ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The danger of losing to the Buffalo Bills was real.
All it would have taken is one simple catch by trash-talking wide receiver Stevie Johnson and the Bills would have been in a position to run out the clock. But he dropped the ball.
There’s more, of course. Here’s our first takeaways of the season:
1. The things the Bills did to help the Patriots win — The Bills were 4 of 13 on third down. They had 10 penalties for 75 yards. They lost two fumbles. Oh, and Johnson, who caught three passes for 39 yards and a touchdown, had one pivotal drop in the fourth quarter. Efficiency and discipline were an issue for the Bills, helping the Patriots overcome their own woes. These aren’t the same Bills, though. All of their errors are correctable. And with better discipline, they could’ve pulled out the win. That Dec. 29 matchup in Foxborough doesn’t seem so easy now.
2. Fragile or tough? — Danny Amendola missed a week of practice and the team’s third preseason game, largely seen as a dress rehearsal for the regular season, because of a groin injury. He was listed as limited in practice this week leading up to the season opener. In the second quarter, he appeared to aggravate the injury, going to the sideline and stretching. And while he missed a few series, he was back in the game in the second half, playing a pivotal role as the Patriots put together a game-winning drive. He caught 10 passes for 104 yards, including two key third-down grabs in the final drive that led to Stephen Gostkowski’s last-second field goal. Amendola has a knock on him for being fragile, something colleague Ben Volin explored in detail for the Globe’s NFL preview section. But on Sunday, he showed he can tough it out.
“He gave it everything he had and that is all you can ask,” said Tom Brady. “I didn’t really expect anything to happen in the second half. I thought he was going to be out for the rest of the game. He showed a lot of toughness, mental and physical, and made some really great plays for us.”
3. Gaining Brady’s trust is going to be hard — If you want to know who Tom Brady trusts, just pay attention to who is getting his passes when the game is on the line. In the team’s final 11-play, game-winning drive, Danny Amendola was targeted four times and Shane Vereen was targeted twice as Brady went 6 for 6 to help set up Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal. In the previous drive, he attempted passes to Kenbrell Thompkins (0 for 2), Amendola (1 for 2), and Julian Edelman (1 for 1).
Thompkins finished the game with four catches for 42 yards. He was targeted 14 times, just as much as Amendola. But his impact, along with that of rookie Josh Boyce (two targets, zero catches), was minimal.
After the game, you could tell Brady was happier with some players more than others, citing the play of Amendola, Edelman, and Vereen in particular.
4. Don’t forget about Julian Edelman — Over the spring and summer, a lot of attention was paid to all the new guys, including Thompkins, Boyce, Zach Sudfeld, and Aaron Dobson. Those new guys tallied four receptions Sunday, all of which went to Thompkins. The usually cheerful and modest Sudfeld appeared grim postgame, as did Thompkins. But it was Edelman, the fifth-year veteran, that appeared to be one of Tom Brady’s most reliable targets, catching seven passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns. He never considered his reliability to ever be up for debate.
“Going into it, I wasn’t thinking about that,” he said. “You’re thinking about the gameplan, coaching assignments, and trying to bring everything from the classroom to the grass.”
5. Stevan Ridley struggles (again) — Ridley went down untouched in the second quarter, slipping on the grass, before coughing up the football. It’s a troubling trend with Ridley, fumbling the ball. He is a talented running back (1,263 yards, 12 TDs in 2012) that can contribute greatly to this team when he isn’t turning the ball over and getting benched.
But his fumbling problem is sometimes exaggerated. He recorded only four fumbles in 2012, which had him tied with full-time running backs Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris, both of whom ran for more than 1,500 yards. For the number of carries Ridley had in 2012 (290), only two players with more carries had fewer fumbles: Adrian Peterson (3) and Arian Foster (3).
Of course, circumstances matter. His fumble in the AFC Championship game was a dagger (he was concussed on the play) and today’s fumble was returned for a 74-yard touchdown. But overall, despite his lapses, he’s been consistent for the Patriots. Before his benching, he was averaging 5.1 yards per carries and broke off a 20-yard run. Who knows what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to make up for the fumble.