New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Tight end Pharaoh Brown reacts after a 26-yard catch and run vs. Buffalo. (Photo by Kris Craig / USA Today Network)

Smiling as he stood a few steps in front of ‘Tight End Row’ in the Patriots locker room late Sunday afternoon, Pharaoh Brown was in the holiday spirit.

Hours earlier, an unknown benefactor had gifted t-shirts to Brown and the teammates who share his position and dress each day at neighboring stalls between blocks of offensive linemen and running backs. Before heading to the field around 11 a.m., Brown took the tee, sheered its black sleeves where the shoulder seams met the arm holes to better show off his biceps and triceps, donned it, pairing it with his team-issue navy blue shorts, and headed for the field.

Scripted across his chest were words commemorating an occasion: “National Tight Ends Day.” Printed below, at Brown’s midsection, beneath an icon of a player in the act of spiking and a football, was the line: “The Tight End Way.”

Reese Tweet

ESPN’s Mike Reiss captured Brown in his special t-shirt commemorating National Tight Ends Day.

That way, after Brown, Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki had changed into their silver-and-blue game uniforms for a matchup with the Bills, entailed six catches — two apiece — including the game-winner with 12 seconds left in the Pats’ 29-25 triumph. Gesicki, reaching up over Buffalo’s Taron Johnson, grabbed Mac Jones’s 25th completion right of the goal post and kicked off the celebration with his quarterback doing an end zone Griddy.

“It’s more than perfect that (Mike) scored it,” Brown said of the decisive play, which resembled a similar last-half-minute score by Gesicki four years ago in Foxborough as a Miami Dolphin. “We need to have ‘National Tight Ends Day,’ every day.

“Let’s just have more Father’s Days, more Christmases, every day, more birthdays, every day. More National Tight Ends Days, every day.”

If it seems Brown got carried away, consider what he went through to get here.

As an Oregon junior on Nov. 8, 2014, he sprung off the line to block for a touchdown by Marcus Mariota at Utah. After stepping on a teammate’s foot, Brown collapsed into the end zone; his right leg buckling too gruesomely for his fall to be replayed on the ESPN telecast.

Carted off the field with two torn ligaments, Brown was also suffering internal bleeding. A stretched artery had cut off blood flow to his shin. He was rushed into emergency surgery at the University of Utah Hospital to avoid amputation.

Two surgeries in Brown’s hometown of Cleveland and months rehabbing back on campus in Eugene alongside his Yorkie puppy “Tiger” filled the next year and a half. Finally, in the spring of 2016, Brown was cleared for football practice. He resumed his career with the Ducks in the fall.

Signed initially by Oakland, his NFL career has since wound through Cleveland, Houston, Cleveland again and Indianapolis. Released by the Colts in August, he was picked up by New England on the recommendation of his ex-Texans coaches and current Pats assistants Bill O’Brien and Will Lawing.

So, yeah, every day in the NFL is like a personal holiday.

For the record, Brown’s next birthday is May 4, 2024. This Christmas morning, he expects to be returning from a visit to Denver. And Father’s Day for the dad to Titus and Cairo — with wife Celestina — won’t come around again until the third Sunday of next June.

Just like everyone else, Brown gets one of those special days a year. But as far as this Patriots’ season goes, winning Sundays have been this tight end’s days to shine.

At New York in Week 3, he scored their lone touchdown in a 15-10 win over the Jets. Against Buffalo, his two receptions went for 25 and 26 yards. A third, worth 22 yards, was negated by penalty.

His first catch on the game’s opening series helped the Pats to their first lead in more than a dozen quarters. His other reception jump-started an early fourth-quarter drive en route to a two-score advantage.

Ahead 16-10 with 13:43 left, Brown joined Gesicki in the offensive huddle immediately after a failed fourth-down try by the Bills. Hearing Jones’s voice, the two tight ends looked to one another.

“(Mac) called that play and Mike actually looked at me and gave me the eyes, and I gave him the eyes,” Brown recounted. “Basically on that play, me and him are both going vertically, so the (defender) has to choose which one he’s going to cover.”

The ball was set between the right hash marks of New England’s 34- and 33-yard lines. Brown, hands on knees, squatted tight to the outside shoulder of right tackle Mike Onwenu. Standing to their right, Gesicki lined up level with the ball.

Off the snap, Buffalo cornerback Christian Benford followed Gesicki on an out-and-up along the right sideline. Brown, ducked around defensive end Shaq Lawson and was met up the right seam at the 40-yard line by Terrel Bernard.

To that point, at least to Brown’s ears, Bernard, a linebacker, hadn’t shown much respect to the tight end on this football holiday.

“The linebacker, he was talking a bunch of junk all day,” Brown said. “He was on me man-to-man and I just knew I was going to beat him.”

As Brown did just that, Jones laid a deft lob over Bernard’s outside shoulder and the nameplate on his back. The ball fell perfectly into Brown’s hands as he swung his hips and shoulders around, caught it and continued up the right sideline.

Taking a shoulder to the sternum from safety Jordan Poyer, Brown went down at the Bills’ 40. Benford pulled at the ball, finally prying it loose. His effort was futile. The play was over. Eight snaps later, Kendrick Bourne scored to make it, 22-10.

Of course, Buffalo came back, abetted by Bourne’s fumble, before Jones’s more than pitch-perfect toss to Gesicki that allowed Brown to celebrate a win to go with his holiday swag.

“Thanks to whoever put that (t-shirt) in our locker,” he said, beaming. “Great design, too.”

  • Spreading The Love

    Bryce Baringer

    Bryce Baringer’s two punts Sunday resulted in a 51.5-yard net average. (Photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

    Unwilling to receive only, Brown was also in a giving mood with his praise of the Pats’ non-tight ends.

    “I think you just (saw) a clean game,” he said, excepting New England’s one giveaway. “When you don’t turn the ball over, when you don’t freaking get (many) penalties, I mean, it makes a big difference in this game.

    “The margin is so freaking small in this, it always comes down to that last minute. So anytime you can cut that margin of error, that’s what it looks like. We’ve got all the pieces. We’ve got great coaching (and) great players.”

    After speaking generally about the offense, Brown’s full appreciation of every phase led him to single out rookie specialist Bryce Baringer.

    “The punter made some great punts, changing the field position multiple times, that’s just that complementary football that we have to continue to do,” Brown said. “That’s kind of what you (saw) today.”

    Baringer’s two punts averaged 51.5 net yards, pinning Buffalo at its 13- and 3-yard lines. Each was in the second quarter on a windy — and for specialists, somewhat tricky — day. Adjusting to the in-game conditions began prior to warmups.

    “We just kind of go out pre-game and get a feel for it,” Baringer said in front of his own locker. “That’s really what pregame is for, to get loose but also to get to understand your surroundings, different areas of the field, how the wind’s playing in different spots.

    “I thought I did a really good job of that today, just going out and being very deliberate in my routine. In our warmups, (kicker) Chad (Ryland) and I are very focused on the process over results. In pre-game, just really like everyone, you’re getting prepared for the game. So what’s working, what isn’t working, that’s really what we kind of go off.”

    Coupling Baringer’s punting with the coverage of second-year gunner Brenden Schooler and complementing their work with rookie Demario Douglas’s 25-yard return, Patriots special teams helped create a key edge in field position.

    “The young guys came to play (Sunday),” captain Matthew Slater said in a video press conference Monday afternoon. “And they didn’t just come to play; they came to win.”

    Baringer’s first punt followed a three-and-out and false start the series after the Bills’ first points in a 10-3 game. He launched his kick from the 20-yard line. Hanging roughly 4.6 seconds, it backed returner Deonte Harty to his six-yard line.

    “I think he hit about a hundred-yard punt on that first one,” Slater joked. “It felt like we were running forever.”

    Harty, who had a NCAA-record 14 touchdown returns while at Assumption University and one NFL score as a Pro Bowler for the Saints in 2019, dipped left and tried to dodge Schooler up the middle. From behind, Schooler wrapped his legs and spun Harty to the turf.

    “I thought that was great team football,” Slater said. “Really, two guys controlling the game there.”

    Less than three minutes later, Buffalo’s Sam Martin punted the ball back to New England. Initially up to the Bills’ 30-yard line, Douglas ran back to catch Martin’s 55-yarder. Backpedaling to his 29-yard line, Douglas slipped away from Tyler Matakevich and circled right across the field into Buffalo territory.

    “He was really aggressive, especially with the call that we had on, to make a play and just trust his God-given ability,” Slater said. “We tell ‘Pop’ to, ‘Just be you back there and trust what God gave you. And don’t second-guess yourself.’”

  • Process and Results

    Chad Ryland

    Chad Ryland kicked three field goals in Sunday’s upset of Buffalo. (Photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

    Five of Baringer’s most important acts occurred as a holder on three field goals and two extra-points. 

    Ryland had made two of the former — from 30- and 24-yards — and one of the latter when he lined up a 49-yard try with 4:30 left in the third quarter. 

    Leading 13-10, Baringer set up eight yards behind long snapper Joe Cardona. Ryland readied to take his cut from the right hash mark, toward the lighthouse at Gillette Stadium’s north end. 

    Baringer tended to his first responsibility, counting teammates on the line. There must be nine other Patriots, including Cardona, in front of him. No more. No less. 

    As he did the math to his right, all were accounted for. But as Baringer looked left, an official distracted him momentarily. That’s when Brown and Mike Onwenu stepped back from the line. They noticed the Pats were a man down to their side.

    “I just remember I was lining up and looking at, I want to say it was (Atonio) Mafi that was next me,” Onwenu said via a video link on Monday. “I was like, somebody has to be missing. So I was yelling over to the sideline.”

    Suddenly alerted, Baringer held up both hands; 10 fingers represented 10 players. Not 11.

    “Our guys did a really good job communicating that to me that we only had 10 (total players),” Baringer said. “The biggest thing is don’t panic.”

    Sidy Sow ran onto the field and the Patriots called time out. Ryland was left facing a delay before his long-distance attempt through gusts that had blown counterpart Tyler Bass’s earlier 42-yarder wide right of the south goal post. 

    On the CBS telecast, reporter Evan Washburn offered a sideline update. 

    “It’s gusting at its highest right now,” Washburn said. “It’s coming far side, from that New England sideline across the field to that Bills’ sideline, so it will be pushing any kick to the left.”

    Ryland filled the time by refocusing on, as Baringer would say, the process.

    Back in training camp, both were regularly among, if not the first players out on the practice field. Regular-season game days are no different. Three hours before a kickoff, they can be seen in team sweats surveying the site and formulating the lines they’ll soon try to play in-game.

    “Part of it is being in as good a head space as you can be and knowing when we go out there, we’re going with a plan, with a purpose and we’re playing our lines with conviction,” Ryland said on Sunday. “Punting, kicking, kickoffs, field goals, the whole thing.”

    Unfortunately, late morning or even first-half conditions aren’t always consistent with the Foxborough elements one confronts by the third-quarter. As the veteran Bass experienced, winds can shift from ball strike to upright fly-by. 

    What can’t, or at least shouldn’t, vary is you know what: that ‘p’ word popularized (or un-popularized?) by basketball’s Sam Hinkie. 

    On the night of his pro debut, Ryland discussed the pre-game portion of his personal process. On Sunday, that same routine served him well.

    While walking a short, circular path, starting about 10-to-12 yards away from the spot where he’ll be kicking, Ryland runs down a mental checklist with Baringer. 

    “If something happens (like a timeout), where we’ve got to do it again, we start over and reevaluate everything,” Ryland said.  

    Out of the timeout, the checklist complete (again) and (another) walk-up behind him. Ryland bent forward, poised to spring into action. Noting nine teammates to snap and block, Baringer took a knee, turned to Ryland and flashed his right hand to Cardona.

    The snap was true. The hold solid. The kick good. A liner, it started toward the right post but curved left to pass through the center. 

    In the moment, linemen Mafi and Jake Andrews gave Ryland celebratory head butts (presumably, not on the checklist). In the aftermath, others, including head coach Bill Belichick, nodded in approval. 

    “Based on the way it was today, that was a good kick,” Belichick said in his post-game press conference. “You saw what happened on Bass’s field goal. It looked like one of my five irons, straight to the right. It was a tough wind out there today.”

    “Chad definitely came through,” Onwenu said. “We’re all confident in him. He’s a great kicker.”

    Slater was far more expansive.

    “Being a rookie specialist in this league is very tough; it’s probably one of the hardest things to do,” he said. “There’s going to be some ups and downs; that’s just part of the process. But I think (Chad’s) handled those well. His confidence has never wavered. His ability to prepare week-in, week-out and be ready to go, that has always been there. 

    “And it’s great to see that rewarded the way that it was (Sunday). Honestly, those were very tough conditions to kick in; very, very challenging. I thought all three of those kicks were big-time kicks.”

  • Quotes That Bear Repeating

    Peppers

    Jabrill Peppers celebrating his first interception as a Patriot. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    “His preparation and the opportunity finally met and he had a tremendous game.” — Deatrich Wise Jr. on Mac Jones.

    “It’s not that I’m a psychopath. I’m just more willing to run into another grown man at full speed than a lot of guys are.” —- Jabrill Peppers on Jabrill Peppers.

    Bob Socci is in his 11th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network.

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