on a tin roof in the next few days and all the GMs, owners and coaches who nod in agreement won’t hear the answer the Patriots would love to give because they’ll never voice it.

Don’t honor/fair play/sportsmanship us after the league took our quarterback for a quarter of last season after a nearly two-year poopstorm.

There will be saber-rattling and promises of the league “looking into it.” Bennett will probably have to pay the Packers back a chunk of money. But in the end, the Patriots will have their No. 2 tight end and Gronk insurance because what the league doesn’t need right now is another fight on another front, especially with the franchise owned by the guy who -- despite it all -- still has Roger Goodell’s back.

If it feels un-American, well, the whole communist framework of the NFL is decidedly un-American and Bennett was merely being a capitalist.

Like I said, though. Minor development.

The major one is that New England didn't just add Bennett for the winter but it’s also figured out to do with its Rex Burkhead and its Stephon Gilmore. Now comes a week of bonding in Colorado Springs as the Patriots go on a unifying, week-long retreat before playing the Raiders in Mexico City.

Ten days at altitude? If the league thought that was a nice little scheduling knife twist, then they mustn’t be fans of the sweet science. Where do boxers go to get tuned up before a big fight? The mountains.

Aside from Bennett, the real story was that the Patriots' march from inefficiency and ineptitude has proceeded as it always does. With metronomic predictability, they spent the first month of the season finding out what works, the second month of the season improving on that, and now they head for the holidays with a head of steam. The 19-0 talk is long forgotten and this team had to be dipped in a vat of “You really aren’t that good . . . ” before the buildup began but now -– as you can hear in Bill Belichick’s voice after every game -- the coach buys into them because they bought into the coaching.

The Patriots haven’t allowed more than 17 points in a game since October 1. There are “Yeah buts . . . ” about the opponents (Jets, Bucs, Chargers, Falcons and Broncos), but the “Yeah, but . . . ” that trumps all those is that there is no Big, Bad Team X lurking out there that will eat the Patriots alive when they meet them.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have covered up for the loss of Julian Edelman with the preplanning they did at the running-back spot. That’s been on display the last three games and Sunday night it was obvious.

Denver is tough on wideouts? Denver will devote attention to Gronkowski? New England then peppers the middle of the field with running backs who run like slot receivers, attacks the middle of the Denver defense away from Von Miller, and then uses play-action to slice up first-year head coach Vance Joseph’s defense with whoever the Broncos forgot about.

That was the obvious stuff. The discreet stuff -- the drastically improved protection of Tom Brady provided by guys like La’Adrian Waddle (who’s been inactive so often the past three years he’s watched almost as many games from the press box as I have), the special-teams improvement under Joe Judge -- was even more important. The Patriots were able to play from ahead thanks to special teams. Because they played from ahead, they could keep running. Because they could keep running, Denver could never load up its pass rush. They couldn’t load up their pass rush so Brady barely got bothered and the Broncos paid the price.

Running game, special teams, pass protection -- nobody will want to talk about that on Monday. The Bennett Affair is too juicy. But he’s a garnish. He’s a lug nut. The guy who just showed up may not make as much difference in terms of what happens in 2017 as La’Adrian Waddle will. But who -- other than the Family Waddle -- wants to talk about La’Adrian? Right. Nobody.

This will be a week for cluck-clucking about the shady Patriots and pleas for somebody to DO SOMETHING! The bigger point will be missed. A guy like Bennett wants to play for the Patriots and nobody else because they do things like nobody else. Same as it ever was.


Cowboys edge Raiders 20-17 by slimmest of margins


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."


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.