Jerry Sullivan is a columnist
for The Buffalo News.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There were no eerie coincidences Sunday, no signs of divine intervention, no indication the gods were smiling on the Bills from up above.
Oh, it was a glorious autumn afternoon, a perfect day for football and the start of the Terry Pegula era. The crowd was abuzz, eager to see the Bills finish off a magical week with a victory that would propel them toward a divisional title and maybe move the new owner to tears.
But as Bills fans know, these fairy tales can fall apart in front of your eyes. Reality has a way of intruding — in this case, in the familiar, forbidding form of the Patriots, who spoiled Pegula’s big day with a 37-22 win at The Ralph.
For the second week in a row, the Patriots showed that reports of their decline have been severely exaggerated, scoring on their first four possessions of the second half to pull away from an overmatched and outcoached Bills team.
Tom Brady was brilliant, completing 27 of 37 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady threw for 274 of his 361 yards in the second half, mixing his signature precise, short passes with longer throws that were supposedly no longer in his power.
Brady popped Pegula’s balloon and shattered a few myths: That he’s over the hill; that he can’t throw the deep ball anymore; that he can’t make quick decisions behind his current, subpar offensive line.
Oh, and he punctured the idea that the Bills have some elite, dominant defense. Once again, when people desperately needed the Buffalo “D” to live up to its reputation as a top unit, it wasn’t up to the challenge.
“Terrible,” said cornerback Corey Graham. “Flat-out terrible performance, there’s no way around it. They made plays, we didn’t. They did what they needed to do to get the victory and that’s why they won the game.”
It’s not all on the defense, of course. Kyle Orton, in his second game as starting quarterback, turned into Kyle Ordinary. I can’t imagine Pegula was thrilled to see a journeyman in a shootout with Brady, knowing he doesn’t have a first-round pick in the next NFL draft.
But the defense was supposed to lift them in tough moments. That’s why they benched EJ Manuel, right? Because their elite defense was capable of riding an average quarterback into the playoffs. Weren’t they supposed to be beyond such meltdowns?
“You’d like to say yes,” said coach Doug Marrone. “Our defense has been playing extremely well. They were able to make the plays and we weren’t able to make the plays against them. We’ll go back, we’ll sort it up, we’ll change up some things and go.”
While they’re sorting it out, they might review the San Diego tape. This makes two straight home losses in which an elite quarterback cut them to shreds. Philip Rivers did it Week 3, getting the ball out quick and finding all the seams in the secondary.
Brady followed suit. Jim Schwartz’s pass defense seemed a step behind, same as against the Chargers. Brady came out of halftime and played like a young version of himself. He threw a perfect 43-yard TD pass to Brian Tyms, who ripped it away from two defenders.
It was the first career TD for Tyms, who went undrafted out of Florida A&M in 2012 and is on his fourth NFL team. Brady threw two TD passes to Brandon LaFell, who hasn’t been mistaken for Jerry Rice lately. The fourth went to second-year tight end Tim Wright, the guy they got for Logan Mankins.
Brady has made stars out of a lot of ordinary receivers over the years. Go ahead, name his wideouts in the early Super Bowls. Other than Randy Moss, he hasn’t been blessed with gifted receivers. The Patriots are still trying to sort out this year’s motley collection.
The Bills held a nice pregame ceremony for Pegula. They had the fans on the north side of the stadium hold up cards that said “One Buffalo.” They should have had them hold up signs in the second half that read, “One Stop.”
One big stop might have made a big difference. For the second week in a row, Orton found a rhythm in the second half, throwing for 214 of his 299 yards. The defense did a good job against the run, but couldn’t stop Brady, who had two rookies playing on his offensive line.
Brady dropped a gorgeous, 33-yard strike in to Rob Gronkowski to set up a field goal that made it 23-14. He drove the Patriots 80 yards in 12 plays, finding LaFell for an 18-yard run-and-catch TD that made it 30-14.
Orton answered with an 8-yard TD pass to Chris Hogan and 2-point conversion strike to Robert Woods, inspiring memories of last week’s Detroit comeback and cutting the Patriots’ lead to 30-22.
Could the Bills actually come from a double-digit deficit to win for the second week in a row? Could they rally from 16-plus points down for the first time since the win over the Patriots here in 2011?
No. On third and 16 at the Patriots 29, Brady zipped a 17-yard pass to Gronkowski. Two plays later, he threw a 56-yard TD pass to LaFell. Thanks for coming and taking part in the celebration, folks. The Pegulas appreciated it.
It was the same old Patriots-Bills in Pegula’s debut. Brady is now 23-2 against the Bills. He played the way he did here on a Sunday night in 2007, when he passed for 373 yards and five TDs with no picks.
It brought back ugly memories of the 2012 game here, when the Patriots scored 45 points in the second half of a 52-28 victory in Mario Williams’s first game for the Bills against New England.
Speaking of Mario, he was off the field for the first five plays of the Patriots’ clinching TD drive. So was Jerry Hughes. Marrone said they were due to sit as part of the team’s defensive line rotation.
“It’s rotation and run game,” Marrone explained. “Hey, they’re going to run the ball, run some time. Hey, when it’s third down, we can get him in. That was the thought process that was going on, even though I wasn’t directly involved.”
The Patriots didn’t run. Brady threw on three of the first four plays to move the ball to his 35. So on perhaps the biggest series of the game, Schwartz had his two best pass rushers on the bench.
The heck with the rotation. If I’m the new owner, I ask my head coach why I’m paying $18 million for a defensive player who’s not on the field for the biggest series of the day.