FOXBOROUGH – It took all of one quarter for some boos to start raining down on the Patriots Sunday afternoon, after their first three offensive possessions ended with the team gaining a total of 31 yards and punting at the end of each.
The reaction was a bit extreme at that early juncture, but for those who were at Gillette Stadium for the team’s Week 2 game against the Jets 10 days earlier, they’d been witness to three straight quarters of offensive ineptitude — nine possessions, and nine punts.
The cheers returned in the second quarter, however, as the Patriots got their first points of the day midway through the quarter, on their way to a 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New England is now 3-0 heading into next Sunday’s prime-time game against the Falcons in Atlanta.
The Buccaneers, the Falcons’ NFC South rival, fell to 0-3, squandering several good chances to put points on the board in the first half, and seeming to lose interest as the game wore on and the score crept out of reach.
Rian Lindell pushed a 38-yard field goal attempt after the Bucs’ first possession wide right. Their second drive stalled in the red zone, but Lindell did convert from 30 yards to get Tampa Bay on the board first.
But perhaps because of Lindell’s miss, the Buccaneers opted to go for it on fourth and 5 from the New England 34 on their third drive, and they went for it again on fourth and 1 from the New England 38 a few minutes later.
Patriots Brandon Spikes and Alfonzo Dennard stopped second-year back Doug Martin short on that play.
Then just before the half Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman made the highly questionable decision of forcing the ball to star receiver Vincent Jackson despite good coverage from Aqib Talib.
Talib was in perfect position for the interception, and New England got close enough in the time left to give Stephen Gostkowski a 53-yard field-goal try, which he made to give the Patriots a 17-3 lead at the break.
The Patriots’ defense continues to play well early in the season, particularly in the second half, holding Tampa Bay to 1 of 6 on third-down tries. For the game, Freeman completed less than 50 percent of his passes (19 for 41, 236 yards).
It was obvious quickly in the preseason that Tom Brady had a bit of an affinity for Kenbrell Thompkins, the undrafted player out of Cincinnati, in a way that he doesn’t always have for his other receivers.
During the Patriots’ extended stay in Philadelphia during training camp, Brady was spotted toward the end of one successful 11-on-11 session pulling Thompkins close, putting his arm around him, and talking over a few things.
It was one of a few such moments for the veteran QB and his young wideout, and not one that was repeated with all of the other receivers on the roster.
Coming out of camp, it was Thompkins, not second-round pick Aaron Dobson or fourth-rounder Josh Boyce who was at the head of the rookie pack, and that was clearly evident in the first game of the season: Dobson sat out against Buffalo in part, though not entirely because of, a hamstring injury, and Boyce was targeted just twice.
But Brady looked Thompkins’s way 14 times against the Bills, though he had just four catches. Against the Jets in Week 2, he was targeted seven more times.
Maybe it was an extreme case of jitters for a player used to playing in front of smaller crowds in the former Big East, but by Sunday against Tampa Bay, it looked like Thompkins had settled down.
In the second quarter, he caught his first touchdown pass, only to add his second before halftime.
On second and 6 from the 16, Thompkins caught a short pass from Brady, made a nice cut, and then bolted past the defense into the end zone. Rather than stop or spike the ball, Thompkins simply turned back toward the New England bench, and the first teammate to stop him was Brady, who happily banged helmets with him.
New England’s next possession was kept alive by an illegal contact call against the Buccaneers, after it looked like Brandon Bolden pulled up on a deep sideline route, not expecting Brady to throw to him, and it got new life again on a pass-interference call against cornerback Johnathan Banks on a pass intended for Dobson.
On second and goal, Thompkins lined up at the right numbers, cut in at the goal line, and was ready for the pass from Brady for another score.
The 25-year old Thompkins finished the game with three catches for 41 yards and the two touchdowns.