Superman rode sidecar on Sunday.
After carrying the team with his legs in Week 1 and on his arm in Week 2, Cam Newton got to sit back and watch his running backs and defense carry the load on Sunday in a rout of the Raiders.
And the Patriots have checked off another box early in this 2020 season. They can win when Newton is kind of a bystander.
Personally, this is a big one for me. The first two weeks were instances of me having to say, “Well, I guess I was wrong about that…”
Against Miami, I thought the opt-out attrition on defense and the learning curve on offense would take their toll.
Against Seattle, I thought the penetrating Seahawks defense would slow Newton down on the ground and shine a light on the Patriots wide receiver shortcomings.
But this week, as one of the lone remaining members of the “Sony Doesn’t Suck Club” I got a little redemption.
I don’t know if seeing shrimpy little J.J. Taylor tear off runs of 11, 9, 3, 5 (with a 15-yard facemask tacked on to the end), 6, 5 and 4 yards on the Patriots first touchdown drive of the day was the catalyst. But the next time Michel was in the backfield after Taylor went off he had consecutive carries of 8, 13, 9, 38 and 48 yards.
Was it feeling the heat? Was it just coincidence? I figure it’s the latter, but there’s no way to know for certain. One thing that’s not up for debate? The performance of the Patriots' offensive line.
And they got things done on Sunday with left guard Joe Thuney playing center, rookie Michael Onwenu playing left guard and center David Andrews watching from the bench with a cast on his right hand.
For the second time in three games the Patriots topped 200 yards rushing (250 yards) and this time it wasn’t really the threat of Newton that propelled them.
It was Michel, Rex Burkhead and Taylor combining for 205 yards. Newton did chip in with 27 – 21 on a heady third-down scramble – but this performance was a late 2018 throwback running performance. Instead of backs pick-pick-picking to find holes that weren’t opening up, the backs ran with urgency.
Michel and Burkhead both had what may have been their most impressive singular performances. Michel carried nine times for 117 yards. Burkhead carried six times for 49 yards and caught seven passes for another 49.
One of the most amazing aspects of what the Patriots are doing is the intricacy of what they’re pulling off week in and week out. They’re running RPO plays, screens, hurry-up, power runs, jet and missile motion runs and zone runs. And they’re doing it with two new offensive line coaches – Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo – taking over this season for the legendary Dante Scarnecchia.
That stuff – those screens and reverses and all that – it’s complicated and requires near-impeccable timing. And the Patriots have so far pulled it off without a single offensive penalty.
Speaking of penalties? You want a referendum on what the Patriots are all about in 2020 without a training camp? They have seven penalties this season. That’s the lowest in the league. They’ve drawn 19 penalties. That plus-12 in penalty count is twice as high as the second-place team already.
This was not a great game for Newton. Most of his passing numbers were rolled up on screens and checkdowns (he had 13 throws to wideouts after last week throwing to them 33 times). He threw an ugly pick and tried to force one in on the goal line to Ryan Izzo that was a bad idea. But it was far from a bad game.
One of his best plays was a second down completion to Burkhead in the third quarter. Right after a 5-yard sack, Newton was surveying downfield on second-and-15 and when nothing came open, he quickly shot it to the right sideline for a 15-yard gain. The drive ended with a Burkhead touchdown. It was a good example of Newton waiting for things to develop and when they didn’t, not forcing them.
The Patriots didn’t need Superman on Sunday. They could just put it in the belly of their running backs on offense and, defensively, wait for the timid Raiders to fold in on themselves. Which they did.
Next week, Newton probably won’t have the luxury of riding sidecar of being Clark Kent. They’ll need a hero.