ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Tom Brady took to the podium with a wry grin following the Patriots’ 16-10 win over the Bills on Sunday.
“Where do you want us to start, with that riveting performance?” Brady said, dripping with sarcasm.
Actually, there was one pertinent question that needed to be asked, though I didn’t get to it until the end of the news conference.
With the Patriots’ offense banged up and struggling, did Brady ever think to himself, ‘Boy, I wish we had Antonio Brown out here today?’
“I mean that’s, again, those types of things aren’t, you know, I just got to go out there and do the best job I can do,” Brady said. “I’ve been trying to do that for 20 years now . . . Hopefully we can go out and do a better job and score more points.”
OK, so Brady didn’t want to touch that question. I don’t blame him, since Brown is now a Third Rail topic around Foxborough.
But there has been a lot of talk over the last month, in the Globe and local TV and radio, that the Patriots didn’t really need Brown; that they are the best offense in the NFL without him, and that signing him was just a case of the Patriots being greedy.
Sunday’s win over the Bills should put an end to that argument.
Yes, the Patriots needed Antonio Brown in their offense. Badly.
Robert Kraft made a lot of fans happy when he released Brown two weeks ago because Brown was bad for the team’s image. But there’s no question that losing Brown is a tough blow to an offense that needs a dynamic playmaker.
Brown is an All-Pro receiver who would have put up huge numbers with Brady, and opened up the field for his teammates. According to one report, Brown and Brady went 30 for 30 in Brown’s last practice as a Patriot, before the team released him. There are maybe a half-dozen receivers in the world as talented as Brown is.
Now the Patriots are banged up and struggling, and Brown isn’t here to save the day. If not for a blocked punt touchdown on Sunday, the Patriots may have lost. They certainly don’t look like they can keep up in a track meet with Kansas City.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” receiver Phillip Dorsett said, “but we knew that.”
A suddenly thinning Patriots offense had one of its worst days in the Bill Belichick era. Brady threw for only 150 yards and an interception, just the 30th time in 313 career games he has been held to 150 or fewer. His passer rating was 45.9, the fifth-lowest of his career and lowest since 2006. The offense scored just one touchdown and one field goal in 12 possessions.
The Patriots escaped with a tough road win to improve to 4-0, but not because of the offense. Had they played even a semi-competent quarterback — the Bills’ Josh Allen threw three interceptions and finished with a 24.0 passer rating — the Patriots probably would have lost.
“We just didn’t do a very good job of consistently doing the right thing against a really good defense,” Brady said. “If we’re going to score more points, we’ve got do a lot better job than we did today.”
When everyone is at full health, the Patriots still have an excellent offense. And the Bills deserve a lot of credit, too. They entered the game with a 3-0 record and a top-five defense. Sean McDermott’s aggressive, deceptive unit has given Brady problems in all five of their matchups.
“They made it hard on us like they always do,” Belichick said.
But in the NFL, rarely does a team enter a game in perfect health. Julian Edelman played with bruised ribs. Rex Burkhead played with a foot injury. Tight end Matt LaCosse has an ankle injury. The offensive line has backups at center and left tackle. Fullback James Develin is out for at least eight weeks.
And the offense basically fell apart. The wide receivers were rendered mostly ineffective against the Bills’ strong secondary. Edelman had just four catches for 30 yards, Gordon caught 3-of-7 passes for 46 yards, and Dorsett, who looked unstoppable in the first three games, caught just 2-of-9 passes for 10 yards.
James White added eight catches for 57 yards, and Burkhead had one catch for 7 yards, and that was it. No tight end caught a pass, and neither of the two rookie receivers got involved. By the end of the second quarter, Brady was just chucking the ball deep, hoping for a flag. That’s usually a sign the Patriots’ offense was out of answers.
The Patriots needed someone to make a big play, and with Edelman playing hurt, they didn’t really have anyone to step up. The Patriots only had two passes over 20 yards. If only they had Brown to attract coverage and open up the field.
The run game has become an even bigger mess. The Patriots gained just 74 yards on 23 carries (3.2 average), and 15 yards came on the first carry of the game. Take out that run, and the Patriots averaged just 2.68 yards per carry.
The Patriots can’t run the ball in short-yardage situations, either. They had to rely on trickery — an end-around to Brandon Bolden from the 4-yard line, and a quick screen to Gordon just to get off their goal line. The Patriots had two possessions inside the Bills’ five, and came away with a field goal and an interception.
Losing Develin and two offensive linemen has certainly hurt. But having Brown in the lineup would have helped open up the run game, too.
I asked Brady if he felt a little shorthanded.
“I think we’re all just trying to improve, do the best we can do,” he said. “But, glad we won, and glad we’re 4-0.”
The good news for the Patriots is they still have some easy games coming up to work out some kinks — at Washington, home vs. the Giants, and at the Jets. By the time they get to the hard part of the schedule — a five-week stretch in November and December that includes Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, and Kansas City — the lineup and injury situation could look completely different.
But the Patriots’ offense has several glaring issues right now. And there’s no question this team sure could use Antonio Brown.