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.
PATRIOTS 41, BRONCOS 16
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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.