ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Just in case you’d forgotten — and it’s been a whopping 11 months give or take a Sunday since it happened last — Tom Brady still knows how to orchestrate a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
He was able to overcome a goal-line fumble and a third-down sack just yards from the end zone, and overall a shaky outing from the radically retooled offense he now leads, long enough to string together a 12-play, 49-yard, last-second, field-goal-producing drive.
Those 3 points, on a Stephen Gostkowski kick with five seconds left, gave the Patriots a 23-21 win Sunday, their 10th consecutive season-opening victory, tied for the third-longest such streak in NFL history.
“I was proud of our team today,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I thought they made the plays at the end of the game that they needed to win. That’s what it’s about.”
When it started to seem first-year Bills coach Doug Marrone and rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel would pull off an impressive win, Buffalo couldn’t maintain possession of the ball long enough in the closing minutes to make things truly uncomfortable for the Patriots.
And when it mattered most, Brady zeroed in on two of the three players that had produced over the first three-plus quarters and they came through.
On their first possession after the Patriots closed the score to 21-20 in the fourth, the Bills got a boost from a ticky-tack unnecessary roughness call against Jerod Mayo.
Buffalo was staring at a third and 1 near midfield with just under nine minutes to play when a Manuel pass hit receiver Stevie Johnson on the hands but Johnson couldn’t hold on.
Johnson is the same player who crowed earlier in the week that the Patriots didn’t have anyone who could cover him — including now-former Patriot Patrick Chung, who is plying his trade for the Eagles in Philadelphia these days.
Johnson finished the game with three catches for 39 yards and a touchdown.
New England had to punt on the ensuing drive, unable to get out of its territory.
But starting at their 20 with 5:51 to play, not only did the Bills go three and out, they took just 80 seconds off the clock because they continued to run no-huddle as they’d done throughout the afternoon, giving Brady 4:31, three timeouts, and the two-minute stoppage to get his team close enough to score.
Brady went to Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola exclusively during the dozen plays, with Amendola, who left the first half early after aggravating a groin injury that’s slowed him in recent weeks, converting two tough third-down catches.
“Those are two great playmakers for us,” Brady said, adding that he “didn’t have a lot of doubt” New England would come back to win. “It was great to be in the huddle with them.”
Amendola had a game-high 10 catches for 104 yards, and Vereen totaled 159 yards: a career-best 101 on the ground (on just 14 carries) and 58 more on seven catches.
“I really didn’t have my legs under me in the first half,” Amendola said. “Came in [in the third quarter], made some adjustments, and just tried to make as many plays as I could in the second half.”
“He really toughed it out, which was pretty impressive. He battled all day and got held to the fire,” Brady said.
Though they put it together when it mattered, New England showed that Brady wasn’t just being modest throughout training camp and in recent days when he said the offense was still a work in progress.
With Julian Edelman (two touchdowns) the only pass-catcher he had played with before this season available for the game, there were a few issues in terms of receivers lining up in the wrong spots, and even running into one another at times.
They also didn’t help their cause with three turnovers. Stevan Ridley, who appeared to lose the ball on his first carry of the game, did lose it in the second quarter.
Getting the ball on first down from the New England 24, Ridley slipped as he tried to cut back inside, and fell to the turf untouched. He lost the ball as he went down, and safety Da’Norris Searcy was there to scoop up the loose ball.
Searcy was able to run 74 yards to the end zone, giving Buffalo its first points of the game.
Ridley did not touch the field again for the rest of the game.
“I can’t make any excuses; two balls on the ground is unacceptable,” he said. “I have to accept where I messed up, made a mistake, and grow from it.
“You can’t have two fumbles in one game and expect to stay in,” he added. “The coaches had to make the best move for the team in this game.”
The second turnover was an interception when what looked like a high pass for tight end Zach Sudfeld became an impressive pick for cornerback Justin Rogers.
The third was in the third quarter, when a bad snap between Ryan Wendell and Brady at the 1-yard line was recovered by the Bills’ Kiko Alonso.
“I’m not sure [what happened],” Wendell said. “I’ll have to look at the film to be sure, but no matter what happened it’s my job to get the ball to Tom and I didn’t do that. Tom and I will get together and work on it so it doesn’t happen again.”
Defensively, New England got off to a good start, with Kyle Arrington forcing a fumble on the Bills’ second play of the game. Arrington drilled running back C.J. Spiller, and Tommy Kelly pounced on the loose ball at the Buffalo 16.
On third down, Brady fired a laser to Edelman in the back of the end zone from 9 yards out for the first score of the day.
New England took a 10-0 lead on its next possession, with Gostkowski hitting from 48 yards. It didn’t appear to be a clean snap, but rookie punter Ryan Allen got the ball down in time for Gostkowski to take the kick.
Allen’s inexperience as a holder — this was the first game he’s ever had the job — had been a topic of conversation over the last week.
“It wasn’t a perfect operation. I had to make an adjustment,” Gostkowski said. “The ball came in low [but] whatever the situation is, it’s my job to adjust.”
Arrington forced another fumble inside Buffalo territory in the second quarter, this one recovered by Rob Ninkovich and leading to another New England touchdown.
Manuel had the Bills in the end zone in two plays after Brady’s interception.
Rookie receiver Robert Woods had the honor of getting the touchdown, from 18 yards out on what looked like broken coverage by Aqib Talib.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said that play, as well as the Bills’ 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the second half, giving them the lead for the first time at 21-17, will be looked at with an especially critical eye by the defense.
There were mistakes all over, predictable for a season opener, on the road, with an in-progress offense and against an unfamiliar coach and quarterback.
But it was a win.
A win that, as defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said, would be enjoyed for about two hours tops before New England turned its attention to the Jets, who visit Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.