MEXICO CITY -- The New England Patriots trained all week in the high altitude at the Air Force Academy, which was an experience they said wouldn’t mean as much if they didn’t finish with a victory over the Oakland Raiders.
They took care of that rather quickly Sunday with a 33-8 win at Estadio Azteca, where chants of “Brady! Brady! Brady!” filled the smoggy air.
The Patriots thumped the Raiders in a complete three-phase effort that reflects their place as one of the league's best while positioning themselves for a deep playoff run by playing their best football in the second half of the season. Their trip to the Air Force Academy paid off, so much so that coach Bill Belichick wore the blue Air Force hoodie he was presented on Friday to his post-game news conference.
"First of all, I'll always be a Navy man," he began, with a touch of humor. "[But] want to give a big shout out to General Silveria and his great staff at the United States Air Force Academy for the hospitality and the week that we had there. This has been a three-leg trip for us -- Denver, Colorado Springs, and Mexico City. Asked a lot of our players, asked a lot of our organization, and they all delivered. We had a great nine days. I think we really got better as a football team. We met all the challenges that we needed to meet head on and tried to work through them."
With the win over the Raiders, Belichick moved past Tom Landry into third place on the all-time wins list for head coaches (271). Meanwhile, at 40 years old, quarterback Tom Brady continues to make a strong case for MVP honors.
Brady wowed the Mexico crowd, which began chanting his name after the Raiders were stopped on third down on their initial drive. The anticipation of seeing Brady, who has now won an NFL game in three different countries (U.S., England, Mexico), created a rare environment that had a Super Bowl-type feel.
"That was pretty cool," Brady said of fans chanting his name. "I've been around a long time, so if you're a fan of the NFL, then you've probably seen me at some point. But it's still an incredible experience to come here and play football in a different country and see the reception. That was very much a surprise."
Brady rang up his 82nd career game with 300 yards passing, but if there was one moment that best captured how the Patriots are rolling as a complete team, it came late in the second quarter as the Raiders were threatening to score a touchdown.
Belichick’s best teams have always had a knack for taking advantage of opponents’ miscues, and that’s what happened when Raiders receiver Seth Roberts inexplicably held the ball out in front of him after making a catch at the 3-yard line. Linebacker Marquis Flowers, a core special-teams player who has a niche role on defense by playing in passing situations, took off like a jet on the Air Force Academy runway and blasted it free.
The Patriots recovered at their 7, and instead of running out the clock to halftime with a 14-0 lead and 33 seconds on the clock, attacked and set up Stephen Gostkowski’s franchise-record 62-yard field goal at the halftime gun. Gostkowski was congratulated by seemingly every player on the team in a sequence that showed how the offense, defense and special teams are in championship sync.
"That gets the whole team going, you kick a field goal from that deep, and then to carry that momentum into the second half," safety Devin McCourty said.
And perhaps beyond. The Patriots, with passports in hand, now head home after a week away with an 8-2 record and a great opportunity ahead of them.
Then comes a Dec. 17 road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are also 8-2 and currently the Patriots’ top competition in the AFC.
There’s a long way to go to get to that point, and Belichick preaches a one-game-at-a-time mentality, but it’s hard not to peek ahead and think that could be one of the most highly anticipated regular-season games in recent memory.