Analysis

3 takeaways as Patriots can’t pull off upset in Tom Brady’s return

The Patriots hung tough with Tom Brady and his seemingly superior Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they once again failed to deliver a signature win.

Patriots Tom Brady Matthew Judon
Patriots linebacker Matt Judon sacks Tom Brady in the second quarter. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Now the Patriots, like the other 31 teams in the NFL, know what it feels like to lose to Tom Brady. Judging by the stunned silence as Brady took his final knees of the game, it didn’t feel that great.

The greatest quarterback of all time added one more little notch to his legend by becoming the fourth quarterback in NFL history to beat all 32 teams, coming back to the house he helped build to stifle the Patriots 19-17.

In the process, Brady also revealed how far his former team has to go in order to approach the lofty standards he’s set there.

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Even on a day when he didn’t play nearly his best, the seven-time Super Bowl champion found a way to make winning plays down the stretch and capitalize when he got his team in position to win.

On the other side, the Patriots let a win that was nearly in their grasp slip through their fingers at home once again, falling to 0-3 at Gillette Stadium to start the 2021 season.

Here are a few big points from the disappointing loss.

Patriots offense trips at the finish line.

It was all right there for Mac Jones to be the hero Sunday night, but he and the Patriots’ offense just couldn’t bring it home.

First, it was the penultimate drive that saw the Patriots storm into the red zone after several chunk plays — only to fall flat on three straight plays inside the 10-yard line.

The Patriots had to settle for a field goal on the must-have-it drive, putting them up just one point at the time.

You already knew what was coming next: Brady led the Bucs offense down the field and took the lead, though the defense still kept Tampa Bay out of the end zone thanks to a great play from Jon Jones to break up a touchdown throw to Antonio Brown.

Jones then had the Patriots in striking position to set up a manageable field goal attempt for the win after a 20-yard pass interference penalty and a clutch first-down conversion to Brandon Bolden.

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But the rookie misfired on a throw to Jakobi Meyers and then had a ball batted down at the line of scrimmage, forcing Nick Folk to come out and attempt a 56-yard field goal in the rain.

Folk’s kick had the leg but clanked off the left upright, breaking his streak of 36 field goals made.

It was a rough way to finish a game in which Mac Jones (31-40, 275 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), not Tom Brady (22-43, 269 yards), was the best quarterback on the field most of the time.

The offense even converted their first two red-zone drives for touchdowns — to tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, of all people — with Josh McDaniels seemingly able to push the right buttons frequently to generate big plays when the offense needed them.

But this is now the second time this season the Patriots’ offense has failed to take care of business with the clock winding down at home in clutch situations. Of course, it just seems to hurt a little extra considering who New England just lost to.

It simply never felt like there was any doubt Brady would get his team the lead at the end of this game. But the Brady-less Patriots still haven’t earned that level of faith.

Two more costly miscues make Patriots pay.

Hope you got a good look at J.J. Taylor when he was out there, because it’s possible you might not see him again for a bit.

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Taylor not only didn’t gain a yard on either of his two touches Sunday, but he fumbled on his short pass reception on a hit from safety Antoine Winfield.

James White’s absence means somebody besides Damien Harris has to be useful at the running back position. But as quick and explosive as Taylor can be in space, he just hasn’t proven he deserves much of a role at this point, especially not if he’s going to put the ball on the ground.

Though the Patriots eventually played over the fumble, they also lost out on a game-breaking turnover of their own because of a mistake by one of their most experienced plays.

Matthew Slater’s hit on a Jaydon Mickens punt return popped the ball loose in Bucs territory and set up what could have been a back-breaking drive by the Patriots’ offense.

The problem: Slater was pushed out of bounds and didn’t immediately try to get back inbounds while covering the punt, which drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and negated the fumble on the play. Despite Slater’s furious objections, the Patriots were forced to punt again instead of getting the football with a prime chance to score.

The Buccaneers proceeded to score their only touchdown of the game on the ensuing possession courtesy of a Ronald Jones 8-yard rush.

After four games, it seems as if this sloppier, more-mistake-prone play is more of a feature than a bug in the Patriots system, and it’s costing them football games.

“In every game we’ve played so far we’ve shown flashes of being a good football team,” Devin McCourty said after the game.

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But as he and the Patriots know, football games are 60 minutes long, and New England hasn’t put together an hour of consistent football yet against a team that’s not the New York Jets.

Running game hurts Patriots on both sides.

Even with a name like Leonard Fournette in their backfield, the Buccaneers did not come into this game running the football very well.

Then again, the Patriots haven’t stopped the run particularly well themselves (24th in rushing yards allowed). So something had to give.

Unfortunately, it was New England’s run defense that blinked.

Fournette had 91 yards on 20 carries (4.6-yard average) to lead a Bucs rushing attack that gained 116 yards on the ground when you take away Tom Brady’s scramble and kneel-downs at the end of the game. That’s now the third game in a row the Patriots have allowed more than 100 yards rushing.

On the other hand, New England’s total rushing output in this game: -1 yard.

For the second straight game, Damien Harris (four carries, -4 yards) was a complete non-factor while the only positive thing you can say about Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor’s performances on the ground was that they weren’t in the negatives (zero rushing yards each).

One telling statistic: the Bucs had eight rushing first downs while the Patriots only had one.

It forced the Patriots to put the game entirely in Mac Jones’s hands. While the rookie played well, that’s not going to work if this team wants to be any good.

Quick hits

  • Injuries and ineffectiveness continue to hurt this Patriots offensive line. Starting left guard Michael Onwenu had to leave the game in the fourth quarter, with backup interior lineman Ted Karras taking his place for the final two drives. The offensive line is already missing starting right tackle Trent Brown and really can’t afford more absences. Speaking of right tackle: both backup right tackles Justin Herron and Yasier Durant gave up sacks on Jones as did left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who simply hasn’t played very well to start the season.
  • Mac Jones’s resilience and efficiency under pressure from a blitz-heavy Bucs defense drew positive reviews again. The most telling thing in McCourty’s eyes: no one is worried about how the rookie will handle moments like this. “He’s in here late,” the safety said. “Trying to know everything you can know. He’s prepared for this moment he wants this moment… he understands and I don’t think the moment is too big for him.” Center David Andrews agreed: “I feel like every time I sit up here I say something (about Mac). He battles, he’s a tough kid.”
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