Five takeaways from the Patriots’ successful international sojourn, New England going south of the border, getting another masterpiece from Tom Brady, and scoring a 33-8 victory over the Raiders in Mexico City…
COOKS IS COOKIN’
Brandin Cooks has been fine in his first season as a Patriot, taking with him to Mexico City a 131-yard, two-touchdown effort in Week 3, three other games in which he racked up at least 85 yards, and a pace to finish the season with 1,132 yards for the season. But Sunday might have been the first time that the speedster looked like the unstoppable, game-changing force Pats fans might’ve been expecting when Bill Belichick chose to use his first-round draft pick to pry the receiver from New Orleans.
The Raiders had no apparent answer for Cooks, who had catches of 52 and 64 yards among the 149 he totaled on the afternoon. He nearly added another big-gainer early, and though he and Brady didn’t connect then, the Pats clearly took note that Oakland couldn’t keep Cooks from getting behind its backline, and turned that vulnerability into a back-breaking touchdown on the first possession of the third quarter.
Later in that same period, the Pats capitalized on the other benefit of beating a team over the top: Cooks lined up to Brady’s left, and with the Raiders wary of his initial burst off the line, the cornerback gave his receiver an overabundance of cushion, leading to an easy 16-yard pitch-and-catch. To this point, the Patriots have taken occasional shots down field with Cooks. But if Sunday convinces the rest of the league that Cooks and Brady have found their chemistry, and must now concentrate more attention on taking that away from New England, the Pats’ aerial attack could be on the cusp of going to another level – on every level of the field.
Again playing without Chris Hogan, Marcus Cannon, and Malcom Brown, then adding the illness-felled David Andrews to the mix, the Patriots were without four starters against the Raiders. (Five if counting nickel cornerback Eric Rowe, who was playing a significant role before his injury.) That’s on top of those like Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower, who’ve been lost for the year.
Yet Sunday’s dominance was a testament to New England’s depth, with some of its lower-roster players making steady – if not significant – contributions, and those missing starters hardly missed at all.
Defensively, linebackers Trevor Reilly and Marquis Flowers each stepped into more regular responsibilities than their usual special teams duties, and were around the ball. Flowers, in particular, helped force the Seth Roberts fumble in the final minute before halftime, which prevented the Raiders from scoring what seemed like sure points. Veteran newcomer Ricky Jean Francois saw time on the line, too, making his presence known with a vicious clothesline tackle that cut down a runner at the line.
On the other side of scrimmage, Ted Karras was seemingly solid in filling in for Andrews at center. Karras hadn’t played center before, and had barely played at all as a pro, but the Patriots weren’t hesitant about running up the middle or relying on him to handle shotgun snaps. His discipline even helped draw an offsides penalty early, which coaxed Oakland into a first down, and elicited an excited reaction from Karras as the flags came in. On the outside of the line, Cam Fleming gave up a sack, but was otherwise serviceable as the Patriots’ third option at right tackle when LaAdrian Waddle went out briefly.
(Another credit to the Patriots’ depth could be this: They had seven scoring drives, totaling 33 points, and Brady threw for 339 yards with Rob Gronkowski and James White combining for just four targets, three catches, and 36 yards.)
In the Patriots’ efforts to get better as the season goes on, back-to-back blowouts of teams that entered the season with playoff aspirations is a good sign. So are the indicators that the improvements aren’t only happening among the first teamers.
DISCIPLINE IS EVIDENT AGAIN
When the Patriots were struggling early in the season, discipline appeared to be a serious concern as it manifested itself in the form of committing penalties and allowing too many big plays.
Well, in Mexico City the Patriots didn’t commit their first infraction of the game until there was 4:45 remaining in the third quarter – and it was a running into the kicker call, at that.
First penalty is running into the kicker with 4:45 left in the third. They wound up with two for a total of 10 yards, which brings them to a total of three over the past two weeks, and an average of 4.3 penalties per content over the past four games. Prior to that they’d been flagged for 7.5 fouls a game, which is a pace that puts them near the highest in the league. Instead, they’re now among the NFL’s 10 least-penalized teams overall.
The big plays have become more manageable, too. Marshawn Lynch had a 25-yard run, Jared Cook had a 26-yard catch, and Cordarelle Patterson had a 22-yard gain through the air. Other than that, though, the Raiders didn’t have a gain of more than 15 yards, and finished average 4.8 yards per attempt, and 4.7 per pass attempt. (The Ravens, last in the NFL, entered Sunday averaging 4.8 per throw.)
That’s a big reason the Patriots kept a sixth straight opponent to 17 points or less, and why a team that was surrendering 32 points per game on October 1 has given up a grand total of 75 in the six games since, and is now letting up 20.3 points per tilt.
ALTITUDE IS A FACTOR
After playing in Denver, and training at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, the Patriots looked prepared for taking on the Raiders at 7,200 feet above sea level.
They had enough confidence in their conditioning to push Oakland with a no-huddle approach to their opening offensive series, and the Pats’ defense had enough in the tank to finish strong despite being on the field for 71 plays (versus the 58 their own offense ran), although the Raiders held the ball for five more minutes than the Patriots, and even though Oakland threw the ball 49 times while playing from behind most of the day.
The altitude also may have played a factor in the way the Patriots’ approached the end of the first half. Taking over at their own 7 with 33 seconds to go, ahead by 14 points, the safe play would’ve been to sit on the ball. Maybe pick up a first down, and let the clock run. But after a good Dion Lewis run to start, the Pats got aggressive – perhaps realizing they didn’t need as many yards as usual to get into field goal range.
In the thin, elevated air they needed only get to the Raiders’ 45 to give Stephen Gostkowski a legitimate try, and the kicker boomed a 62-yarder that would’ve likely been good from close to 70 yards out. Gostkowski added a routine-looking 51-yarder later in the contest, too.
THE EAST IS OVER, AND THE AFC IS A TWO-TEAM RACE
There were times early in the season when a case could’ve been made that New England would be challenged within its division, or that the Patriots’ path to the Super Bowl could be blocked by a few different clubs.
With Thanksgiving upon us, however, it’s business as usual for the 8-2 Patriots in the East and in the AFC as a whole.
In the division, the Bills began the day in playoff position (as a wild card), but the Nathan Peterman experiment blew up in their face, and by the time they were crawling back to Tyrod Taylor they were well on the way to a 54-24 loss to the Chargers. Buffalo is now 5-5, and even with two games still to play against the Pats, they don’t appear to pose any threat to the champs. Neither do the 4-6 Dolphins, or the 4-6 Jets.
In the conference, the once-daunting Chiefs were held without a touchdown by the woeful Giants, and lost an overtime tilt that drops Kansas City to 6-4. The AFC’s other 6-4 team, Tennessee, was blown out earlier this week by Pittsburgh, while Jacksonville — at 7-3 on the strength of its defense – has much to prove offensively before its contender candidacy can be taken seriously.
That leaves the Steelers and the Patriots, last year’s AFC finalists, and this year’s only 8-2 clubs after Week 11. They’ll face off with homefield advantage likely on the line December 17, but at this point that clash appears to be just the preview for Pittsburgh and New England’s inevitable clash in another conference championship game.