FOXBOROUGH — It took all of one quarter for some boos to start raining down on the Patriots Sunday afternoon, after their first three offensive possessions ended with the team gaining a total of 31 yards and punting at the end of each.
The reaction was a bit extreme at that early juncture, but those who were in the stands at Gillette Stadium for the team’s Week 2 game against the Jets 10 days earlier had been witness to three straight quarters of offensive ineptitude — nine possessions and nine punts.
The cheers returned midway through the second quarter, however, as the Patriots got their first points of the day on their way to a 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New England is now 3-0 heading into next Sunday’s prime-time game against the Falcons in Atlanta. It is the first time since 2007 the Patriots have won their first three games, and the fourth time during Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach.
The Buccaneers, the Falcons’ NFC South rival, fell to 0-3, losing this game in quite a different fashion than their first two, each of which was decided on a last-second field goal by their opponent.
Tampa Bay squandered several good chances to put points on the board in the first half, and seemingly lost interest as the game wore on and the score crept out of reach.
“I thought the guys did a great job — we had a good week of practice and I think it ultimately showed up,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “It was a good win. It was fun to be out there, fun to see us play a little better, so it’s nice to be 3-0.”
Time and again after the win, from Brady to Belichick to Vince Wilfork to several other members of the Patriots, it was mentioned that the team had a good week of practice.
Playing its first two games in a short span, opening up in Buffalo Sept. 8 and hosting the Jets just four days later, the Patriots had no actual practices between those contests. But the Thursday night game gave them ample time for review of their first two games, a couple of days of extra rest, and a full week of practice before welcoming Tampa Bay.
“That was key, just to practice again,” defensive back Devin McCourty said. “For us it’s big, especially with a younger group of guys on the team — defensively we have to hit, we have to see things in live action. That was key for us this game because [Tampa Bay] has good receivers.”
New England knew it would have to pay close attention to Vincent Jackson, and the star receiver had two early catches for third-down conversions, and drew a pass interference call to put Tampa Bay in field goal territory. But Mike Williams also had three first-quarter receptions as the Buccaneers totaled 126 yards on their first two possessions.
Jackson, however, was forced out of the game just after halftime with what the team called a rib injury; quarterback Josh Freeman admitted afterward that Jackson was to be a big part of the team’s game plan — he entered the day as the target on more than half of Freeman’s pass attempts — and when he went down, the offense struggled to adjust.
“It was tough in the second half with Vincent going down,” Freeman said. “You saw in the first half we were able to sustain some drives, we just couldn’t come away with it in the red zone.”
After converting 4 of 8 third-down tries in the first half, the Buccaneers were just 1 for 6 in the second.
They also went for it four times on fourth down during the game, perhaps because Rian Lindell pushed a 38-yard field goal try wide right at the end of their first possession.
The New England defense stopped Tampa Bay all four times, including on a second-quarter fourth and 1 when Brandon Spikes and Alfonzo Dennard combined to stop standout back Doug Martin short of the needed spot.
“That was huge,” safety Steve Gregory said. “That’s pretty much a turnover, you know? So any time a team gets the ball on fourth down and they’re trying to get a first down, you’ve got to step up and stop them, and we did that in a big way today.”
The defense is playing well at this early point in the season, and has given up just 27 points to opposing offenses over the first three games.
“We’re always talking about that the biggest stat for us is points allowed,” Wilfork said. “For the past three weeks I think we’ve done a really good job of just holding our opponents to low-scoring games. That’s something we work on.”
Against the Bills and Jets, the low scores were definitely necessary, as the Patriots’ offense had its own issues. It wasn’t perfect Sunday — after starting 2 for 2 in red-zone tries, the Patriots were 0 for 3 the rest of the way — but rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson each took steps forward, which bodes well for them and New England as the season progresses.
It was obvious quickly in the preseason that Brady had a bit of an affinity for Thompkins, the undrafted player out of Cincinnati, in a way that he doesn’t always have for his other receivers.
During the Patriots’ extended stay in Philadelphia during training camp, Brady was spotted toward the end of one successful 11-on-11 session pulling Thompkins close, putting his arm around him, and talking over a few things.
Coming out of camp, it was Thompkins, not second-round pick Dobson or fourth-rounder Josh Boyce, who was at the head of the rookie pack, and that was clearly evident in the first game of the season: Dobson sat out against Buffalo in part, though not entirely because of, a hamstring injury, and Boyce was targeted just twice.
But Brady looked Thompkins’s way 14 times against the Bills, though he had just four catches. Against the Jets, he was targeted seven more times, with two catches.
Maybe Thompkins had an extreme case of jitters in his NFL debut, but by Sunday against Tampa Bay, it looked like he had settled down, catching his first two touchdown passes, both in the second quarter.
On his first, on second and 6 from the 16, Thompkins caught a short pass from Brady, made a nice cut, and then bolted past the defense into the end zone. Rather than stop or spike the ball, Thompkins simply turned back toward the New England bench, and the first teammate to stop him was Brady, who happily banged helmets with him.
On second and goal from the 5 on the next possession, Thompkins lined up at the right numbers, cut in at the goal line, and was ready for the pass from Brady for another score.
“That’s a play we work on every day in practice. To go out there, for me to be open, and to have Tom trust me to throw me the ball felt good,” Thompkins said.
New England also had a strong day rushing the ball, particularly against a Buccaneers defense that has been so good against the run over the last year-plus. Brandon Bolden, playing for the first time this season, LeGarrette Blount, and Stevan Ridley combined for 151 yards on 28 carries, an average of 5.4 yards.