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.

Brady knew it wasn't over, told Gronkowski to cool it on the celebration

patriots_steelers_tom_brady_121717.jpg

Brady knew it wasn't over, told Gronkowski to cool it on the celebration

Tom Brady had a feeling. He knew there was only less than a minute left in his team's game with the Steelers. But he also knew that was plenty of time for something crazy to go down. 

After completing a two-point conversion on a fade to Rob Gronkowski -- the piece de resistance of Gronkowski's monster day, most of which was spent being checked by second-year safety Sean Davis -- the big tight end celebrated and hammed it up for an on-the-field camera like he was in a late-90s rap video. 

Brady interrupted his teammate mid-dance. "Hey!" he shouted at Gronkowski. "It ain't over."

"Fifty-five seconds, that’s still a lot of time," Brady said after the game. "They hit the one big play, and before you know it they are knocking on our end zone’s door. [Roethlisberger] made a really great throw [to Jesse James], but they just couldn’t come up with it. Then the great tackle [by Malcolm Butler] on the [Darius Heyward-Bey] crossing route. They tried to fake spike it on third down, but our guys were aware and made a great play."

Brady's message to Gronkowski late was reminiscent of the end of Super Bowl LI, when it was at first somewhat unclear as to whether or not James White got into the end zone for the walk-off game-winner. At that point in time, Brady went from initially celebrating, to unsure White got in. He told his teammates to hold off on the partying until the play was reviewed -- kind of in the same way he told Gronkowski to chill out. 

We know how it worked out. And even if the stakes weren't quite as high, the finish in Pittsburgh was about as dramatic as it gets for a regular-season game. 

"That was great. It was a lot of fun," Brady said. "It was a great environment and a great team that we played that played really well. The weather conditions -- it kind of rained the whole game. It was just one of those days where you go back and forth, you play right to the end, and the ball bounces some weird ways. I’m glad it bounced our way today."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Belichick highlights fourth-quarter kickoff as key in win over Steelers

cp-patriots-steelers-belichick-patricia-121817.jpg

Belichick highlights fourth-quarter kickoff as key in win over Steelers

Leave it to Bill Belichick to shed light on the importance of the kicking game after a game like the one his team played on Sunday. 

Of all the memorable moments in New England's 27-24 win, the one Belichick brought up unprompted in his post-game press conference wasn't a Rob Gronkowski catch, or a Tom Brady throw, or a touchdown that was ruled to be an incompletion.

It was a kickoff. Specifically, the kickoff that occurred immediately before the final Steelers drive of the game. 

Belichick's point? That there were countless plays that mattered, involving an unspecified number of players. Team game.

"A lot of guys played well," Belichick said. "Tom played well. Rob played well, but we got a lot of great play from really everybody on the team. You can just go right down the line. Every play was a big play. 

"The kickoff after we scored was a big play. If that had been a touchback, I don’t know, they might have scored on that pass. It would have been maybe on the 1-yard line. Every play is a big play."

The pass Belichick referred to was the 69-yard catch-and-run that was completed to JuJu Smith-Schuster with 52 seconds left in the game. It moved the Steelers from the 21-yard line to the Patriots' 10 in less than 20 seconds. 

One play prior, Smith-Schuster returned a Stephen Gostkowski kick out of his own end zone for 22 yards before being tackled by Patriots special-teamer Nicholas Grigsby. It was Grigsby's second "teams" tackle of the game, and his third game under Belichick since being signed off of the Ravens practice squad last month.

The difference between Grigsby's tackle and a touchback in the box score was four yards so maybe Smith-Schuster's rumble down the sideline to the 10 wouldn't have resulted in a touchdown.

But you never know. And that's why, to Belichick, every play was big. Even in a game like that one, where hours of sports talk on television and radio will be devoted to a handful of moments that occurred in the last two minutes.

It's an approach that has helped shaped the style of the coach who watched his team win its ninth straight division title and 15th of the last 17. It all matters. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE