MEXICO CITY -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. With the Patriots playing against the Oakland Raiders in Mexico on Sunday, and the Houston Texans having played the Raiders in Mexico last season, I reached out to Texans coach Bill O'Brien to ask what were the most unusual challenges of the experience. He noted how the Texans rotated their offensive and defensive linemen in last year's game, which was a consideration made with both altitude (7,382 feet above sea level) and air quality in mind. O'Brien referred to it as a "smoky type of air."
As for the Estadio Azteca itself, O'Brien described it as a "great atmosphere" and said the Raiders' following clearly made it a home game for them, which he would expect to be the case this season, as well. One unique aspect of the stadium is the long walk through part of the stands that the visiting team (which the Patriots will be Sunday) must take to the locker room at halftime.
"It's almost like straight up the side of the mountain to get through the stands -- it's up and around -- and almost takes you three to four minutes," he said. "By the time you get up, you need to sit down because you're out of breath, unless you're in phenomenal shape.
"So it was a definite thought at halftime to maybe just stay on the field. I don't think the NFL would allow that, but it would have been sort of like high school, just go over and suck on some oranges and make those halftime adjustments."
O'Brien said the long walk to the locker room "is kind of a factor" to consider this season (the Raiders will have a similar walk) because the NFL has been especially strict on teams being back on the field in time, before the 12-minute halftime is over, part of the emphasis of quicker games.
As for what it's like walking through the stands, he said, "There are guardrails, but you're going through the stands to get up there initially. There's no doubt about that."
2. When the Patriots decided to spend a week in Colorado Springs, Colorado, between last Sunday's game at Denver and their game against the Raiders in Mexico, it created some logistical challenges for quarterback Tom Brady in managing his workout regimen and diet. Usually, Brady has the benefits of his TB12 Sports Therapy Center in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on a daily basis, so it helped that his business partner, Alex Guerrero, was on the trip to aid him.
"I have a good routine still," Brady said, before noting that the nutrition part might have been the biggest challenge: "It was different. I eat really well at home and am really disciplined. It's sort of like anytime you travel, you're on the road, I hope I've built up enough good habits that carry over. But I feel great. I feel ready. I'm still getting a lot of sleep. I'm still hydrating really well. Still working with Alex a lot. Nutrition, I think the team has done a good job providing us with good stuff. So the core components are still the same."
3A. By claiming tight end Martellus Bennett on waivers Nov. 9, the Patriots added a fourth option to their depth chart at the position. I had figured they might be one of the few NFL teams with four tight ends (they also use fullback James Develin extensively at times, and he meets with the tight ends on a regular basis), but in reviewing all NFL rosters, I found there are 10 teams currently carrying four tight ends. The player who loves it most in New England? Rob Gronkowski, of course. "It's great. I mean, we switch up reps, they take some of my reps and I get a little bit more rest," he said, smiling.
3B. In a year when not all personnel moves have gone the way they projected, score this one as a win for the Patriots from 2016: The Broncos, who had acquired tight end A.J. Derby from the Patriots in exchange for a 2017 fifth-round pick last October, waived Derby on Saturday. The other domino to fall: The Patriots used the fifth-round pick to sign restricted free-agent Mike Gillislee away from Buffalo. The jury is still out on whether that move will pan out.
4. If the Patriots and Steelers keep winning, the Dec. 17 game in which they face each other at Heinz Field could ultimately determine home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Decision-makers at CBS had the foresight to protect the game, which means it can't be flexed to prime time. So lock in the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff on what could be one of the most highly anticipated games of the 2017 regular season if things continue on their present course.
5. How pumped were the 4,000 cadets at the Air Force Academy to have Bill Belichick address them at lunch on Friday? It was another classic "hoodie" exchange, this time with Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, as the Patriots coach expressed his appreciation for the cadets and the Academy as a whole, calling it an "honor and a privilege" to be in their company all week.
6. When Dallas Cowboys backup offensive tackle Chaz Green was overmatched in last Sunday's loss to the Falcons, as his poor fill-in performance contributed to Adrian Clayborn's six-sack performance, it highlighted to me one of the underrated strengths of the Patriots this season: They have four offensive tackles whom line coach Dante Scarnecchia believes are starting-caliber players: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming. In a Week 3 win over the Texans, Fleming started for Solder at left tackle and Waddle started for Cannon at right tackle. And then, in last week's victory over the Broncos and the second half of the win over the Chargers two weeks prior, Waddle once again filled in admirably for Cannon. The Patriots will need Waddle to do it again against the Raiders, as Cannon will miss a second consecutive contest with an ankle injury. Scarnecchia's work in having the backups ready to go also warrants mention. At 69, Scarnecchia remains at the top of his game.
7. Fun nugget from Megan O'Brien's one-on-one interview with running back Rex Burkhead on "Patriots All-Access": Burkhead is named after 1980s University of Kentucky basketball star Rex Chapman. As Burkhead explains in the interview, he was born in Kentucky and his father had played in high school against Chapman -- who went on to a 13-year career in the NBA.
8A. From ESPN Stats & Information, Part 1: With a win Sunday, the 7-2 Patriots will clinch a .500-or-better record for the 17th straight season, which would tie the 1957-73 Browns for the second-longest streak in NFL history. The 1965-85 Cowboys had a .500-or-better record in 21 consecutive seasons, the longest such streak of all time.
8B. From ESPN Stats & Information, Part II: Brady enters Sunday's game 193 passing yards away from hitting 3,000 on the season. If he gets there, it will mark his 15th season reaching 3,000 yards, which will move him closer to the only two quarterbacks ahead of him on the list: Brett Favre (18 times) and Peyton Manning (16 times).
8C. From ESPN Stats & Information, Part III: Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who joined the team as a fourth-round draft choice in 2006, has 1,548 career points and is 10 points away from reaching the all-time top 20. He is currently 22nd and can next leapfrog Olindo Mare (1,555) and then set his sights on Matt Bryant (still active with Falcons, 1,558). Adam Vinatieri (2,447) is second on that list, in hot pursuit of Morten Anderson (2,544).
9. The Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams are the NFL's only teams that are undefeated on the road this season (each 4-0), and both will be challenged Sunday to remain perfect as the Patriots play the Raiders in Mexico and the Rams visit the Vikings. The Rams are averaging 38.5 points per game on the road this season, which is threatening the 2007 Patriots for most all time. The '07 Patriots, led by the record-breaking combination of Brady and receiver Randy Moss, averaged 39.5 points per game on the road that season. My biggest takeaway from that: Sean McVay, the 31-year-old head coach who took over an offense that averaged a league-low 14 points per game last season, is a great example of how top-notch coaching can spark a dramatic turnaround.
10. You have an impressive memory if you remember the only other time the Patriots played in Mexico: Aug. 17, 1998, with Pete Carroll's Patriots recording a 21-3 victory over Chan Gailey's Cowboys before an announced crowd of 106,424 that booed the Patriots before kickoff. Sedrick Shaw had touchdown runs of 1 and 9 yards, and Ty Law returned a Jason Garrett interception 26 yards for a touchdown, to account for the team's points. In a reminder of how much time has passed, the NFL was experimenting with instant replay during the game, as there was consideration to bring it back to the game after it was voted out in 1991. The instant replay system returned in 1999 and has been there since.