FOXBOROUGH — The rivalry with the Indianapolis Colts is not back on, but the Patriots offense is.
Two 34-yard thunderclap touchdowns provided enticing and captivating glimpses into what the offense could evolve into this season. The pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on consecutive offensive snaps sealed the game Thursday night after the Colts had clawed back from a 24-3 deficit. They served as a harbinger of how dangerous, diverse, and dynamic the offense could be with all of its components in place.
The sequence left the impression that the offense is poised for takeoff after pulling away from the Colts in a 38-24 victory. It started with Tom Brady sitting in the pocket long enough to declare residency and then rearing back and lofting a deep ball into double coverage in the end zone that appeared destined to be intercepted. Instead, Josh Gordon levitated between two hapless Indianapolis defenders and pulled it down to give the Patriots breathing room and a 31-17 lead with 9:19 to go. It was a reminder of why Gordon’s talent trumps his baggage.
Then immediately after a Jonathan Jones interception, rookie running back Sony Michel took a shotgun handoff from Brady, burst through a hole, and bounced to the outside, galloping 34 yards for a turbo-charged TD run with 7:08 left.
If you give Brady a downfield-threat wide receiver, a running game, and Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman to play with, he is going to make life miserable for opposing defensive coordinators. It feels as though Brady and his colleagues are still workshopping this offensive attack, sharpening its execution and shaping its identity. But the potential is tantalizing.
After struggling in back-to-back losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, the Patriots have scored 38 points in back-to-back contests, and left points on the field. The reality Thursday night was that the only thing stopping the Patriots was themselves.
A pair of careless turnovers in Indianapolis territory in the third quarter allowed the overmatched and undermanned Colts to crawl back into the game. Both Chris Hogan and Gronkowski turned receptions into turnovers.
It’s hard to believe that less than a week ago there was a feeling that the Patriots’ season was teetering on the edge of disaster after a 1-2 start. Now, they’ve won two games in a span of five days and rebranded their offense with the ascension of Michel, the addition of Gordon, and the reinsertion of Edelman. They piled up 449 yards against the Dolphins and 438 yards against the Colts.
“We have a lot of talented guys, a good offensive line, and a great quarterback,” said running back James White, who had 10 catches for 77 yards and his team-leading fourth touchdown reception. “We have a lot of pieces that can help us get wins as long as everybody goes out and does their job on each and every play.”
Suddenly, the Patriots have gone from no supporting cast to an ensemble offense. It was premature to judge their offensive capability before Edelman returned. He is a No. 1 wide receiver in the Patriots system. He has Brady’s implicit trust.
With Edelman back in the Foxborough fold after serving his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, Brady went 9 for 9 for 78 yards on the opening drive, capping it with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Cordarrelle Patterson.
Brady finished 34 of 44 for 341 yards with three touchdown passes and two interceptions that weren’t his fault. Edelman, who caught all three balls Brady threw his way on the opening drive, including a 9-yard completion on the first play of the game, finished with seven catches for 57 yards.
Edelman is like jumper cables for the Patriots. He charges up everyone.
While the focus was on the return of a proven playmaker, it was two New England neophytes, Gordon and Michel, who provided reason for offensive optimism with the type of chunk plays that have been sparse.
Playing in just his second game as a Patriot, Gordon made his first touchdown memorable and meaningful. It showed the trust that Brady has in him. It showed what he’s capable of if he avoids another suspension from the NFL.
Gordon was an unlikely candidate to be on the receiving end for the 500th touchdown pass of Brady’s career, but the recovering receiver literally rose to the occasion. Gordon became the 71st player to catch a touchdown pass from Brady, an NFL record.
The catch was shades of Randy Moss, as Gordon jumped between defensive backs Chris Milton and Matthias Farley to seize the ball and the momentum. The celebratory spike was shades of Gronk.
“It wasn’t really the way we drew it up, but it ended up being an extended play with two great players making a great play,” said coach Bill Belichick. “Josh has worked hard. Tom has spent extra time working with him and really all of the receivers, backs, and tight ends, as well. It’s good to see that hard work pay off.”
Michel spun his wheels in his first two NFL games after missing the entire preseason with a knee injury. The rookie runner built upon the 25-carry, 112-yard rushing day he had against Miami, racking up 98 yards on 18 carries Thursday.
To paraphrase what Bill Parcells once said about Curtis Martin during his rookie year, let’s not go putting Michel in Canton yet. But calling Michel a bust after two mediocre games was even more silly. Michel is displaying more confidence and burst with each game.
“Oh yeah, he missed preseason, so he missed a lot of game reps,” said White. “The more he is out there, the better he is going to get. He is playing with more confidence. He’ll continue to get better the more he is out there.”
The same should go for the Patriots offense now that it has a full complement of weapons. The conductor of that offense, Brady, made it clear that it isn’t finely tuned yet.
“We scored 38, which is great, but we have more in us this week,” said Brady. “Last week, we scored I think 38. I think we have more in us, and I think that’s what we’re looking at.
“So, we’ve got a lot of room to grow, and we need to make a lot of improvements in a short period of time.”
But it’s hard to ignore the potential that was flashed on a pair of 34-yard touchdowns 131 seconds apart that provided a window into how potent the offense could be.