5 takeaways from the Patriots’ bounce-back, panic-calming 36-20 win over the Saints

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady greets New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) after an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. The Patriots won 36-20. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
Tom Brady greets Drew Brees after the game in New Orleans. –AP Photo/Bill Feig

COMMENTARY

The Patriots beat the Saints Sunday to even their record at 1-1. Here are 5 takeaways from New England’s rebound win.

BRADY’S ‘BACK’

During its morning pregame show Sunday, the NFL Network teased its audience on the way to a commercial break by asking, “Has Father Time caught up with Tom Brady?” A couple hours later, the quarterback answered that question for them.

No.

At 10 days older than he was in a poor season-opening performance that prompted some to wonder if he was starting to show signs that he’s 40 years old, Brady turned in what the statistics suggest could have been the best first quarter and most productive first half of his storied career. The Patriots scored 20 points in the opening period for the first time in his 237 NFL starts, three scoring passes part of a first half in which he completed 19 of 25 passes for a staggering 302 yards.

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The efficiency of the Patriots’ early attack was as impressive as anything, the offense mounting four scoring series of at least 67 yards, and none of those drives needing four and a half minutes. The offense slowed in the second half, held to six points in part because the Pats converted only one of six third-down chances after a hot start, but Brady still finished with a completion percentage approaching 77 percent and threw for 447 of the team’s 555 total yards from scrimmage.

Quarterback controversy successfully averted.

ASSERTING GRONK

Among the more confounding aspects of Rob Gronkowski’s quiet opener was the way the Patriots didn’t seem to make a concerted effort to involve him on third down. Of Brady’s 12 pass attempts in those circumstances, only two were targeted for his star tight end. Those accounted for each of Gronkowski’s two catches against Kansas City, and for all of his 33 yards in an underwhelming performance.

Particularly with Danny Amendola, giving Gronkowski more opportunity to make an impact was thought to be imperative going into Week 2 – and it was obviously early that the Patriots agreed. On each of New England’s first three third downs where they needed more than five yards Brady looked Gronkowski’s way, and each time the tandem converted. Gains of 12 and 11 yards were sandwiched between a 53-yard touchdown where the quarterback bought enough time for the tight end to curl his way to free space up the right sideline.

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Gronkowski wound up with six catches in total, the last giving him his 24th-career 100-yard receiving effort, and also resulting in a groin injury that forced him onto a stationary bike for New England’s first possession of the fourth quarter. If that ailment forces him off the field, it would leave the Patriots without the three players who combined for 183 of their 336 third-down catches (55 percent) from 2014-16. But assuming Gronkowski is back to take on the Texans, Sunday’s breakout should be a reassurance that the big fella is still capable of being a beast after his latest back surgery.

RAZORBACKS RISE UP

Trey Flowers continues to establish himself as a consistent presence along the Patriots’ defensive line, and based on Sunday another Arkansas product could soon be poised to join him.

Rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. was routinely in the Saints’ backfield, credited with five hits on Drew Brees, including a sack, and making a couple tacks for loss. The fourth-round pick also had a sack in the season opener, following up on the promise he displayed early in training camp, and beginning to step into the more prominent role that seemed to be within his reach before leaving the preseason opener with a head injury.

While Wise and Flowers fortifying the pass rush from the edges, the defensive front as a whole was much better against the Saints than it had been against the Chiefs. After getting gashed for 185 yards, and 6.9 per carry, against KC, the New England halved that per-attempt average by yielding New Orleans only 53 yards on 16 tries before Mark Ingram tacked on 28 yards in garbage time during the final seconds. Linebacker Elandon Roberts played a role in that improvement, making a team-high eight tackles.

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DORSETT’S NECESSARY ARRIVAL

In Brandin Cooks’s return to New Orleans he was actually outdone by the Patriots’ other new receiver, Phillip Dorsett, who caught all three of his targets for 68 yards. Cooks was limited to two grabs for 37 yards, though he did add a 13-yard run and did set an important pick on a third-down play that sprung Chris Hogan for a touchdown.

Dorsett remains a work in progress after coming over from Indianapolis at the end of the preseason, so Sunday’s contributions were a good sign, but the game also served to remind that he’d better keep improving because he’s quickly becoming a critical piece of weaponry. Already down Edelman, Amendola, and Malcolm Mitchell, the Patriots saw Rex Burkhead incurred a rib injury after catching a touchdown on the opening series, saw Hogan limp off the field a few times, saw Gronkowski miss the final few series, and Dorsett, too, spent time in the sideline medical tent.

James White’s eight catches helped cover up the gaps Sunday, and none of the injuries in that game appeared serious on first sight. However, even in racking up 36 points primarily through the air, the Patriots remain precariously positioned in the passing game from a personnel perspective.

BIG PLAYS REMAIN AN ISSUE

The Saints didn’t explode the way the Chiefs did, and mounted only two real drives longer than 50 yards (despite amassing 429 yards in the end). But they still toasted the Patriots defense for six plays of longer than 20 yards, one more than Kansas City had en route to a 42-point outburst at Gillette Stadium.

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore lost his footing on one of those long throws, and Patrick Chung had difficulty sticking with a faster running back at times. There remains cause for concern for a unit that thrived on its ability to limit big gains a year ago.

That said, the defense did step up when needed. The Saints finished four of 12 on third down, and 1 of 2 on fourth down. The Patriots came up with a stop in the red zone, and for all the yards it allowed New England let New Orleans get inside its 20 only three times. Despite missing Dont’a Hightower the communication appeared to be better than it was in the opener, and Jonathan Jones, the team’s fourth cornerback, broke up a couple of passes with nice plays (one of which would’ve been a touchdown). Particularly considering it was up against a will-be Hall of Famer in Drew Brees, Sunday was a step forward for the Patriots’ defense.