Denver Broncos

Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

Hard to find a Patriots equal in soft AFC

John Elway created a stir this week when he said his Broncos, after a 3-1 start, had “gotten a little bit soft." Elway, the Broncos GM, said that after five straight Denver losses – the last two by the combined score of 92-39

Denver’s head coach Vance Joseph said Elway’s remark bothered him. He talked to his players about it. On Sunday, the Broncos went out and did something about it. They lost by just three at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yay.

They’re pretty much all soft in the AFC this year. Check out the AFC West. There’s Denver. And the Raiders – who the Patriots handled with disturbing ease on Sunday, 33-8. The 6-4 Kansas City Chiefs, who, after starting the season 5-0, just lost on the road to the one-win Giants.

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The AFC East is soft. Miami was 4-2. It’s lost four straight including a 40-0 loss to Baltimore. The Jets were 3-2. They’re now 4-6 (which is a minor miracle given how ragged their roster is). The Bills were 5-2. Now they’re 5-5, having lost by a combined 101-34 the past two weeks as coach Sean McDermott willingly stuck a butter knife in an electrical outlet and replaced Tyrod Taylor with a not-ready-for-preseason-Week-4 Nathan Peterman.

The AFC South is led by the Jaguars and Titans. Jacksonville -- which can play some defense -- isn’t as bad as the rest. The Jags have won four straight and play cutthroat defense, but they had their hands full with the 0-10 Browns on Sunday. During the week, running back Leonard Fournette complained about having to play in the cold in Cleveland. At least he showed up Sunday and ran for 111. The Titans are awful when they leave Tennessee, which was further proven last Thursday when they lost 40-17 at Pittsburgh. Since October began, they’ve been outscored 122-43 in four road games. Their one road win in that span was a 12-9 decision over Cleveland. 

The big, bad AFC North contingent led by the Steelers at 8-2? Talented. But led by a forever-whining, passive-aggressive quarterback who openly and annually mulls retirement and two “me-first” skill guys in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Their greatest strength may be in executing elaborate post-touchdown skits. Vital.

Meanwhile, here are the boring-ass Patriots. Yeah, they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and continuity in the program and coaching staff, but the gap between them and everyone else in the conference is that they don’t worry about the cold or the road or the five-act plays after they score.

They stayed a week in Colorado Springs to get ready for the altitude. Two Patriots -- Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola -- had to be treated for dehydration in the second half. After five PLAYS, Raiders rookie Obi Melifonwu was asking out of the game, saying he couldn’t breathe.

The Raiders -- a team that went 12-4 last year -- haven’t improved a bit defensively all season. They are, under head coach Jack Del Rio, one of those “we do what we do” defenses the Patriots love to face because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Brady is now 8-1 against Del Rio-led teams/defenses and the numbers against Del Rio’s teams are absurd: 225 completions on 310 attempts for (73 percent) for 2,387 yards, 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It just feels like the AFC is a collection of teams, with an overwhelming majority of them in turn-it-on, turn-it-off mode. Their coaches are just kind of casting about, constantly open to suggestion and willing to give anything a shot because, hell, they better try something to get hot or they’ll be passing out resumes at the Combine in four months.

The Patriots remaining schedule goes like this: Dolphins, Bills, Dolphins, Steelers, Bills, Jets. Shake me awake on December 17 when the Steelers game comes. And we have a mountain of data explaining how that one will go, too.

I’m not weary of the team. It’s historic and fascinating, like watching a hooded Mozart compose and a helmeted Van Gogh paint every week. But the exercise of trying to conjure scenarios where the Patriots play November football with the exquisite ineptitude of their opponents is not easy.

They are doing this without Julian Edelman or Dont'a Hightower. They played Sunday without Chris Hogan, David Andrews, Marcus Cannon and Matt Slater.

Offenses can’t score against them. Defenses can’t stop them. They create points on special teams. They manage the game, the clock and their opponents like simple arithmetic while every other team’s doing trigonometry. What was broken in September has been long fixed.

The time will come again when the Patriots appear just as inept, clueless and mired in mediocrity as every other AFC team appears right now. But it won’t be this year.

So embrace the softness? I guess?

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Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.

After Gronk play, Belichick makes another pitch for goal-line cameras

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After Gronk play, Belichick makes another pitch for goal-line cameras

DENVER -- Rob Gronkowski was hot after his team's win Sunday night at Sports Authority Field. The reason? He thought he had a touchdown -- or a "tug," as he calls it -- wiped off the board because of a missed call.

Late in the second quarter, it looked as though Gronkowski made a diving grab near the goal line, but it was immediately called incomplete. After the Patriots called a timeout, and after Gronkowski did some serious lobbying to Bill Belichick to challenge the ruling, the coach opted to toss his red challenge flag.

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"I went up to Coach, and he’s like, ‘Are you sure?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m sure, man.’ I would never say that if I wasn’t 100 percent sure, because you don’t want to lose that kind of trust," Gronkowski said after the game. "And I thought I caught it, man. I know I caught it. My fingers were underneath it.”

Yet after review, the call on the field stood. There was not enough video evidence to overturn. 

"I mean, I didn’t see any replays or anything like that, but did you guys see any time where the ball hit the ground? Because it didn’t, that’s why,” Gronkowski said. ”I put my hand underneath the ball. I know for sure I caught it. I just don’t understand why it wasn’t a tug. It didn’t show any evidence of it hitting the ground. I know it didn’t. My fingers were underneath it. It tilted up the ball, and I knew it was right there. And I brought it in, and it landed on my forearm when I brought it in, and I knew exactly."

Belichick said during a conference call on Monday that he wouldn't hold it against Gronkowski. Most players like to think they catch every pass sent their way, he explained. And it even after review, Belichick said, it looked like an incredibly close call. 

Because the topic of replay and goal-line calls was brought up, Belichick used the opportunity to once again make it known that he believes there should be more cameras in order to provide more angles for plays like that Gronkowski's. 

The play ended up not mattering because one snap later Dwayne Allen was in the end zone for an 11-yard score, but what if that was an end-of-the-game play? What if the score was tighter? Wouldn't you want more angles to know you got the call right? 

That's Belichick's point. It's one he's made before.

"It went the way it did and I understand that," Belichick said. "Again, not that it made any difference on that play, but again, I’ll take this opportunity to say that I just am all for trying to get these plays right. I think that would have been a good example of where a goal-line camera or a pylon camera would have been given a good opportunity. 

"I think we saw in the Kansas City-Oakland game a couple weeks ago the great shot that that camera gave, so again, I think this would be just another example. In the end, it didn’t make any difference in the game last night, but had that been the final play of the game or one of the final plays of the game in a close game, whichever side it was on, just want it to be right. Whether he caught it or didn’t catch it, just make sure that we make the right call."

The play Belichick was referencing occurred last month during a Thursday night game between the Chiefs and Raiders. Oakland tight end Jared Cooks appeared to get into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown, but thanks to a review, he was marked down at the 1. 

The Raiders eventually scored and won the game, but it was a good example of how a camera in that area of the field can be helpful. 

"It’s a tough call," Belichick said of Gronkowski's near-grab. "The official made the call. It’s a tough call. The official that made the call was standing pretty close to me on the sideline. He was probably 30 yards away. It was a close play. I saw it the same way he did. 

"It was really close, so maybe the league can find a way to finance that project and get a good quality shot of some of those goal line plays, like they had in the Oakland-Kansas City game."

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