ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Let’s state this right at the top, to be clear: A win is a win in the NFL, and they’re not easy to come by, even for the Patriots.
“I was proud of our team today,” coach Bill Belichick said after the Patriots eked out a 23-21 win over the Bills. “It’s always tough to win in the division, on the road. It’s good to get off to that start.”
Now that those pleasantries are out of the way, it’s time to be realistic about the Patriots’ offense after Sunday’s showing.
Patriots fans might want to get used to seeing their team scratch and claw and struggle to score points like it did Sunday, facing a supposedly weak Bills team that was missing its franchise safety (Jairus Byrd) and former first-round cornerback (Stephon Gilmore).
The Patriots obliterated NFL defenses last year, running an NFL record 1,191 plays and leading the league with 34.8 points per game. But it’s too Pollyanna-ish to expect even the mighty Patriots to maintain that pace early in the 2013 season, given all of the changes they made at receiver and tight end in the offseason.
Yes, the final numbers from Sunday look respectable. The Patriots gained 431 yards and ran 89 offensive plays, more than they did in any game last year. Tom Brady threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns, Shane Vereen had his first 100-yard rushing game, and newcomer Danny Amendola had 10 catches for 104 yards in his debut as the Wes Welker fill-in.
But Sunday’s game was also a sobering reality for the Patriots and their fans. The team has some talent on offense, but they’re currently lacking in players Brady can trust.
Nowhere was it more evident than on the Patriots’ final drive, in which they marched 49 yards in 12 plays to set up the winning field goal.
Exactly four players touched the ball on that last drive: Brady, Amendola, Vereen, and center Ryan Wendell. Brady was Brady, completing 7 of 7 passes for 36 yards. Amendola was tough as nails, catching four passes for 26 yards with two crucial third-down conversions. And Vereen was money, gaining 31 total yards on three catches and two runs, including one for 15 yards.
“We’re learning heavily on those guys,” special teams ace Matthew Slater said of the veterans. “They had to fight through some stuff, and they did that. That’s the type of effort we’re going to need, week in and week out.”
Julian Edelman also had a breakout game, catching seven balls for 79 yards and two touchdowns. With Rob Gronkowski out with a back injury, no one else on the roster had Brady’s trust Sunday.
Stevan Ridley was nailed to the bench after his second-quarter fumble that was returned for a TD. Rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld had exactly one pass thrown his way, and it resulted in an interception. Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, the recipient of endless praise from fans and media during the preseason, played like a frightened rookie, catching just 4 of 14 passes thrown his way and double-clutching the ones he did catch.
Brady was 25 of 35 for 246 yards and two touchdowns when throwing to his veterans Sunday, and 4 of 17 for 42 yards and an interception when targeting his three rookies, including Josh Boyce.
“Some things need to be cleaned up, just being on the same page and everything like that,” Thompkins said. But “no matter how we did it, no matter how many points we win by, we’re happy with the victory.”
Let’s not just point fingers at the rookies for the offense being out of synch.
Wendell’s shotgun snaps were low all game, which seemingly got Brady out of his rhythm. Multiple players, particularly Sudfeld and Thompkins, slipped several times on the field turf and weren’t able to make plays. The offensive line struggled to keep Brady clean, and Nate Solder whiffed on a block that could have sprung Vereen for a big gain instead of just a 2-yarder.
Even Brady wasn’t perfect. Brady, who had converted every third- or fourth-and-1 run since 2005, fumbled the ball away on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line to ruin a 15-play drive. And on one series in the third quarter, Brady very animatedly barked at Amendola when he was lined up on the wrong side of the formation. When they returned to the bench, Brady continued his conversation with Amendola, and clearly wasn’t happy with his new receiver.
“All our conversations are animated,” Amendola said with a smile after the game. “We’re all just trying to make plays.”
Amendola certainly made more than his share, a great sign for the Patriots after they made the controversial decision to go with him this offseason instead of Wes Welker. An even better sign was that Amendola made his 10 catches on a balky groin that forced him out of action briefly in the second quarter. The best sign was that of Amendola’s 10 catches, nine went for first downs, and seven were third-down conversions. Not bad, considering Brady didn’t think Amendola even would be able to play in the second half.
“I thought he was going to be out for the rest of the game,” Brady said. “He showed a lot of toughness, mental and physical, and made some really great plays for us.”
But it took 89 snaps to grind out those 431 yards, an average of 4.8 per play (they averaged 5.7 last year). And it took Brady 52 throws to get to 288 yards.
It was nice to see Vereen and Edelman step up in increased roles, but the Patriots weren’t exactly playing a Super Bowl contender Sunday. They faced a rookie quarterback whose goal was to manage the game and not make mistakes. But when they play Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, and Joe Flacco this season, do they have enough talent to keep pace in a shootout?
The Patriots ultimately could have a high-octane offense by the end of the season, but like a car in the frigid Boston winter, it might need at least a few weeks to get warmed up.
“We have a long way to go. We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Brady said. “I am glad we started with a win. It feels a lot better than losing. [But] we had a lot of mistakes, and we have to do better.”