By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- It appears as though Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have solved the one bugaboo that has haunted them during their dynastic run with the Patriots.
After losing in Denver to Broncos teams quarterbacked by the likes of Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Kyle Orton, Brock Osweiler, and a dead-armed Peyton Manning, the Patriots have now won two straight in the Mile High City by a combined 38 points.
Much of the Patriots' failures in Denver was sometimes difficult to explain, but given the most recent results, it would seem as though the Brady-Belichick duo has slayed whatever beast was bedeviling them.
(My favorite side plot of the whole rivalry is that despite the Patriots' struggles against the Broncos, they managed to go 2-0 against Denver when Tim Tebow was the quarterback, winning those two games by a combined score of 83-33.)
While this game might not have been a particularly scintillating affair, it was nevertheless a big one for the Patriots, who remain tied with Pittsburgh for the best record in the AFC. With the second half of the season underway, things are looking up for the Patriots. What else is new?
Let's move along to all of the leftover thoughts from that 41-16 beatdown in Denver.
--I've got a rhetorical question for you fine folks: How many NFL coaches take a talented guy like Rex Burkhead and force him to contribute in every phase of the game?
On Sunday night, we saw Burkhead haul in a touchdown reception after undressing a safety in man coverage.
Then we saw him block a punt.
Quite a night. But nothing worth celebrating for Burkhead, because he still had to go out there and cover kickoffs:
With Belichick, it's always about "the more you can do, the better." And the coach's ability to identify the skills of a special teamer/running back on the Bengals and plug him in perfectly on his team is just part of what makes him an all-time great.
At the season's midway point, Burkhead already has set a career high in receiving yards (155) and receiving touchdowns (2), numbers that are sure to climb as he continues to find his fit in Brady's offense.
--Special teams as a whole was really the story of this one. Isaiah McKenzie picked an awful time to do his best Chris Harper impression, muffing Ryan Allen's punt after a fired-up Denver defense did its job and forced a three-and-out on the opening possession. Instead of riding that stop into perhaps an early lead, the Broncos gave the ball right back to Brady, who had the Patriots up 7-0 just two plays later.
Early second quarter, the Broncos' punt team just did not block Rex Burkhead, who was able to get so deep on Riley Dixon that he blocked the punt with his dang sternum:
There was, obviously, Dion Lewis' 103-yard kickoff return. The best part of that return was that kicker Brandon McManus more or less did his job by sealing off the sideline and forcing Lewis back into the field of play, where orange jerseys awaited. Or so he thought. Lewis is just too dang slippery.
There were also the less-heralded moments, too, like the kickoff coverage unit. Stephen Gostkowski perfectly dropped in seven kickoffs that Denver returned, averaging just 19 yards per return. On the drives that began with Denver kick returns, the Broncos' average starting field position was their own 22-yard line. (Only one of Gostkowski's kicks went for a touchback.)
Gostkowski also went 5-for-5 on PATs (remember, Denver is where he kind of lost it on PATs a couple of years ago in the AFC title game) and 2-for-2 on field goals, and Allen only had to punt once, resulting in the turnover.
For Denver, it was quite the opposite. In addition to McKenzie's muff and the blocked punt and the failure in the kick return game, the Broncos also had too many men on the field for a Patriots punt on a fourth-and-5, thus giving New England a free first down. Brady and the offense turned that Denver miscue into a touchdown.
It was, really, a masterpiece in special teams for the Patriots, and a disaster for the Broncos. Every now and then it becomes clear that special teams do indeed matter, and you get a better understanding of why Belichick prioritizes it the way that he does.
--Tom Brady is 40 years old (seriously, it's been in the news if you don't believe me), but he still continues to add to his repertoire. In this game, we saw the debut of his jump pass, looking like Timothy Dang Tebow from his Florida days or Dontari Dang Poe at the goal line.
It was actually some excellent awareness and recognition by Brady, who sensed Von Miller coming at him and lifted the ball away from Miller's swipe before leaping and dumping a pass to Martellus Bennett for a gain of 27 yards.
That was like a high-speed, high-stakes game of keepaway. Brady won.
--That was about as disruptive as Von Miller was all night, so a big ATTABOY is in order for LaAdrian Waddle. He's a backup lineman who's spent more time as a healthy scratch than as an active player for the past three seasons, yet he went in there on the road and dealt with arguably the most dangerous pass rusher in football. That was probably the more underrated aspect of the whole game.
--There's been quite a bit of controversy surrounding ol' Marty B this week, wouldn't you say? It kind of culminated with former Packers tight end Tom Crabtree calling Bennett a quitter and a liar and a fraud on Twitter. (He was not mad online, though, as he later clarified. Not mad online at all.)
It's certainly a complicated situation, considering the sheer volume of Packers players -- past and present -- who have rushed to the defense of Packers doctor, Dr. Pat McKenzie. And it can't be condensed into a simple statement where one side is right and one side is wrong.
The bottom line is that the Packers overpaid for a player coming off a championship performance, something that happens every year. The Packers signed him to a three-year deal with a $6.3 million signing bonus. That bonus was the only guaranteed money in the deal. He suffered an injury while playing football, as football players tend to do, and opted to have it fixed instead of taking on more damage in a season that appeared to be heading nowhere after Aaron Rodgers' injury. He and the team disagreed, and the Packers released him.
Read that line again: The Packers released him.
So now he plays somewhere else. If the Packers are upset about that, then I think one solution for their ire would have been to not release him in the first place. By quickly severing ties in the middle of the season, the Packers do help Bennett's case that it was a dispute wholly centered on money. (The Packers also determined early last week that Bennett was unfit to play, when clearly, he was able to play.)
Of course, there's a reason that Bennett's played for five different teams since 2011. But the fact that a player looking out for his own interests is an undesirable quality in an NFL player says a lot about what life is like for football players.
--By the way, Bennett caught three passes for 38 yards on just seven snaps. Dwayne Allen had caught zero passes all season heading into Sunday's game. Suffice it to say that Bennett can be quite a help to this offense. (Credit to Allen for breaking the goose egg, though.)
--When are they going to show the angle where Rob Gronkowski didn't have his giant Hamburger Helper mitts under that football? I'm still waiting for that one.
It ended up not mattering, because the Patriots won by a hundred, but what if that same play happens in a game the Patriots lose by three points? Mayhem.
Even the Twitter account Football Zebras, which sympathizes with on-field officials nine times out of 10, was baffled by the call.
It also might matter to Gronkowski, who has an incentive-laden contract that includes provisions for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.
The mysterious Angle 6 must have been a doozy, though.
--Speaking of replay review, did you notice there were TWO fumbles at the pylon across the NFL, and the media didn't explode into anger and rage and conspiracy theories? Not one, but two. Now granted, they were maybe more clear-cut fumbles than the one Austin Seferian-Jenkins bobbled against the Patriots. But it's a pretty standard rule that's been around forever. But this Benny Cunningham "fumble" wasn't much more of a fumble than Seferian-Jenkins', really.
I haven't seen mass hysteria over the officials' decision to call that a touchback after the Bears challenged the play to try to get a touchdown out of it. Funny how that works.
--Another officiating mistake, I though, came on the Brady QB sneak on third-and-1. Yes, he was down here ...
... but he hadn't been touched by a Broncos defender at that point. He had only run into a wall of Patriots linemen. So he crawled forward and gained the line.
Much like the Gronkowski ruling, it was a moot point, because Burkhead ran for an easy three yards on the ensuing fourth-and-3. But that seemed like another swing-and-a-miss by the officials.
Brady at least was able to voice his frustration with some officiating when he stomped up the field about 20 yards to berate the back judge for missing a pass interference penalty. Another official did throw a flag, but Brady had no idea as he stomped and pointed his way through the end zone.
I half-expected him to grab the official's ear and drag him to a timeout chair.
--Tough night for this guy:
But, then again, he seems like a fellow who's never had a tough night. Good times follow him wherever he goes. I rescind my previous statement.
--I've been harping on this for years, but one more time can't hurt. The hit that Justin Simmons delivered on Dion Lewis on the final play of the first quarter was 100 percent clean and legal. It involved a vulnerable ball carrier who was required to focus on protecting the football while being dragged down from behind, thus leaving him open to get hit like this:
Again, totally within the rules and totally clean. It's just part of life as a ball carrier in the NFL, where you have no protection. That's why the uproar from Danny Trevathan's hit on Davante Adams in September was disingenuous; that type of hit happens every game at least once.
That's why for all the self-congratulating the NFL does about "player safety" and the rule changes to protect players, it will always be a bunch of hooey. Protecting football players from taking hits like that is an impossible task, unless you fundamentally change everything about the sport.
--I promised you sporadic updates in Brady's quest to surpass Brett Favre for best season ever by a 40-year-old quarterback. And if there's one thing I'm good for, it's fulfilling my promises*. So here you go:
Tom Brady, through 9 games, 2017:
231-for-343 (67.3%), 2,807 yards
19 TDs, 2 INTs
108.3 passer rating
Brett Favre, through 9 games, 2009:
194-for-285 (68.1%), 2,269 yards
17 TDs, 3 INTs
107.5 passer rating
*not actually true.
--With his touchdown pass to Allen, Brady has now connected with 68 different players for touchdowns in his career. That's second all time, behind Vinny Testaverde at 70. If Brady really wants to, he can tie the record this year if he slings TDs to Phillip Dorsett and Jacob Hollister. He could get wild and throw a touchdown pass to Mike Gillislee, too, if he wants to break it.
And then, finally, at long last, the debate about whether Brady or Testaverde is the better quarterback will be put to rest.
--There's not much to say about Malcolm Butler except that he got worked all night long by Emmanuel Sanders. It was a more competitive battle than the stats suggested early on, but Sanders ended up dusting Butler a few times for some big gains as the night wore on.
It was a noteworthy development, but not necessarily a panic-inducing one. Butler's shown an ability to bounce back from bad performances plenty of times over the past few years.
--Speaking of a receiver roasting a defensive back, did you see the separation Brandin Cooks gained on Aqib Talib?
Hachi machi. That young man is fassssssssssst.
--Apropos of nothing, James Develin has a gorgeous facemask. A perfect facemask, if you will.
That is all. Carry on. As you were.
--Derek Wolfe said this after the game:
"It's just sad. It's real sad. It's sad that we went from a championship-caliber team to a team that stinks and nobody respects us."
You have to appreciate a well-timed use of the word "stinks." Wolfe employed it brilliantly here. Lose five straight? Outscored 165-68? Lose the turnover battle 15-3?
Yup, time to bust out the S word. The Broncos stink.
--This is the only highlight from the game that actually matters:
And with that, it's on to Mexico City.
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