Tom Brady was happy the Patriots won Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, but he wasn’t happy. The pursed lips, the pressed smile, the barely discernible moue when talking about the offense’s performance, or lack thereof, that facetious introductory comment about a “riveting performance,” all stood as signs that Brady was swallowing this 16-10 win, as well as his pride. He was not drinking it in.
It’s not pouting. It’s professional pride. It wounds Brady deeply to guide an offense that goes nowhere. He’s a perfectionist. That level of taking the offense’s performance so personally is part of what makes him great. So is his ability to calculate what’s needed to win.
With the offense sputtering and wheezing in Orchard Park, N.Y., Brady reverted to game-manager mode during yet another dominant defensive performance by the Patriots. He can do that, but it’s not what he wants to do at this point in his illustrious career. Too bad, Tom, you might have to embrace it.
With a defense this special and an offense this wounded, Brady should take a Hippocratic oath in the huddle: first, do no harm. Friend of the Franchise President Donald Trump has espoused a political philosophy of “America First.” For the Patriots, their 2019 campaign slogan is shaping up as “Defense First.” This constitutes the new normal of winning in New England, unless wide receiver reinforcements are inbound.
Can Brady come to grips with merely steering a compromised offense out of trouble sometimes and not into the end zone as often as he’s accustomed to, if that’s what is required? Yes. We know Brady can do it because it’s what he did in the early part of his career. (More recently, he did it in Super Bowl LIII.)
Monday marked the 18th anniversary of Brady’s first NFL start and the dawning of an NFL empire on which the sun never sets. It was the first day of the rest of your football lives, Patriots fans. In Brady’s first start, the Patriots defeated Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, 44-13, at Foxboro Stadium. Brady was a pedestrian 13 of 23 for 168 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. The Patriots got a pair of interception returns for touchdowns and three rushing TDs from inside the 10-yard line.
Early in his career, people hung the game manager tag on Brady as if it were some sort of pejorative that discredited him as a truly elite quarterback. But his ability to play to the circumstances of a game is exactly why history hails him as the elite of the elite. He can morph into whatever type of quarterback you need him to be — passing pyrotechnician or tidy custodian of victory.
Statistically, Sunday was far from a quarterbacking clinic by Brady or Buffalo’s Josh Allen. Brady was 18 of 39 for 150 yards and an egregious red-zone interception, his first pick of the season. As the NFL Network’s Mike Giardi pointed out, it was the most passes Brady has attempted in his career in a game in which he failed to either throw a touchdown pass or reach 200 yards. It was an offensive abomination by New England standards.
While the overrated Allen tossed the football all over the field like an errant Frisbee — getting intercepted three times before Jonathan Jones knocked him out of the game with a controversial hit six seconds into the fourth quarter — Brady limited his mistakes and leaned on his defense. It sounds simple, but Allen is living proof that many NFL quarterbacks are constitutionally incapable of doing it. It’s a skill, one Brady has always possessed, and one that his predecessor, Drew Bledsoe, lacked.
By the way, it’s good to know that the Bills and their latest franchise QB pretender are the best competition the AFC East has to offer. Yeesh. The Patriots’ offensive performance Sunday certainly wasn’t the best they have to offer, but injuries to key pieces and personnel deficiencies have trammeled TB and Friends. The rib/chest injury Julian Edelman suffered against the New York Jets in Week 3 looks like a tipping point. Edelman gutted it out Sunday, but, like the offense, he didn’t look full go.
Since scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions against the Jets, the Patriots offense has produced just two touchdowns in 21 drives with Brady at the helm (excluding end-of-game kneeldowns) over almost seven full quarters. Brady has not thrown a TD in any of those 21 drives, which also produced a pair of field goals.
“Whether we win 45-40 or 45-3 or whatever it was today, 16-10, they all count the same,” said Brady. “We’re just going to have to figure out how to do a better job on offense — defense, I know they’re going to play great, they’ve been playing great all season long — and try to score more points.”
Defenders are no longer the second-class citizens of Patriot Place. They’re first in line for praise and first in several NFL defensive categories.
Entering Monday, the Patriots ranked 15th in the NFL in total offense (362.2 yards per game). Since 2004, there have been just two seasons in which the Patriots finished outside the top 10 in total offense. They were 11th in 2006 and 2014. In 2006, the Patriots allowed their fewest points in a 16-game season (237), a record this year’s defense seems destined to break. In 2014, it was the defense that rose up to seal a Super Bowl.
The Patriots can win this way. When Brady won the first of his six Super Bowl titles in 2001, the unit he guided was 19th in total offense. In 2003, when he won his second Super Bowl, the team ranked 17th. Right now, it’s retro football, with coach Bill Belichick’s defense calling the shots.
Still, it’s too early to condemn the Patriots offense. They’re grasping for an identity, and the Bills defense is as legit as it has been since the days of Bruce Smith. Despite a dry patch, the Patriots still entered Monday ranked seventh in the NFL in offensive points scored with 101, which factors in four missed extra points from Stephen Gostkowski. The total could be 105.
The Patriots offense will score more points than the 9 they generated Sunday. Their next two opponents, the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, rank 26th and 23rd, respectively, in total defense.
Woeful Washington is surrendering 29.5 points per game, the second-most in the league. The Giants are allowing 24.2 and were carved up by Allen and Jameis Winston; enough said.
But in a contract year and after a down year by his standards, Brady might have to accept doing less to win more games like Sunday’s as part of the path to a seventh Super Bowl title.
The roles have been reversed — again.
For much of the second act of the dynasty, Brady could’ve claimed the defense as dependents. Now, Brady’s offense finds itself dependent upon the defense. It’s an audible Brady didn’t call, but one he has to execute.