FOXBOROUGH — Let the church bells ring, let the rejoicing begin, and let the payback tour commence. Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension is finished and the Patriots are still in their customary perch atop the AFC East.
That’s what matters, not Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills taking advantage of novice quarterback Jacoby Brissett to deliver Vociferous Rex’s brand of industrial justice to Bill Belichick, handing the Hoodie the first Patriots’ shutout loss in the history of Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Rarely has a Patriots loss, even one as distasteful as the 16-0 drubbing by the Bills, felt so insignificant.
If I told you before Brady started serving the NFL’s version of hard time for soft-ish footballs that the Patriots were going to start third-string rookie Brissett for half of the games Brady missed and the team was still going to win three of four you would have taken it. Injected with sodium pentothal and stripped of his arsenal of dour, deflecting argot, Belichick would have taken it, too.
Deflategate dinged Brady’s sterling reputation, but it barely put a dent in the Patriots’ championship pursuit. The NFL took a shot at the Patriots and it missed. The quarterback baton gets passed to Brady with the Patriots in great position, and you know he’s going to turn it on down the stretch.
You’re not going to get much perspective and introspection on 35,000-foot thoughts like the team’s positive performance during TB12’s absence after a loss. The mood is always funereal in Foxborough following a defeat. It’s heightened when it’s a loss to a rival like Ryan.
“We just lost to the Bills, so the reaction is we’ve got to get better as a football team,” said Rob Gronkowski. “But I’m just proud to be a part of this team. We stick together, and we’ve got to move forward to the Cleveland Browns. I mean 3-1 is not a bad start at all, but when you lose you’ve got to see what you did wrong, correct it, go back to the practice field, and get back on the right track.”
The excitement over Brady’s return was — unlike Ryan — muted. So was the Patriots’ offense by Buffalo’s defense, which seized on Brissett’s limited NFL experience, his wrapped-up right thumb, and a pared-down playbook. Brissett was just 3 of 3 for 75 yards in the first half with a crushing fumble at the Buffalo 9. He finished 17 of 27 for 205 yards.
The Patriots were down, 10-0, before they picked up their initial first down early in the second quarter. The Patriots were outgained, 251 to 98, in the first half and 58 of those yards came on one pass to Martellus Bennett.
For the game, New England sputtered to 1 of 12 on third down. But the only 12 that matters now is No. 12.
“It’s going to be great. It’s one of your best players on the team. The guy that leads us. It’s going to be good to have him back,” said Brady BFF Julian Edelman, who took a few snaps at QB Sunday.
“Yeah, it will be good. Any time one of your best players isn’t there there’s something missing. We handled a lot of it well. Today we just didn’t. The Bills just outplayed us. That is that.”
Mercifully, Brady wasn’t watching this debacle. While the Patriots were being shut out for the first time since a 21-0 loss at Miami in 2006 and just the third time under Belichick, Brady was at a field in Brookline throwing passes in preparation for his return.
He wanted any rust to disappear like the silly notion that Belichick doesn’t need him.
It turns out that Belichick can’t just plug in anyone who can throw a spiral and win NFL games with ease, especially if that team is not complicit in its own demise like the Houston Texans were.
Belichick won’t have to worry about that moving forward with his canonized QB back in the fold and probably inspired by a desire to squelch any questions about whether he should be pushed aside in the near future for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Brady has never been a player that lacks for sources of motivation.
Brady and Belichick are the NFL’s ultimate power couple, and they’re reunited.
Undoubtedly, losing this last game sans Brady to Ryan left Belichick with dyspepsia. Ryan had lost 9 of the last 10 against the Patriots. But for once he didn’t have to eat his words like a you-know-what snack.
But let’s be honest, if Ryan couldn’t win this one without Brady, he was never going to beat Belichick again.
When Ryan, now 5-11 against the Patriots, was done gloating and goading the Foxborough Faithful as he exited the field, he acknowledged in his post-game presser that beating the Patriots without Brady isn’t quite the same.
“I mean it’s satisfying, but let’s face it they had a player out,” said Ryan. “They had a player out and we had our team, so we expected to win.”
The Bills were the only Patriots opponent that got their shots in on the Patriots while they could.
“This is the first time I’ve beat them in my 12-year career,” said Bills guard Richie Incognito. “We knew we had to get back to even and steal one from them when Tom’s not playing. This is big for us.”
This was the way the folks at 345 Park Avenue and the other 31 clubs were hoping the Patriots would play the entire four-game stint without Brady.
They got one taste of sweet satisfaction before the legend returns.
Sunday was the only setback for the Patriots during Brady’s four-game suspension.
In the end, the Patriots might end up a more balanced, resourceful team for having to find a way for four games without Brady. They’ve established a running game and the defense has been forced to bear more responsibility.
The Patriots lost a game, but they didn’t lose much ground before Brady’s return.