Here are 36 thoughts on the Patriots’ 36-20 victory over the Saints:
1. I suppose Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will find something to be annoyed about, something that must be improved upon if not outright corrected. I’m sure they were frustrated by scoring just 3 points in the third, or 6 total in the second half, or stalling in the red zone midway through the fourth and settling for a field goal. I’m sure they’ll have lingering small annoyances from the performance that not even Tony Romo can identify. Their unwillingness to tolerate any imperfections is a major reason theirs has become the greatest coach/QB union in history.
2. But … for Patriots fans, the 36-20 victory over the Saints was both satisfying and reassuring at once. It was satisfying because it was the first victory of the season, on the road, against a legendary quarterback in Drew Brees and a Saints team that they clearly respect. It was reassuring because, from the first snap, they looked like the high-octane offense and competent defense we expected them to be all along.
3. Brady and the Patriots came out on fire, just as you hoped and probably expected after the aggravating season-opening loss to the Chiefs last Thursday. The Patriots dropped 30 points in the first half. Brady threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns. Gronk had 95 receiving yards in the first quarter and would have gone over 100 had he held on to the ball in the end zone in the final minute of the second quarter. That’s a heck of a full game for pretty much any other team in the AFC East.
4. Perhaps the most encouraging development (early, anyway) was the reactivation of Gronkowski’s super powers. Gronk looked rusty and plodding against the Chiefs, though that certainly had something to do with the stellar coverage of Eric Berry. I heard from a few people this week who seemed eager to be the first to proclaim Gronk’s demise. Alex Anzalone — that poor mini-Kyle-Turley-looking Saints linebacker – found out firsthand just how exaggerated it was.
5. Gronk scored the Patriots’ second touchdown on a 60-yarder down the right sideline in which Brady, under pressure, made the best flat-footed throw you’ll ever see. The most amusing part of the play was Gronk sidestepping a prone Saints defensive back – I think it was Marshon Lattimore – who clearly didn’t have much interest in impeding Gronk’s path to the end zone after an initial lunge at his legs.
6. Of course, it’s never easy with Gronk. It seems like 60 minutes of football can’t pass without an injury scare, and sure enough, one came around in the third quarter. Tackled after a catch by a pair of Saints, he landed awkwardly on his side, then raised his hand to come out of the game. And New England commenced holding its breath in unison.
7. CBS analyst Tony Romo (who is as excellent as advertised, by the way – I’ll write more on him Monday) immediately speculated it was another back injury for Gronk, who didn’t play after Week 12 last year because of a back injury. If there’s anything Romo knows besides losing playoff games, it’s back injuries.
8. Based on Tracy Wolfson’s sideline report, Gronk was dealing with a groin issue rather than a back problem. That’s not great either, but it’s a heck of a lot better than something related to last year’s devastating injury. Here’s hoping she was right. What’s clear now is that we’re going to be holding our breath every time Gronk is tackled for the rest of his career. We’ve been there for a while, actually.
9. Even by the expected standards of attrition, what’s happened to the Patriots receiving corps two weeks into the regular season is ridiculous. Julian Edelman is out for the year. Malcolm Mitchell is on injured reserve for eight weeks. Danny Amendola is in concussion protocol. Gronk is dinged up. Chris Hogan was limping at the end of the game. Phillip Dorsett, who looks like he may be a help, was getting his knee looked at. Ridiculous. Dwayne Allen and Brandin Cooks had better stay healthy, or Stephen Starring and Irving Fryar may be starting at receiver next week.
10. The most impressive achievement for the Patriots in the entire game might have been how quickly they got the offense off the field and the field-goal team on with 9 seconds left in the half and no timeouts. After a Brady scramble on third down, the offense hurried to the sideline, the kicking team hustled into position, and Gostkowski drilled a 28-yard field goal with 2 seconds left. It was a nice little microcosm of how their attention to every detail can pay off.
11. Gostkowski missed the extra-point attempt after the Patriots first touchdown. We’re going to be doing the suspense thing with those again this year, huh?
12. Austin Carr showed some promise as a slot receiver while in camp with the Patriots, but didn’t survive the massive cutdown to 53 players and was claimed by the Saints. He was inactive Sunday, but given Danny Amendola’s absence due to a concussion and the season-ender to Julian Edelman, it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’d have been active for the Patriots.
13. I don’t think he’d be anything more than a depth piece, though. Between dodging the headhunters and having to read everything the same way Brady does, it’s a tough gig for even a veteran player.
14. It took Edelman a couple of seasons to become a fully trusted and frequently deployed weapon. I’ll wait for Carr to at least make his first career reception before lamenting that he got away.
15. Glad to see that Dion Lewis starting the game as the Patriots’ kick returner and get a handful of touches on offense. Rumors percolated this week that the Patriots might consider trading the dynamic-when-healthy running back, perhaps to the Cardinals. I hope this does not happen.
16. The Patriots are deep at running back now, but it’s a position in which attrition is inevitable. They are going to need Lewis to be a significant contributor at some point. He might be getting some run at wide receiver soon the way things are going.
17. He’s certainly proven capable in the past – there was a point two years ago where only Gronk was more dynamic among Patriots offensive players. Heck, I think most of us figured Lewis, and not James White, would be the third down back that would torment the Falcons in the Super Bowl. And it might have been had Lewis not been injured during the game.
18. The Chiefs game was the first time the Patriots have lost with Lewis in their lineup. He was 17-0 in games played as a Patriot before that.
19. Jonathan Jones, the Patriots’ fourth cornerback who got some acclaim in training camp, had a couple of terrific pass breakups, one in the end zone in the second quarter when Ted Ginn Jr. was the target, and another on the much taller Coleman on the Saints’ second possession in the third.
20. The second breakup proved important when Wil Lutz’s 49-yard field goal attempt clanged off the upright, keeping the Patriots’ lead at 30-13.
21. Speaking of pass-breakups in the end zone, I like to think I’m fairly knowledgeable about the depth charts of the Patriots’ opponents. But I had no idea that Sterling Moore, the hero of the Patriots’ AFC Championship game victory over the Ravens in 2011, was still in the NFL, let alone running around in coverage for the Saints.
22. Cameron Jordan looked like the lone competent Saints defensive player in the first quarter, hitting Brady on a couple of occasions just as he released the pass. If I remember correctly, Jordan was someone the Kipers of the world thought the Patriots would take in the first round of the 2011 Draft.
23. Jordan went 24th to the Saints, seven picks after the Patriots took tackle Nate Solder. Solder was shaky in the first half Sunday, but wasn’t as noticeable in the second half.
24. That first quarter was ticked-off, we’ll-show-you Brady at his best, especially in the first quarter when he went 11-for-15 for 177 yards and three touchdowns. Hard to believe, because it feels like he’s done it a dozen times through the years, but it was the first three-TD first quarter of his career.
25. Seems like an oversight that CBS didn’t have an Adrian Peterson Hate-Stare Cam. He had four carries in the first half, and I can’t remember one of them, though he did pick up a first down on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
26. OK, just a few words on Romo, and a thought on something he did really well for someone so new to broadcasting – the candor seemed to come easily and without hesitation.
27. He has a long history with Saints coach Sean Payton going back to their mutual days in Dallas. But that didn’t prevent Romo from sharing some of the more interesting insights Payton provided him, and that paid off during the broadcast a couple of times.
28. One that stood out: Romo revealed that Payton told him thought Deatrich Wise, the Patriots’ rookie defensive lineman, caught his attention as someone who could be a disruptive force. On the next play, Wise got a good shot in on Brees.
29. Wise wasn’t done, either. He buried Brees on third down to thwart the Saints’ first possession of the second half. I don’t know, maybe the Patriots have more quality on the defensive line than it appeared last week, huh?
30. Brees is an all-time great quarterback. The Saints have plenty of weapons, especially if this Brandon Coleman kid is as good as he looked in the first half, when he had two big catches for 47 yards and a touchdown. They’re usually a machine on the Superdome turf. The Patriots defense was hardly flawless, but they shouldn’t be expected to be in that building against that QB. Twenty points? I’ll take that every time in these circumstances.
31. Hope Eric Rowe’s start over Malcolm Butler at cornerback doesn’t mean anything other than Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia liked his chances in a particular matchup. The possibility of Butler being in the doghouse should be so disheartening to Patriots fans.
32. He’s someone – a genuinely nice person with an all-time rags-to-riches story – who should get through his entire career here without being scathed by any real or imagined drama. At least he did appear to play his normal amount, and play well.
33. Speaking of cornerbacks, is it is too much to ask for a big play or two out of Stephon Gilmore soon?
34. Weirdest play of the game: Brady’s heaved throw on third and 5 with just under 10 minutes in the third quarter that was picked off by Marcus Williams and returned to the 3 yard line. Initially it appeared to be one of the most inexplicable throws of Brady’s career, but it turned out that he’d ID’d that the Saints had 12 players on the field. (Manti Te’o, apparently looking for his girlfriend in the stands, dogged it jogging off.)
35. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported before the game that the Saints were shopping Kenny Vaccaro, who makes $5.7 million in the final year of his contract. Not that there should be much of market for Saints defensive players around the league as it is, but his role as a hapless extra in Gronk’s first-half show couldn’t have done much to help his trade value.
36. Chris Mortensen’s report that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is holding up Roger Goodell’s contract extension, presumably as some sort of payback for the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, is exactly the kind of vengeful tactic Patriots fans wanted from Robert Kraft during Deflategate.