…I like what OC Josh McDaniels did on New England's opening possession, electing to use the hurry-up offense frequently not only to unsettle the Raider defense, but also to tire them out in the nearly 7,400-ft. altitude of Mexico City. New England had the advantage from the get-go of having spent the previous nine days at similar heights while they stayed and practiced in Colorado last week. For the most part, the Patriots were accustomed to the difficulty breathing, while Oakland might not have been. It was clever of McDaniels to call so many no-huddle plays (five straight at one point and six of 15 total on that scoring drive) early on in an effort to put the Raiders on their heels.
…A potential momentum-changing play fell New England's way early on when RB Rex Burkhead fumbled deep in Oakland territory. Burkhead had the ball tucked away with one arm; the Raider defender simply made a nice swipe at the ball and jar it loose. However, New England retained possession thanks to Dwayne Allen, who pounced on it before anyone from Oakland could.
The veteran tight end had a painfully slow start to his Patriots career, but on this two-week swing through Colorado and Mexico, Allen has been active along with his three other teammates at that position. All four have been involved in the two wins, in various ways, and it's been imperative to keep them on the 46-man game-day active roster because of how thin the team is at wide receiver. Allen has chosen a good time to start emerging as a reliable contributor, even if it's only that his two catches versus Oakland doubled his season total heretofore.
…Dion Lewis' touchdown catch was mostly a nifty individual effort by him to elude three Oakland defenders after making the grab. He found himself alone on the right side of the field after QB Tom Brady initially looked to the left and the Raiders almost all drifted to that side.
It's interesting to see how Lewis has evolved into the "lead" Patriots back, seemingly taking over the snap and production totals that James White previously had this season. It might just be a coincidence, based on game plans for each of the team's recent opponents, but it should also be encouraging that the Patriots can turn to either man. White has done nothing to lose his standing in the offense.
…Right place, right time is about all you can say for safety/co-captain Duron Harmon's INT off a deflected ball deep down field. The Raider intended receiver didn't adjust his body well enough to QB Derek Carr's underthrown ball (a result in part of good pressure by the Patriots' front). CB Jonathan Jones had Johnny Holton covered tightly and the ball ricocheted off Holton's shoulder pad. Harmon came over the help and found the ball falling right in his lap. Easy play.
…Brady's one and only sack of the day was credited to LB Khalil Mack, who rushed from the right edge, but in reality, the play was only made possible by pressure on RG Shaq Mason by DT Treyvon Hester. This forced Brady to sidestep in the pocket and gave Mack the necessary time to track him down from behind. Brady gave himself up and Mack got the sack because he was the player to touch him when he fell to the turf.
Mason just got beaten by Hester with a nice swim move.
…The dimension that WR Brandin Cooks brings to this offense – that of a legitimate deep threat – was evident in Mexico City. He led New England in receiving yards Sunday with 149 thanks to a pair of plus-50-yard receptions, and that total should have been closer to 200 had the officiating crew been inclined to throw a flag against Oakland for pass interference.
That call should have been made because it was clear Cooks' progress was impeded by CB Sean Smith, who grabbed Cooks' arm as the ball arrived on a 3rd-and-5 at the start of this quarter, but no one on John Hussey's crew saw fit to penalize him.
Later, though, Cooks' flat-out speed allowed him to beat a double team by the Raiders' secondary and get open down field to haul in a 52-yard pass from Brady which set up the Patriots' next score.
…That touchdown, to WR Danny Amendola, appeared to result from great recognition by both the receiver and quarterback that Oakland was presenting them with an ideal defensive look for the Patriots to exploit. On 3rd-and-goal from the Oakland 5, the Raiders put six men in the box. New England broke the huddle with a balanced four-wide set and White in the shotgun backfield with Brady. This forced the Raiders to spread out their secondary, with the fifth defender, safety Shalom Luani, providing "deep" help to the right side, where Amendola and Phillip Dorsett lined up in the slot and flanker position, respectively.
After his teammates approached the line of scrimmage pre-snap, Brady and Amendola exchanged glances and hand signals apparently to communicate that Oakland left a gaping void in the middle of its zone defense, which happened to be in the middle of the end zone. At the snap, Amendola ran to it across the back.
Curiously, Brady's first look was to the left at TE Rob Gronkowski, but perhaps that was just a ploy to fool Oakland into leaving Amendola alone, which they did. Brady found him just before Luani arrived
...CB Stephon Gilmore's responsibility for most of the afternoon was WR Michael Crabtree, and although he led all Raiders receivers with 51 yards on six grabs, Gilmore did a solid job against him in man coverage.
…Nice job by seldom used LB Marquis Flowers to punch the football out of the hands of WR Seth Roberts, who didn't exactly protect the ball very well as he caught it inside the 5-yard line. Jones was covering him and did the right thing by wrapping Roberts up with both arms and preventing him from making much forward progress. This allowed Flowers to swoop in and knock the ball free from Roberts' one hand with which he was holding the football.
This play is a great example of how proper tackling technique can create a big play, even though it's not a so-called "big hit." Oakland lost any momentum it had accrued on this drive just before the half.
…I've said in print and on-air for a long time that detractors of kicker Stephen Gostkowski have been unfair to him in recent seasons. His performance Sunday in Mexico served as a perfect illustration of why he remains one of the game's best.
Not only was he perfect on PATs and field goals, he set a franchise record in the latter category for the second time this season. Certainly, the thin air at Estadio Azteca helped create conditions conducive for a 62-yard try, but Gostkowski's precise technique and, more importantly, his ability to resist the temptation to over-kick the ball from this distance, were what made this a successful boot.
Gostkowski, in NFL year 12, is having simply one of the best seasons of his career.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…Coming out of halftime, New England got the ball and immediately dealt the death blow to Oakland in just three plays. Brady and Cooks recognized that the receiver was facing a rookie safety, Obi Melifonwu, covering him as a corner. Melifonwu played Cooks conservatively, erroneously believing he had safety help behind him. Cooks made it worse by faking an out-pattern at first before blowing past Melifonwu. The only other Oakland defender in the vicinity, safety Reggie Nelson, was playing the middle of the field and nowhere near close enough to do anything about Cooks.
There was still almost an entire half left to play, but for all intents and purposes, the game ended on this play.
…I'd be remiss if I didn't mention New England's offensive line in this game. In particular, Ted Karras, who started at center for the ill David Andrews. Making only his second start ever and first at center, Karras, in just his second season, played like a polished, seasoned veteran. He never looked nervous, confused, or unsure of himself as he made all the line calls and blocked confidently all afternoon.
Already down a member with LaAdrian Waddle once again filling in for right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle injury), the o-line adjusted very well to having a new center leading them for the first time in a couple of years. Impressive effort all around by these five men, but Karras gets the spotlight because of his position and circumstances. Best job by the o-line all season.