ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — On Sunday in Buffalo, the Patriots didn’t just beat down the Bills yet again (37-22). They also showed us that maybe the offense wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards during the first four games of the season.
The Patriots finally looked dynamic and explosive on Sunday, as they should when Tom Brady is quarterbacking the team. Brady threw for 361 yards and four touchdowns, completed nine passes of 15 yards or more, and spread the ball around to 10 different receivers (everyone except Danny Amendola, of course).
It was the second straight game Brady looked confident and poised in the pocket after a rough start to the season.
How did the Patriots’ passing attack, which couldn’t get anything going vertically during the first four games, finally flip the switch? The answer leads us back to one Pro Bowl player and one young journeyman looking to make a name for himself.
Every week, Rob Gronkowski is gaining more confidence in his surgically repaired right knee and returning to form. He’s more confident going over the middle, more confident taking and initiating contact, more confident barreling over defenders.
The result Sunday was another stellar effort — seven catches for 94 yards, and a lot of scrapes and welts on his body to show for it.
“They were giving me some lickings. All you can do is get right back up, get in that huddle, and go onto the next play,” Gronkowski said. “Sometimes I like getting lit up. It’s fun.”
And it’s certainly fun for his teammates, who are starting to see a lot more attention placed on Gronk and a lot more 1-on-1 coverage coming their way.
“A healthy Rob? Man, an 80 percent Rob is great,” said Brandon LaFell, who had four catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. “With a healthy Gronk, we’re a whole different team. That guy spreads the field, and he does so much for this offense. Even when he’s just out there and not getting the ball, he draws so much attention.”
The other key is Brian Tyms, a youngster who is now on his fourth NFL team in three seasons. Tyms entered Sunday’s game with two career catches for 12 yards as he bounced around from San Francisco to Miami to Cleveland to New England, and he sat out the first four games this year because of an amphetamines suspension.
Yet despite his lack of credentials, Tyms has three traits the Patriots desperately need — height, speed, and tenacity.
“I always try to attack the ball,” he said. “I don’t like to let the ball come to me. I wanted the ball more. I’m not going to run 40 yards without the ball.”
Tyms certainly displayed that on his spectacular 43-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, in which he outmuscled three Bills defenders for the football. He finished the play with Randy Moss’s “split the defense” celebration, which is fitting, because if you forget about credentials and take the names off the back of the jerseys, Tyms sure looked a lot like Moss on that play.
“He’s a vertical threat,” Darrelle Revis said. “I think that’s why he’s on this team. He can stretch the field for us in the passing game. He’s been doing it all training camp, and it’s good to see him finally get one.”
In the first four weeks, the Patriots faced compacted defenses, which stacked the box and weren’t worried about Brady beating them over the top. Tyms now gives defenses something to think about.
Tyms isn’t going to put up Moss-type stats on a weekly basis — or even come close to it, if we’re going to be honest — but like Gronkowski, he can keep a defense honest and open things up for other receivers in the middle of the field. We saw it in the preseason, when he had five catches for 119 yards and a touchdown against Washington, and apparently he makes spectacular plays daily in practice.
“Tyms is pure speed. That guy is 6-3, 210 and he can fly,” LaFell said. “And the same stuff he does in the game, he does it twice the amount in practice. So we know when Tom sees him with his head down going vertical, and the DB is beside him, Tom is going to throw it up.”
Now this was the Buffalo Bills, so let’s not act like the Patriots are ready to take down the Broncos just yet. But this is how the offense was supposed to look when the Patriots put this team together on paper. Brady got good protection, three receivers went over 90 yards — LaFell (97), Gronkowski (94), and Julian Edelman (91) — and seven other receivers contributed with a catch.
They hit chunk plays when they were there — four completions over 20 yards. They converted third downs of 9, 12, and 16 yards. Edelman moved the chains, and LaFell had big catch-and-runs. They exploited big holes in the Bills defense that they had seen on film.
“We were like, ‘Man, if we get those looks, let’s get it quick across the middle, ’cause it’s going to open like the Red Sea,’” LaFell said. “That’s what they did twice. The first time I converted a big third down, the second time I got a touchdown.”
In his first four games, Brady threw for 791 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions, completed 59 percent of his passes, and went 2-2. The last two weeks, Brady has thrown for 653 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions, completed 69 percent of his passes, and gone 2-0.
It’s amazing what Brady can do when he has a full deck of cards at his disposal.