By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots will look to extend their winning streak to six games on an international stage this weekend as they take on the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City.
The New England franchise already has a pair of blowout wins outside of the U.S. in their 58-year history, crushing the Buccaneers and Rams (then of St. Louis) across the pond at Wembley Stadium in 2009 and 2012, respectively. They’ve even made a trip to Mexico City before, beating the Dallas Cowboys in a preseason tilt in 1998.
These current Patriots have been playing some great football following a 2-2 start to the season and have received solid performances from all phases of the game over the last six weeks. The offense hasn’t been as spectacular as we’ve seen in years past, despite Tom Brady re-writing everything we thought we knew about quarterbacks over the age of 40, but the defense has been dominant and the special teams unit has been one of the best in the business during this win streak. Now they get to face a Raiders team that may not even make the playoffs after their promising campaign in 2016.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots take on the Raiders south of the border:
A Fiesta For Gronk
Gronk has famously made a point to let everyone know that “Yo soy fiesta,” which translates to “I am party.” His Spanish could use a little work, but he’s primed to have a party on the field on Sunday.
Oakland has been pretty awful against tight ends this season. Miami’s Julius Thomas torched them with six catches for 84 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago, and that was with Jay Cutler throwing the passes. Travis Kelce was held to just four catches last month, but they couldn’t keep the All-Pro out of the end zone. During Oakland’s four-game losing streak earlier in the season, Washington’s Vernon Davis (five catches for 58 yards and a score) and Denver’s A.J. Derby (four receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown) burned them in back-to-back weeks.
Of that group, only Kelce comes close to what Rob Gronkowski brings to the field. The Raiders don’t really have anyone who can match up with the gigantic playmaker, who is eager find the end zone after being robbed of a touchdown last Sunday. The Raiders will probably throw corner David Amerson (6-foot-1, 205 lbs) on Gronk, though safeties Karl Joseph and potentially rookie Obi Melifonwu (a 6-foot-4, 224 lb Grafton native out of UConn) may be called upon to give it a try.
But it’s much more likely that no one keeps Gronk from going “Yo Soy Fiesta” on his trip to Mexico.
Bounce Back For Butler
Malcolm Butler did not have much fun covering Emmanuel Sanders last week in Denver. It’s not that Butler played poorly last Sunday, as he usually found himself in position to make a play, but Sanders is just so darn shifty and crafty that he can bring in those ducks thrown by Brock Osweiler.
He’ll look to bounce back against a Raiders passing offense that hasn’t lived up to the hype this season. Butler will find himself on a bigger receiver this Sunday, either Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree. Cooper had a slow start to the season, but has come on as of late. Crabtree is another shifty receiver who tends to wiggle his way into open space and has found the end zone six times this season (granted, three of those scores came way back in Week 3 against the Jets). Butler will have to blanket one of them, and he needs to end his trend of struggling whenever Stephon Gilmore lines up on the other side of the field.
It will mostly boil down to which David Carr shows up; the one who broke out last season or the one who has been picked off twice on three different occasions. Butler’s play will go a long way in which one we see on Sunday.
The Patriots offensive line kept Brady’s uniform looking pristine against a tough Denver pass rush last weekend, so they shouldn’t have too many problems with a team that only has 13 sacks on the season (tied for last in the NFL).
Though he only has 4.5 sacks this season, and hasn’t brought down a quarterback since Week 7, Khalil Mack is still a guy the Patriots will have to focus on. He can take over a game quickly, and is really the Raiders only hope in this one. With their season on the line, the Raiders may very well send the kitchen sink at Brady on Sunday. Mack is that sink.
There’s always a lot of hubbub when teams go into Denver. There’s the thin air and altitude, a lady on a horse, and of course, that dumb in-com-plete chant. The Patriots had no issues with any of that last Sunday, and they’ll be ready for the altitude of Mexico City after spending a week at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
What they may not be prepared for is the rather unique crowd that awaits them. Pats fans will travel to escape this lovely New England November, but the Raiders are the home team on Sunday night and last year when they “hosted” the Texans at Estadio Azteca, they may as well have been in Oakland. Raiders fans are a passionate bunch, and they’re also kind of nuts. It was quite the sight when they invaded Mexico City in 2016.
The Raiders also had Darth Vader and Beetlejuice on their side.
That’s the power of the force AND the undead. It’s terrifying.
There was also laser pointers aimed at Brock Osweiler’s face throughout last year’s contest, bringing most of us back to the seventh grade when that was considered kind of funny. The loonies will be out again on Sunday night, and it’ll be interesting to see what they have up their sleeve — or under their weird, spiked shoulder plates.
It won’t really play into anything on the field (laser pointer aside), but it will be interesting nonetheless. Hopefully Oakland’s Super Fan No. 1 is also in that mix.