FOXBOROUGH — When Buffalo safety Robert Blanton shoved Jacoby Brissett as the rookie quarterback took the field for warm-ups, it seemed Sunday’s Patriots-Bills game was taking on a familiar tone before it even began: same old Bills, brash and undisciplined, lashing out against a team they just can’t beat.
In the end, that wasn’t the case this time. Bills coach Rex Ryan was right all along, and without Tom Brady, the Patriots’ offense wasn’t itself and sputtered all game for the first time this season.
“It wasn’t good enough in any area,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Obviously, we were in a lot of third and longs, so that wasn’t good. A lot of third-down problems are related to first and second down, and it wasn’t good enough on third down. It’s pretty obvious.”
Brissett, making his second career start with Jimmy Garoppolo inactive, and the rest of the Patriots were shut out at home for the first time since 1993. The Patriots gained just 277 yards and went 1 for 12 on third down.
Brissett said he wasn’t hampered by his right thumb, which he sprained in Week 3 against the Texans and had taped throughout Sunday’s game.
“I’m feeling good, I mean, we just, you know we didn’t do enough to pull it off so you know, we’ve just got to play better,” Brissett said.
Brissett, who completed 17 of 27 passes, said he found out “when you did” that he would start against the Bills over Garoppolo, who has a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder.
The Patriots maintained that injuries weren’t the problem, instead focusing on their nine penalties for 74 yards. On the team’s first drive, a 90-yard pass play from Brissett to Julian Edelman was brought back after Chris Hogan drew a flag for both holding and offensive pass interference.
“I could tell you what we did, we had penalties on probably every drive that we had,” Edelman said. “Any time that you do that it gives the defense the ability to dial up some kind of game plan thing.”
“I jumped offsides, there were countless penalties, and that’s just tough to overcome. And I know it’s part of the game but it’s tough to overcome. Especially with the defense like that, so we’ve got to straighten that up.”
Brissett’s best connection by far was with tight end Martellus Bennett, who caught five balls for 109 yards. That included a 58-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter, where Bennett snagged a jump ball through a double team, only to have Brissett give it away with a fumble in the red zone (it was the only one lost by the Patriots despite fumbling five times).
“I just fumbled, there’s no excuse for it,” Brissett said. “Especially in that situation in the red zone, already at that point, so just got to protect the ball better.”
The outcome did not rest solely on the quarterback’s shoulders — the offensive line was responsible for several of the penalties and allowed the Bills to sack Brissett three times — but Brissett left other plays on the field. He overthrew a wide-open Danny Amendola on a play that could have converted a third and 19 late in the third quarter.
Overall, Brissett completed 1 of 8 passes to wide receivers Amendola, Edelman, and Hogan.
The Patriots shifted further toward the pass than the run relative to the game against the Texans, throwing 27 times and running 22 times, only 13 of which were with LeGarrette Blount, yet they still did not employ Rob Gronkowski heavily as a receiver.
The Patriots’ only third-down completion was to Gronkowski, an 11-yard sideline catch on third and 8 in the fourth quarter, but it was the big tight end’s only catch on two targets, the other an incompletion on fourth and 6 with less than three minutes remaining.
It seemed the Patriots tried to get by using Gronkowski as a blocker until things got dire late in the game. Even as the Bills built a lead, they settled for field goals and drew enough penalties to allow the thought of a comeback to linger.
The clock on Tom Brady’s suspension is about to run out. The return of TB12 as QB1 is as good a reason as any not to take much stock in Sunday’s result. But if the Patriots thought they could squeak out a fourth straight win while playing it safe, the Bills proved them wrong.