Patriots

Why Rex Burkhead's big night in Denver was no fluke

patriots_broncos_rex_burkhead_111217.jpg

Why Rex Burkhead's big night in Denver was no fluke

The Patriots offensive game plan in Denver last weekend was clear: Find mismatches with Broncos linebackers and safeties in coverage and exploit them. 

The result was a big night for Patriots running backs and tight ends -- those groups accounted for 16 catches, 177 yards and three touchdowns receiving -- en route to a dominating 41-16 win. 

MORE PATRIOTS

Will they be able to take a similar approach in Mexico City against the Raiders? It would make sense if they tried. 

Jack Del Rio's defense is having a down season, checking in at 23rd in the league in points allowed per game (23.8). And despite having one of the game's best edge defenders in Khalil Mack, as well as talented complementary rushers in Mario Edwards Jr. and Bruce Irvin, Oakland is last in the NFL in sacks (13.0). 

When it comes to Oakland's ability to cover, their weaknesses are similar to those the Broncos showed last weekend. The Raiders, according to Football Outsiders, are 28th in the league when it comes to defending running backs and 30th in the league when it comes to defending tight ends. Against backs they allow an average of 53.6 yards receiving on 7.5 targets, and against tight ends they're allowing 55.2 yards on 6.6 targets. 

Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen should be licking their chops for this type of matchup. Back in Week 9, Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas went off for 84 yards and a score on eight targets. 

The same could be said for New England's receiving backs. That should mean more work for Rex Burkhead, who has emerged as a true dual running and receiving threat, who has continued to see his workload increase every week since returning from a rib injury he suffered back in Week 2. 

Burkhead played 36 snaps against the Broncos, up from the 27 he saw against the Chargers and the 13 he played against the Falcons. He took a season-high 10 carries against Denver (he'd had 10 in his previous two games combined), and caught three passes on three targets, giving him a season-high 13 touches total. He's played only three games in his five-year career (all last season) when he's seen the football that often. 

Add those snaps to his special teams duties -- he blocked a punt and made two tackles on kickoffs last weekend -- and he's been busy. His usage is at the point where he's done a little extra, he explained this week, in order to make sure his conditioning is on point. 

"You know, I have, actually, just doing some things on the side just to make sure I'm in good shape and staying on top of the conditioning," he said, "just because you never know what your work load could be or how the game goes or whatnot . . . I'm just staying on top of that. [Head strength and conditioning coach] Moses [Cabrera] does a great job with us in the strength and conditioning department here, so just making sure I'm on top of that, like I said, because you never know how many snaps you may play, so you've just got to be ready."

Based on how the Raiders defense has looked this season, and where their weaknesses are, Burkhead may have to be ready for another steady workload south of the border.

Cowboys edge Raiders 20-17 by slimmest of margins

raiders_cowboys_derek_carr_fumble_121717.jpg

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.

MORE:

“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.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE