Patriots

Why Chris Hogan's return could mitigate impact of Rob Gronkowski suspension

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Why Chris Hogan's return could mitigate impact of Rob Gronkowski suspension

FOXBORO -- No one can give the Patriots what Rob Gronkowski gives them. That much is obvious. But if they could get Chris Hogan back in the lineup, that might lessen the impact of playing without their suspended tight end down in Miami on Monday night. 

Hogan participated in the team's fully-padded practice inside the Empower Field House on Wednesday. It was his first on-the-field session with his teammates since suffering a shoulder injury against the Chargers in Week 8.

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While it's unclear as to whether or not he'll be healthy enough to play against the Dolphins, he was clearly pleased that he was able to finally get back to work.

“It was like a first day of school for me, to get back out on the field," he said. "I was excited to be out there. The competitor in me wants to be out there no matter what. I’m just taking it day-by-day, trying to get better and hopefully put myself in a position where I can be back on the field with these guys."

In Hogan's absence, the Patriots have turned to Phillip Dorsett in three-receiver sets. Though Dorsett has chipped in with a handful of effective down-the-field blocks, he's played 168 snaps since the bye and has just three targets. Should Hogan be able to return, Tom Brady would suddenly have one of his more dependable options available to him again in the passing game. 

Hogan would also provide a sneaky-effective red-zone target with Gronkowski out. 

Even after missing the last four games, Hogan is top 20 in the NFL in terms of red-zone touchdowns. His four receiving scores inside the 20-yard line are tied for 18th in the league with Kansas City's Travis Kelce and one more than San Diego's Keenan Allen, New Orleans' Michael Thomas and Denver's Demaryius Thomas.

And even with a quarter of the season lost to injury, Hogan is still in the top 30 in terms of red-zone targets. The 11 passes he's seen in that area are more than Philadelphia's Alshon Jeffery (10), Oakland's Amari Cooper (9) and Denver's Emmanuel Sanders (8).

"Chris has got good length,” Bill Belichick said earlier this season when asked about Hogan's red-zone productivity. "He catches the ball well. He catches away from his body, which a lot of passes in the red area, that’s what you have to do because the coverage is tight. The quarterback throws it to where the defender can’t get it, and the receiver has to extend to make the play. Good hands, being able to separate and good height definitely helps down there."

Before getting hurt, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was on pace for career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns, and he was particularly busy in the one game Gronkowski missed this season due to a leg injury. In Week 5 against the Bucs, Hogan was targeted a season-high 11 times and caught a season-high 8 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. 

It's not certain Hogan will be able to play. But if he's a go, his presence in the lineup could go a long way in terms of helping to fill created by Gronkowski's suspension. 

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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 5 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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