FOXBOROUGH - Three games, 82 points.
As explosive as the Patriots’ offense can be, that number does not represent the number of points they have scored in 2010. It is the number of points they have allowed.
It is the highest three-game season-opening total in Bill Belichick’s 11 years as head coach.
But the offense yesterday put enough points on the board to make up for the defense’s shortcomings, and New England posted a 38-30 win over divisional rival Buffalo.
For the record, the Patriots have scored 90 points on their way to a 2-1 record.
“Far from perfect,” was how Belichick assessed his team’s performance. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We had our moments when I thought we did things really well and then other times we didn’t.”
Through the Bills’ first two games, also losses, their offense struggled mightily, totaling just 352 yards of offense, converting 7 of 26 third-down chances, and making 23 first downs (only 10 by pass).
Yesterday it was a different story. With Ryan Fitzpatrick and not Trent Edwards at quarterback, Buffalo racked up 374 total yards, was 5 for 10 on third down, and got 12 of its 19 first downs via the pass. The running back trio of Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, and C.J. Spiller had 116 yards on 21 carries.
But in an interesting turn of events, the defense came up with two key plays that helped seal the win for New England: Patrick Chung picked off Fitzpatrick in the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Brandon Meriweather intercepted the Harvard product on the first snap of what turned out to be Buffalo’s final possession.
The mixed results for the defense produced a mixed reaction from linebacker Jerod Mayo.
“I think we came up with some big plays, but at the end of the day we gave up too many yards, gave up too many points. But we still got the win, so it’s something to build on,” Mayo said.
In a recurring theme worthy of the Bill Murray classic “Groundhog Day,” the Patriots struggled to salt the game away in the second half.
Ahead, 17-16, at halftime, New England got the ball to start the third quarter and changed pace, going no-huddle and primarily with an empty backfield for its first drive. In five efficient plays - a 6-yard completion to Julian Edelman, a fantastic 27-yard catch-and-run by Wes Welker, a 6-yarder for Aaron Hernandez, an incompletion to Welker, and then pinpoint 35-yard touchdown to Randy Moss - Tom Brady marched the Patriots into the end zone.
The Bills spent all of a minute on their heels. Spiller, the versatile rookie, fielded the ensuing kickoff at the 5-yard line, bounced off kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and outran Kyle Arrington up the sideline for his second touchdown of the afternoon and the second of his young career.
It remained a 1-point game, 24-23.
New England went three and out on its next possession, and Buffalo missed the chance to take its first second-half lead of the season when Rian Lindell pushed a 51-yard field goal just left.
That’s when the Patriots reverted to clock-killing mode, putting the ball in Brady’s hands and keeping the defense on the sideline.
Working on a short field after Lindell’s miss and with heavy doses of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England covered 59 yards in 13 plays, a seven minutes-plus drive that ended with Brady rolling right and hitting Rob Gronkowski just over the goal line from 5 yards out.
Despite the long rest for the defense, Buffalo came right back and in three plays picked up 49 yards to set up second and 5 at the edge of the red zone. Fitzpatrick looked to Roscoe Parrish just shy of the goal line, but the ball took off and was an easy pick for Chung.
“That one sailed on me a little bit,” Fitzpatrick said. “I could make that throw 100 times. I could throw it in my sleep. I’m just disgusted that one sailed high.”
Redeemed after what was looking like a bad series, Chung and the defense got more rest during another 13-play possession, with still more Green-Ellis, who finished with 98 yards on 16 carries.
The third-year back was rewarded for his hard afternoon’s work, getting the ball on first-and-goal from the 7 and scoring on a nice little bit of running to give New England a 38-23 lead.
“The line, everybody did a good job out there. I was just trying to do my job and run through the holes they created,” Green-Ellis said. “I wanted to go in and work hard and do my job and hope for the best.”
Buffalo wasn’t dead yet, however.
Steve Johnson picked up 14 yards on third and 6, and on the next play he was there for Fitzpatrick again: with two Patriots nearby, he pulled in a 37-yard touchdown pass and was able to do what the Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco was not two weeks earlier, pretending to be one of the Minutemen after he scored. But the celebration - Johnson pretended to fire a musket, falling backward from the recoil - drew a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration.
“All you can ask for is a chance to redeem yourself and we went out and scored a touchdown, got it within 8, and the defense got us the ball back with about three minutes left, and that’s the situation as a quarterback you want to be in,” Fitzpatrick said. “I thought that was great and we were playing as a team right there and feeding off each other. But it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.”
A terrible possession for New England - two penalties totaling 15 yards, a 7-yard sack and a 6-yard screen pass - led to a Zoltan Mesko punt, which drifted out of bounds.
But when Fitzpatrick dropped back on the first snap, looking for tight end David Martin on the far sideline, he was off once again, and this time it was Meriweather with the interception.
“I just did my job and did what the coaches have been asking me to do for a while and followed the quarterback’s eyes and he took me to the rock,” Meriweather said.
So the defense giveth and the defense taketh away. The Patriots’ players are saying it is just a matter of time before they start putting everything together, but a dangerous Miami team is looming next Monday night.