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Game Observations: Patriots enjoy fiesta in Mexico
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Another week and another overmatched opponent out of the AFC West.
As was the case in Denver, the Patriots were never in trouble as they waltzed their way through a 33-8 win over the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City. New England has now won six in a row and kept pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won Thursday night, at 8-2 atop the AFC standings.
Here are some random thoughts from the blowout win south of the border.
-After watching Tom Brady use his backs and tight ends extensively over the last few weeks, the offense opened things up a bit against a Raiders secondary that has struggled all season. Virtually every quarterback Oakland has seen this season has enjoyed tremendous success getting the ball down the field, and Brady did as well. He opened the game by continuing his penchant for using the short stuff but soon aired it out for a pair of huge completions to Brandin Cooks. The first resulted in a 52-yard pickup to set up a touchdown, then he found Cooks deep again for a 64-yard touchdown to open the second half. Cooks shot through a double team of T.J. Currie and Reggie Nelson on the first play before running past rookie Obi Melifonwu, who was expecting Nelson’s help, for the touchdown. The Raiders came into the game allowing a completion percentage of better than 70 percent and a 110 passer rating while failing to intercept a single pass. Those factors pointed toward a change in approach for the New England passing attack and Josh McDaniels and Brady complied.
-Ted Karras picked up his first start since the very first game of his career back in the 2016 opener in Arizona. Karras replaced Shaq Mason at right guard that night, but in Mexico City he took David Andrews’ place at center. Andrews missed practice on Thursday and Friday due to an illness and was ruled out as a result. LaAdrian Waddle also received his second straight start at right tackle in place of Marcus Cannon (ankle). Cam Fleming took Waddle’s spot during the second series and allowed a sack to Khalil Mack on his second play. Waddle got up slow following Dion Lewis’ 15-yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring and appeared to be working on his legs while on the sideline. He returned for the next series, however. Waddle injured his right leg in the second half when Treyvon Hester and took Brady down and the two rolled into the tackle. Fleming once again took his place momentarily but Waddle was able to return.
-Stephen Gostkowski has been delivering high, short boots on the majority of his kickoffs as of late but in the altitude of Mexico City the Patriots changed things up. Gostkowski boomed the opening kickoff through the back of the end zone for a touchback, giving Oakland possession at their 25 to start the game. The higher kicks have given the coverage unit an opportunity to pin opponents inside the 20 and often that has been the case. Perhaps the altitude had something to do with the decision to change things against the Raiders.
-According to CBS’ Jim Nantz, the Patriots have started a possession inside their 10-yard line seven times this season and after Sunday’s record-setting field goal by Gostkowski they’ve now scored on all seven. Dion Lewis got things started late in the half with a 20-yard run, and Brady followed with a series of short throws to move the ball into Oakland territory. At that point the Patriots called on Gostkowski to boom the 62-yarder, besting his career best by 4 yards and sending the team to the locker room with a 17-0 lead. Rob Gronkowski’s 14-yard grab right before the kick allowed Gostkowski the chance to set his franchise record. “I think every time I’ve kicked a long kick, Gronk made the catch right beforehand, so it’s a nice little Polish connection,” the kicker joked after the game. Gostkowski enjoyed a strong day, taking advantage of the altitude by hitting all four of his field goals after adding kicks on 51, 40 and 29 yards.
-Safety Patrick Chung was shaken up in the second quarter and was replaced by Jordan Richards. Chung appeared to have some bodies land on him following a Raiders completion, but he was not out of the game for long. He returned and finished the game
-The defense came up with a pair of first-half turnovers on plays where they took advantage of some poor play by the Oakland receivers. First, Johnny Holton got deep behind Jonathan Jones for a potential big play, but instead of catching a well-thrown bomb from Derek Carr the receiver had the ball bounce off his shoulder and deflect into the hands of Duron Harmon for an interception. Late in the second half the Raiders trailed 14-0 but mounted an impressive drive and moved into the red zone. Carr hit Seth Roberts inside the 10 for what would have set up first-and-goal in the final minute, but Roberts was careless with the ball and had it knocked out of his arm by Marquis Flowers. Chung recovered at the 7, and Brady quickly turned that into the Gostkowski field goal that turned the game from potentially 14-7 at the half to a laugher at 17-0. The Raiders became the sixth straight opponent to be held under 20 points.
-Speaking of defense, about the only concern on Sunday was stopping the run. Marshawn Lynch has been unimpressive in his return following a one-year retirement, but he was effective against the patchwork Patriots front. New England was once again without Dont’a Hightower and Malcom Brown and the front seven had its problems as Lynch racked up 67 yards on just 11 carries before the game got out of hand.
-Another element that has been significantly on the rise the last two weeks has been penalties – or more accurately, a lack thereof. The Patriots hit the bye week among the worst in football in terms of drawing flags, but since then have cut back dramatically. They committed just one infraction in Denver and followed that up with only two in Mexico City. Prior to the break the Patriots were on pace to commit the second-most penalties in the Bill Belichick era.
-The altitude was a hot topic of conversation throughout the week as the Patriots chose to practice in Colorado Springs following their Week 10 victory over the Broncos while the Raiders stuck with their normal preparations at home. Ultimately the divergent approaches didn’t seem to have much of an impact, although the Patriots did have a pair of players leave the game due to dehydration as Stephon Gilmore and Danny Amendola were affected. Both eventually returned.
-The win was the 271st for Belichick, moving him ahead of Tom Landry and all alone in third place on the all-time list behind Don Shula and George Halas. Brady picked up his 12th straight win on the road while the Patriots won for the 13th straight time away from home, although the game was played in a neutral site at Estadio Azteca. San Francisco’s streak of 18 straight from 1988-90 owns the NFL record.
-Belichick drew the ire of newspaper deadline people everywhere when he chose to challenge a Jared Cook completion that converted a fourth-and-10 late in the fourth quarter of a blowout. Cook clearly made the catch and went out of bounds beyond the first down marker, but Belichick chose to challenge the play despite the fact that his team was in control with a 33-8 lead with less than five minutes remaining. Other than extending the game by a few minutes, the challenge accomplished little, but the coach likely had his reasons for doing so.