Pats take offense at Eagles in 38-20 romp

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Pats take offense at Eagles in 38-20 romp

The weather -- game-time temperature in the low 60s, gentle winds from the south -- spoke more to September and early October than post-Thanksgiving November.

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So did the performance of the Patriots' offense.

Any concerns about Tom Brady's arm, or the ability of the wide receivers to get separation, or over-reliance on Wes Welker and the tight ends, melted away Sunday. Before being given the rest of the day off with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Brady completed 24 of 34 passes for 361 yards -- his highest yardage total since throwing for 387 in Game 3 against the Bills -- and three touchdowns as he led the Pats to a dominating 38-20 win over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

"They played the game the way we wanted to play it," said a visibly pleased -- and downright chatty -- Bill Belichick after the game, "and did a good job in all three phases of the game."

The Eagles scored the first 10 points of the game, in the opening 6 12 minutes of the first quarter, and the last 7, with 32 seconds to play. In the 53 minutes in between, New England outscored Philadelphia, 38-3 . . . and the score really did indicate the way the game played out.

Especially on offense.

The Patriots got top-of-the-line production, as usual, from their tight ends -- Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 10 catches and 121 yards -- but Brady had more targets on this day. Welker, held to 46 receiving yards or less in four of the last five games, broke through with eight catches for 115 yards, including two touchdowns. Deion Branch had a 63-yard pass-and-run with Brady en route to a 6-catch125-yard afternoon, his second-best game of the season.

They were backed by a solid, if unspectacular, run game which went for over 100 yards -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the top individual rusher, with 14 carries for 44 yards and two TDs -- and, with all elements of their game working, the Pats were especially efficient in crucial areas such as:

Red-zone efficiency (4 scores in 5 trips)

Goal-to-go efficiency (3 TDs in 3 tries)

Third-down conversions (6-for-11)

And it all happened despite an explosive start by the Eagles that had New England in a 10-0 hole before the Pats' second possession of the game.

"We certainly didn't want to start the game the way we started," said Belichick. "We kind of stumbled out of the gate there."

Eagles quarterback Vince Young completed two big passes -- a 58-yarder to Riley Cooper over Kyle Arrington that set up a two-yard touchdown run by LeSean McCoy just 2:10 into the game, and a 44-yarder to DeSean Jackson that led to a 43-yard field goal by Alex Henery -- in building the lead.

But to a man, the Pats said there was no panic on their sideline.

"We have a lot of veteran guys that understand it's a long game," said Welker.

"Overall, we did a great job of just staying composed," said Branch.

Brady directed a 12-play, 80-yard drive on the Pats' next possession that consumed nearly seven minutes and culminated in a four-yard touchdown run by Green-Ellis -- who carried the ball on 8 of the 12 plays -- to cut the Eagle lead to 10-7.

The Pats' defense forced a three-and-out on Philly's next possession, and on the fourth play of the second quarter, Brady completed the 63-yard pass-and-run with Branch on a third-and-13 that moved the ball to the 1. Green-Ellis ran it in from there to put New England in front to stay, 14-10.

"That was a good job by the entire team to really stem the tide," said Brady.

The Pats wasted an Antwaun Molden interception on the Eagles' next possession when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 39-yard field-goal attempt, but Belichick thought it was still a crucial play for the Pats.

"We finally made a play on defense, and that helped our confidence a little bit," said Belichick.

The Patriots increased their lead to 21-10 when Welker got behind the Philadelphia secondary and Brady found him for a 41-yard touchdown. The teams then traded field goals -- a 22-yarder by Henery and a 45-yarder by Gostkowski -- and New England took a 24-13 lead into the locker room at halftime.

After one possession of the third quarter, it was 31-13. The Pats took the second-half kickoff and marched 69 yards in 8 plays, with Brady passing nine yards to Welker for the touchdown.

Then it was the defense's turn. The Eagles took the ball to the New England 2 on their subsequent possession, but the Pats held. And when Young overthrew Brent Celek on a fourth-and-goal from the 2, the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.

Brady finished his afternoon by making his weekly TD toss to Gronkowski, this one of 24 yards with 8:42 to play; with a 38-13 lead, Belichick gave him the rest of the day off and entrusted the QB job to Brian Hoyer. The Eagles made the final 38-20 with a garbage-time touchdown, as Young threw a one-yard scoring pass to Jason Avant with 36 seconds left.

The victory lifted the Pats' record to 8-3, keeping them a) comfortably ahead of both the Jets and Bills in the AFC East race and b) in the hunt for a first-round bye in the playoffs. Considering the lack of iron in their schedule over the final five weeks, it's impossible not to be contemplating playoff scenarios.

Unless your name is Bill Belichick.

"We got a long way to go," he said. "Eight (victories); that's not going to win anything in the NFL . . . I don' t think we're where we need to be."

And the big picture?

"I don't even think about the big picture. The big picture is Indianapolis (next week's opponent) . . All the rest of it's just a bunch of garbage."

But at least one Patriot is putting it all in context.

"Coach always says football season starts after Thanksgiving," said Branch. "Right now, we're 1-0."

Curran: It's time to let the air out of Deflategate

Curran: It's time to let the air out of Deflategate

I think it’s time. Time to let the Deflategate wound scab over. Time to exit the active, raging, teeth-gnashing, petition-signing, lawsuit-filing portion of the program and let the hate follow its natural course into a slow-boil loathing.

If you are of Irish descent, you know how it works. Clear a big-ass space on the grudge shelf. Put Roger Goodell, Jeff Pash, Mike Kensil, Troy Vincent, Ryan Grigson, Jim Irsay, every shiv-wielding owner, all the cluck-clucking media and the legion of retired players and exiled GMs from Marshall Faulk to Joey Porter through Marty Hurney and into Bill Polian up there. Turn off light. Leave room.

When you need to piss yourself off -- in traffic, mowing the lawn, waiting for your coffee -- fetch ‘em down, blow the dust off and when you’re in a sufficiently foul mood, return grudge to shelf.

You rode the roller coaster. You’ve been there, done that and have all the T-shirts.

I came to this conclusion a few days ago, when ESPN’s Cari Champion interviewed Rob Gronkowski and asked about Goodell visiting Gillette. It was like playing “Get the Stick!” with a big goofy Lab. Champion threw the leading question, Gronk fetched -- tail-wagging --  and returned with a slobbery response that was completely implausible but still designed to dominate a four-hour news cycle.

"The fans are nuts, they’re wild, and they have the Patriots’ back no matter what,” said Gronkowski. “They have [Tom Brady’s] back. I’m telling you, he won’t get through the highway if the fans saw him. I don’t even think he can even land in the airport in Boston because Patriot fans are the best fans, they’re the most loyal fans. I’m telling you, they might just carry out Roger themselves. They couldn’t even get to the stadium in Foxboro if he landed in Boston."

Gronk’s just doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do. And Champion is, too. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Watch these mooks up in New England get all pissed off: “Hey, hey, Chowderhead . . . Roger Goodell . . . . ”

“F*** that guy, he better never show his face in Foxboro! But I want him to come to Foxboro so I can boo the ever-living s*** out of him and maybe barricade Route 1 like Gronk said we would!”

See? Works every time.

The irony is that the person mainly responsible for turning up the burner on this is Robert Kraft.

In May 2015, Kraft said at the owners meetings in San Francisco, “I don’t want to continue the rhetoric that’s gone on for the last four months. I’m going to accept, reluctantly, what he has given to us, and not continue this dialogue and rhetoric, and we won’t appeal.

“Now, I know that a lot of Patriots fans are going to be disappointed in that decision, but I hope they trust my judgment and know that I really feel at this point in time that taking this off the agenda, this is the best thing for the New England Patriots, our fans, and the NFL, and I hope you all can respect that.”

Well, that blew up like an ACME bomb. And -- from that moment on -- Kraft has tried to recoup the fanbase that believed he sold them out by issuing a succession of calls-to-arms that the region has dutifully responded to.

The most recent was throwing down the gauntlet to Goodell by expressly inviting him to the 2017 season opener.  I mean, it would have been a conversation point anyway, but now it’s metastasized into something that will be discussed throughout the offseason, ratcheting up in early September and hitting a crescendo on opening night.

There is appeal to seeing Goodell squirm while knowing the Maras, Rooneys and Irsays will be sipping highballs and lamenting the caddish treatment of Poor Roger. But I still like the football better.

Conversation about the historic import of SB51, the legacy of Brady and Belichick, prospects for the league in 2017? I’ll take those rather than an ESPN “personality” who spent a weekend in Newburyport at a friend’s wedding telling everyone what the mindset of the New England sports fan is.  

But that’s not what we’re going to get. There will instead be ever-escalating predictions of the terrors Goodell will be subjected to fueled by interviews with tatted-up kids from the mean streets of Marshfield who wanted “Hoodie” fired when he let Revis sign with the Jets.

Unless . . . unless the region en masse decides to let its loathing mature. Mature to the point that when the carrot gets dangled in its collective face it doesn’t leap at it with teeth bared but instead says, “No thanks. Already full.”

Yeah. I don’t think it’s gonna happen either.

NFL combine preview: Tight ends

NFL combine preview: Tight ends

With the NFL combine about to begin -- and the NFL Draft just about two months away -- we'll take a daily look at the collegiate talent available at positions where the Patriots might be looking for help. We start today with: Tight ends.

On Tuesday, players will arrive in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine, with on-field workouts beginning Friday. 

The second group to take the field is the tight end group, which should be worth watching for a number of reasons. For starters, Todd McShay says that this is “a good year to need a tight end” given that there could be three first-rounders in O.J. Howard, David Njoku and Jake Butt.

Furthermore, Martellus Bennett’s potential departure and Rob Gronkowski’s durability questions make tight end a position the Patriots could target early come April 27. 

Here’s a quick look at each of the 19 tight ends invited to the combine: 

O.J. Howard, Alabama, 6-foot-6, 249 pounds

- NFL.com describes him as an “exceptionally gifted athlete” and says that his “play speed resembles a wide receiver’s when the ball is in the air.” They add he “appears passive” as a blocker and “need more muscle and mass to be an in-line blocker as a pro.”

David Njoku, Miami, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds

- Not the biggest guy in the world at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, but is considered a top-end athlete. NFL.com says he “should annihilate the combine with monster numbers in speed and explosion.”

Jake Butt, Michigan, 6-foot-6, 250 pounds 

- Does everything well, but could stand to fill out his frame a bit more. 

Jordan Leggett, Clemson, 6-foot-5, 250 pounds

- Not considered a great blocker and has admitted that he’s played lazily. Could the Pats fix his motor? 

Gerald Everett, South Alabama, 6-foot-3, 227 pounds

- Very interesting prospect. Primarily a basketball player in high school who played just one year of football (insert Antonio Gates basketball reference), Everett played at Alabama-Birmingham before the school cut its football program. Upon transferring to South Alabama, Everett showed his skills as a pass-catching tight end. 

Evan Engram, Mississippi, 6-foot-3, 236 pounds

- Itty bitty for a tight end, and he doesn’t have the greatest hands either. Described as a “move tight end only who lacks dependability as a blocker.”   

He was one of five who for second in the nation among tight ends with eight touchdowns last season. Other guys in that group were Njoku, Hayden Plinke,  Cole Hikutini and UMass’ Adam Breneman.

Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech, 6-foot-7, 245 pounds

- Just your average quarterback-turned-tight-end. The lanky Hodges would be a good fit for the Patriots simply because it would give Julian Edelman a break from the constant mention during broadcasts that he used to be a QB. 

Cole Hikutini, Louisville, 6-foot-5, 248 pounds

- A good athlete who isn’t much of a blocker.

Adam Shaheen, Ashland, 6-foot-6, 277 pounds

- Former college basketball player transferred from Pittsburgh-Johnstown to Ashland to focus on football and eventually established himself as a dominant player at the Division II level. He’s certainly got the size and strength, but questions will persist about just how similarly he holds up going from Division II to the NFL. 

Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas, 6-foot-5, 265 pounds

- Big, physical tight end with a solid stiff arm. Sprinkle was suspended by Arkansas for the Belk Bowl because he stole from a Belk department store after each player had been given $450 to spend there. He was arrested for the incident, as he stole $260 worth of extra items.

Pharoh Brown, Oregon, 6-foot-6, 245 pounds

- Not considered the athlete he was prior to a 2014 injury that nearly resulted in his leg being amputated. 

Michael Roberts, Toledo, 6-foot-4, 261 pounds

- Huge hands, which he uses to catch better than block. He led all FBS tight ends with 16 touchdowns last season. 

Jonnu Smith, Florida International, 6-foot-3, 245 pounds

- College career was ended prematurely when his pregnant girlfriend poured boiling water on him, resulting in severe burns throughout his upper body, including his head. He has good speed, but drops were an issue in college. 

Scott Orndoff, Pittsburgh, 6-foot-5, 256 pounds

- Figures to be a solid blocking tight end, but he also had five receiving touchdowns as a senior. 

Eric Saubert, Drake, 6-foot-5, 251 pounds

- Every draft pick is a gamble, but Saubert might be more so than others. An AFC regional scout says that Saubert is “body beautiful but he can’t catch. I don’t think it’s correctable, either.”

Cethan Carter, Nebraska, 6-foot-4, 240 pounds

- Elbow injuries figure to be a topic at the combine, and he had various injuries throughout his college career. 

Darrell Daniels, Washington, 6-foot-4, 246 pounds

- A scout told NFL.com that Daniels is "going to test through the roof and he's going to get overdrafted on the traits.” The Patriots don’t typically fall into such traps. 

George Kittle, Iowa, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds

- Only had one drop as a senior, but then again being believed to have had no drops in college doesn’t make a guy an NFL stud. 

Hayden Plinke, UTEP, 6-foot-4, 265 pounds

- Transferred twice in his college career, starting at Boise State, then Portland State and finally UTEP. Is considered a good blocker who grabbed eight touchdowns as a senior.