Patriots outgun Colts, 59-24

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Patriots outgun Colts, 59-24

FOXBORO -- He looked invincible at the start, Andrew Luck did. He led the Colts on scoring drives of 80 and 84 yards the first two times Indianapolis had the ball -- burning New England's newest secondary hopeful, Aqib Talib, twice during the second -- and it seemed Luck would be a worthy successor to Peyton Manning in a suddenly rejuvenated PatriotsColts rivalry.

Then he reminded us that he's a rookie after all.

He threw not one, but two pick-sixes (and three interceptions overall) to a Patriot secondary that has spent the season making stars of the Russell Wilsons and Kevin Kolbs of the world. He botched the time management of a late first-half drive, forcing the Colts to settle for an impossible Adam Vinatieri 58-yard field-goal attempt when they still only trailed by seven. He was strip-sacked by Rob Ninkovich in the third quarter, a turnover that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski turned into a touchdown just six second later.

Game summary and statistics

Luck's numbers in the end were decent (27-of-50, 334 yards, 2 touchdowns) as he recorded his fifth 300-yard game of the season, the most for a rookie in NFL history. But that many mistakes -- even against a defense as soft as New England's -- usually spells disaster and it did Sunday, as the Patriots pulled away to an easy 59-24 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The victory may prove to be Pyrrhic, if Rob Gronkowski (who, according to sources, suffered a broken forearm) is sidelined for any length of time. But prior to Gronk's injury it was, in the words of Tom Brady, a "fun day".

Julian Edelman (69-yard punt return, 2-yard pass from Brady) and Gronkowski (passes of 4 and 24 yards from Brady) each scored a pair of touchdowns for New England. The Pats also got interception returns for TDs of 59 yards from Talib -- more than making up for his miscues on the second drive -- and 87 yards from Alonzo Dennard; scoring runs of three yards by Stevan Ridley and four yards by Shane Vereen, and a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski . . . who also tied the franchise record for extra points in a game, with eight.

The 59 points tied the franchise record for most points in a game, set in a 59-0 win over Tennessee in 2009.

"That was awesome," said Brady. "That was a team win. We got contributions from all three units."

There wasn't much of a contribution on the defensive side of the ball at the beginning. Luck shredded the Pats defense the first two times he had the ball, with a one-yard scoring run by Delone Carter capping a game-opening 80-yard drive, and a 14-yard TD pass from Luck to T.Y. Hilton finishing off an 84-yard march that made the score 14-7.

And Bill Belichick was impressed.

"There were five or six times in the game where I thought we were draped all over him; it didn't seem like there was much space at all to get the ball in, and he got it in and they caught it," said the Patriots coach. "They made some good throws and tough catches in there where I thought we had them covered pretty well, but they were still able to execute it."

The game turned quickly, however. The first time the Pats forced Luck and the Colts to punt, Julian Edelman returned it 68 yards for a touchdown, tying the score in the second quarter.

"Julian's been dying to get out there and make plays and he certainly did today," said Brady, referring to the three games Edelman missed because of a broken hand. "And we needed it."

Then it was Talib, who picked off Luck on the second play of the next drive and returned it 59 yards for the touchdown that put New England ahead to stay.

"He's a great cornerback, that's why they traded for him," said Hilton. "He was able to do some things tonight."

Adam Vinatieri (47 yards) and Gostkowski traded field goals later in the quarter, making it 24-17, but Luck's inexperience showed on the last drive of the half. Taking possession at his own 10 with slightly less than two minutes to play, he was able to move the ball downfield (passes of 19 yards to Donnie Avery and 16 yards to Dwayne Allen) and eventually got the Colts into New England territory. But the Colts didn't use their timeouts wisely and took too much time between plays, and in the end had to settle for a 58-yard FG attempt by Vinatieri. It was out of his range, and the half ended with the Patriots maintaining their seven-point lead.

And then they blew it open in the second half. Edelman's second touchdown put them in front 31-17; Gronkowski's second, after the Ninkovich strip sack and fumble recovery, made it 38-17; Dennard's 87-yard interception return on the first play of the fourth quarter gave them a 45-17 lead. After Luck threw a 43-yard scoring pass to Hilton, the Pats added the Ridley and Vereen touchdown runs for the 59-24 final.

One of the keys was their ability to put pressure on Luck, which, in turn, helped the secondary by reducing the amount of time it had to cover.

"That was the point of emphasis, get pressure on Luck," said safety Steve Gregory. "Because if you just let him stand there and throw the ball, he can pick you apart. So we wanted to focus in on getting pressure on the guy, and the guys up front did a great job of it."

The pressure forced the mistakes -- the rookie mistakes -- and the Pats capitalized for their fourth win a row. They're now 7-3, in solid possession of first place in the AFC East, and in position to maneuver their way to another first-round playoff bye if Houston or Baltimore falters in the final six weeks.

That's thinking a little too far ahead for Brady's taste.

"I think we're trying to make improvements," he said. "I don't think we're anywhere where we need to be at this point."

But where they are was more than good enough Sunday.

Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016

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Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016

FOXBORO -- When the Patriots traded their first-round pick in the 2017 draft for Brandin Cooks, they gave Tom Brady one of the most productive deep-ball receivers in the NFL over the course of the last few seasons. 

The Cooks acquisition not only made the Patriots offense more versatile, it also may have signaled an acknowledgement that the team needed more pass-catchers who could produce down the field and outside the numbers.

In the playoffs last season, against Houston's and Atlanta's defenses -- both of which were effective at times in taking away the short-to-intermediate areas of the field -- the Patriots could have benefited from someone like Cooks. In both games, the Patriots were able to hit on throws deep and on the outside in critical moments with likes of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell. 

Now after three weeks, and after having faced two defenses in Houston's and Kansas City's that were intent on packing the middle of the field with defenders, it's clear that the move to grab Cooks is paying dividends. 

In Sunday's win over the Texans, 36-33, Brady threw eight passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, and he completed five for 185 yards and three scores, according to Pro Football Focus. On the season, Brady leads the league with 22 attempts of 20 yards or more, per PFF. He's completed 11 of those for 368 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating on deep attempts (135.4) is second in the league. 

Compare that to last season's totals for Brady on deep passes -- 23 completions for 834 yards and eight touchdowns -- and he's on pace to blow those numbers away. Whereas he only attempted deep passes on just over 11 percent of his throws last season, according to PFF, so far this year one in every five of his throws is traveling 20 yards or more.

The biggest beneficiary of the new approach? Cooks, of course, who Brady has dubbed "Cookie." 

PFF says Cooks is leading the league in deep-ball receiving through three weeks, with 187 yards on five deep catches. Three of those came on Sunday and they resulted in 111 yards and two scores. In Week 1, Cooks had three catches for 88 yards -- including a 54-yarder -- and he drew three penalties that resulted in an additional 38 yards. In Week 2, Cooks had two catches for 37 yards -- including a 22-yarder.

Last year? The leading receiver for the Patriots on passes that traveled 20 yards or more was Hogan (10 catches for 397 yards). 

One more indication that the Patriots offense has shifted with Cooks in and Edelman sidelined: Cooks leads the NFL in yards per catch through three games (25.6 yards per reception), while Danny Amendola (16.4 yards per reception, seventh) and Rob Gronkowski (14.9, 13th) are all found among the league leaders in that category.  

Opposing defenses may continue to play the Patriots as the Texans and Chiefs did this season: Flood the middle of the field and pressure Brady with just three or four linemen. They may be content with allowing Brady to attempt lower-percentage throws down the field as opposed to letting him slice them up with shorter tosses. 

It worked well enough for the Chiefs to win, and it nearly worked well enough for the Texans. Perhaps "the blueprint" is still the blueprint. But with the addition to Cooks, Brady and the Patriots have proven that they've evolved to more efficiently combat those schemes.

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Morning Skate: Blackhawks looking for right mix on fourth line

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Morning Skate: Blackhawks looking for right mix on fourth line

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading. while readying for the last home game of the preseason tonight. Boy that went by quickly.

*Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is looking for the right mix on the fourth line for the Hawks.

*The NHL is coming late to the China party and it makes one wonder what will happen for the Winter Olympic Games set to be played there in 2022.

*PHT writer Adam Gretz has the Arizona Coyotes wanting to retire the freshly-retired Shane Doan’s number in the future.

*Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan says that the decision to accept the White House’s invitation was independent of politics. Certainly, it was, but the timing of it and the feeble statement to go along with it left a lot to be desired.

*Pierre Lebrun goes 1-on-1 with Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien to talk about his past, his present and his future behind the bench with the Habs. I had always intended to subscribe to the Athletic, and this is the article that finally got me to do it as I get to read a few moments with one of the classiest individuals in the NHL in Julien. It certainly had a few rocky moments toward the end here in Boston for Julien, but I will always respect that guy as a coach and, more importantly, as a person.  

*For something completely different: an interesting look at Alejandro Villanueva, the only Pittsburgh Steelers player, and a proud veteran, to stand outside the tunnel and on the field for the national anthem prior to the Steelers game on Sunday.