Patriots

Five thoughts from Patriots-Broncos: Special teams play is the difference

Five thoughts from Patriots-Broncos: Special teams play is the difference

DENVER -- Here are five quick-hitting thoughts from what transpired between the Broncos and Patriots on Sunday night at Mile High Stadium . . . 

1) Rex Burkhead was a jack-of-all-trades in his third game back from injury. Since returning from a rib issue that kept him out five weeks, Burkhead has seen his snap-count and his usage steadily increase, and in Denver he was featured prominently. He carried six times in the first half for 23 yards, and he caught all three of his targets for 27 yards and a touchdown. He also made one of the biggest special-teams plays of the game, blocking a second-quarter Broncos punt that eventually led to a field goal. He was in on two first-half tackles as a member of the kickoff team as well. Have a day, Rex. When the Patriots signed Burkhead this offseason, they thought he had the ability to contribute in multiple phases. Now that he's healthy, he's proving them right. 

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2) The monkey is finally off of Dwayne Allen's back. Late in the second quarter he made his first catch of the season -- an 11-yard touchdown that made the score 27-9. Tom Brady was fired up to see the tight end make catch No. 1 as a member of the Patriots, and Allen probably felt doubly relieved since he had a potential touchdown pass bounce off of his hands earlier in the quarter. For a player who has done all the right things off the field and in practice, yet still hasn't seen results on the field, the score had to have served as a huge boost of confidence. 

3) Martellus Bennett played two snaps in the first half and caught passes on both. He had a 27-yard catch-and-run on his first play since re-joining the Patriots, and he made a five-yard grab later in the first quarter. Soon thereafter, however Bennett made his way to the medical tent on the Patriots sideline and spent several minutes inside. He did not play at all in the second quarter, though he was spotted chatting briefly with Tom Brady with his helmet in hand. Bennett returned to action in the second half, though he was used sparingly. He caught a six-yard pass in the fourth quarter to give him three grabs for 38 yards on the night. 

4) Special teams play was the difference as the Patriots built up a three-score lead in the first half. And it wasn't all Burkhead. First was the muffed punt by Broncos return man Isaiah McKenzie, which was encouraged by Jonathan Jones' good coverage. Jacob Hollister fell on the ball, and two plays later Brady found Rex Burkhead to open the scoring. What looked like a quick three-and-out for the Broncos defense turned into a 7-0 deficit. Then came Dion Lewis' 103-yard kick return for a score that was sprung by good blocks from Allen, James Develin and Marquis Flowers. Then came Burkhead's block. Former Broncos assistant special teams coach Bill Belichick had to be beaming. 

5) The Patriots put together a big-boy drive when they took possession for the first time in the second half. After the Broncos scored to make it 27-16, Brady and his teammates took over at their own 25 and needed just 3:18 to drive the field. Long-gainers to Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks -- helped by play-action fakes -- set up a Phillip Dorsett catch that was then followed by three hard-charging Lewis runs. His last, from eight yards out, showed his strength as he carried Aqib Talib into the end zone. Suddenly, after the Broncos thought they'd built some momentum, the Patriots were back up three scores, 34-16.

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Cooks thanks Patriots for AFC championship ring in Instagram post

Cooks thanks Patriots for AFC championship ring in Instagram post

While Brandin Cooks' tenure with the Patriots was a short one, he's still "forever grateful" for his opportunity to play in New England.

The wide receiver thanked the Patriots while showing off his AFC championship ring in an Instagram post.

Cooks was huge in the AFC Championship Game, racking up six receptions for 100 yards in the Patriots' 24-20 victory over the Jaguars.

The Pats traded Cooks to the Rams in April in a package that sent a first-round draft pick to New England, which turned into offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn.

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Curran: Oprah interview underscores Brady's wavering devotion to football

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NBC Sports Boston illustration

Curran: Oprah interview underscores Brady's wavering devotion to football

The money quote from the first episode of Tom vs. Time caused massive swooning in the right-hand corner of the country.

“If you’re going to compete against me, you better be willing to give up your life,” warned Tom Brady. “Because I’m willing to give up mine.”

New England had to collectively lean against the headboard and smoke a cigarette after that.

“The guy’s got everything anyone could want and he’ll put it all on the back burner for football? And, by extension, for me, since I prefer to consume the football his team plays? Hold me . . . ”

Nobody knew then the unspoken sentences after that sentiment would have sounded like this . . . 

"But I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be willing to give up my life.

"Hell, I have three kids. They aren’t just little balls of flesh with eyes and mouths anymore, they are needy miniature humans. My wife is pretty much all set with me getting dropped out a two-story window every week and coming home in a crap mood when some 23-year-old who thinks he’s arrived runs the wrong route at practice for the 233rd time since August.

"I get paid half the dough of players half as good as me.  My boss has been wearing my ass out for almost two decades and when I try to get everyone to understand that, ‘Hey, there might be a different approach to training that’s worked great for me . . . ’ I’m Benedict Arnold. And sorry for being 40 and thinking about the rest of my life after football, advancing the ‘brand’ and not playing Fortnite. So giving up my life . . . I don’t know. Maybe next year I just try to give up a big portion of my life instead of the whole thing and see how that works out."

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That version of Tom Brady was right there. Right under the surface. The guy attached to another adult male by giant rubber bands so he could drag him around the backyard of a $5 million (or whatever) mansion while wearing a helmet and shoulder pads may actually have realized, “This seems odd.”

Judging from Brady’s 45-minute interview with Orpah Winfrey that aired Sunday, and a slew of other occasions this offseason, Tom Brady’s just not that into it the way he was.

I think you’d call the “give up my life” quote a case of whistling past the graveyard. Brady knew when he chest-puffed about sacrifice that there was an expiration date on that, but he didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Why? Horrible for the brand. Better to appear as if every cell in the organism was swimming  toward the same goal of domination without a single one of them saying, “Are you sure we’re going the right way?”

You could also call that quote a bait-and-switch. Brady’s entitled to be a complete human -- encouraged, even. But the 180 from the first episode of TvT to this offseason is nothing anyone could have anticipated based on the propaganda served. We’ve gotten a steady diet of mixed messages from Brady and those around him and responses that -- in their delivery -- invite more speculation than they douse.

With Oprah, Brady again tentatively pointed out that real life has increasingly encroached on football.

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Asked about retirement, he answered, “I think about it more now than I used to. I think I’m seeing there’s definitely an end coming sooner, rather than later. As long as I’m still loving it. As long as I’m loving the training and the preparation and willing to make the commitment.

“But it’s also, I think what I alluded to a lot in the docuseries, there’s other things happening in my life, too,” Brady added. “I do have kids that I love, and I don’t want to be a dad that’s not there, driving my kids to their games . . . my kids have brought a great perspective in my life. Kids just want the attention. You better be there. And be available to them.”

Gotham Chopra, who produced TvT, was the first to declare Brady as being year-to-year. Then, soon after, Brady’s agent Don Yee told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, "Tom's intentions have not changed. He's consistently said he'll play beyond this contract and into his mid-40s, or until he feels he isn't playing at a championship level. I understand the constant speculation, but this is one point he's been firm about."

Oprah, who despite the Harry Caray glasses just doesn’t seem that much fun anymore, did ask Brady if there is “something going on” with Bill Belichick.

Brady answered, “Umm . . . no. I mean, I love him. I love that he is an incredible coach, mentor for me. He’s pushed me in a lot of ways. Like everything, we don’t agree on absolutely everything, but that’s relationships.”

The “ummmm . . . ” and averted eyes spoke a lot louder than the “no.”

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If you asked your kid, “Son, didn’t you see this pile of dog crap on the rug?” and he answered, “Ummmm . . . no . . . ” while looking away, you’d tell him to clean up the dog crap he tried to pretend he hadn’t seen.

There’s no sense turning this into another “Ah HA!” moment about there being friction. You all get it by now. I'm instead pointing it out because it’s another example of the dissembling Brady’s done this offseason, where he indicates one thing and then walks it back in the next breath.

If there is one spin-it-forward takeaway from this it might be this: Given his devotion to understatement, saying the end is coming "sooner rather than later" makes me wonder if my long-held belief Brady would retire after 2019 has to be reconsidered as being a year too aggressive. 

How was the interview overall? Fine, I guess. The two standout parts for me were actually from Oprah. The first came when she admitted being amazed that there was more depth to Brady than the person she’s seen playing football.

“Gee,” she noted, outing herself as one of a dwindling number of “gee” users. “Watching you play football, I wouldn’t have thought of you as a spiritual person or that spirituality was a kind of thing you were seeking or conscious about.”

Holy crap. It would be fun to be a speck in the Oprah universe, say a plumber fixing a drain and then mentioning aloud how much you like jazz.  

“You’re my plumber,” Oprah would say, “But you also think about things other than faucets and drains. Gee.”

The second came when Brady gave some fortune-cookie wisdom passed on to him by Gisele, saying, “We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Oprah shot forward like she was hit with a cattle prod, clutched her chest and blurted, “YES! That’s one of my favorite phrases!”

Gee, she was real excited.

This post has gone on too long so I’ll chew on the other items a little later. I would have done it yesterday when the interview came out but as someone once said, “I do have kids that I love, and I don’t want to be a dad that’s not there, driving my kids to their games . . . my kids have brought a great perspective in my life. Kids just want the attention. You better be there. And be available to them.”

So I golfed. 

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