Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 16-10 take-it-and-move-on triumph over the Bills, which left Bill Belichick proud of his team in spite of its flawed performance…
GET USED TO WINNING THIS WAY
Tom Brady stepped to the podium in Buffalo late Sunday afternoon, gritted through a few smiles, delivered a few subtle self-deprecating quips, and ultimately declared the result “a great win.”
Great might be overstating it a bit. But, more or less, he’s right.
Great or not, Sunday’s win is exactly the type of win the Patriots didn’t get last year — and exactly the type that could become a hallmark of the way the Patriots win games this year.
At this time a year ago, during visits to Detroit, then a bit later to Nashville, the Pats appeared to be a team that struggled to go on the road and pull out wins without playing their best football. For several years, leading right into last February’s Super Bowl, they were often a club that had some trouble escaping triumphantly when their offense was limited by the opposing defense.
But based on the way the 2019 Patriots are built, Brady and his fan base may need to get used to getting their victories in the fashion of Sunday’s grinder at Buffalo.
It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, and it was never comfortably in hand until Matt Barkley’s altered throw floated into the intercepting arms of Jamie Collins with less than two minutes to play. It required the Pats to score all 16 of their points off of turnovers, including a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. And it probably required each of the four interceptions thrown by Bills quarterbacks.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 29, 2019
But in the end, the Patriots won with their defense and with their depth. Until there’s a representative running game to go with Brady’s right arm, those are the Pats’ greatest strengths — and where the difference between themselves and much of the NFL most clearly exists.
Time will tell where the Bills fit within the football hierarchy, but they came in unbeaten, and this season was never going to be as easy as the Patriots opening the year by outscoring foes 106-3 might’ve made it seem. A tough contest was to be expected Sunday, and that’s exactly what the Patriots got. They entered a difficult environment against a tough team playing confidently, and they were challenged throughout the 60 minutes.
In the big picture, that they handled all that well enough to get to 4-0 matters far more than the numbers or the narrowness of the margin.
THE PASSING GAME NEEDS TO BE A COMPLEMENTARY PIECE
It has been suggested in this space (and others), both before and after the circus’s 11-day stint with the Patriots, that the Patriots offense didn’t need Antonio Brown to be good enough for the team to be a Super Bowl favorite. Even after Sunday, it’s still a statement worth standing by.
But it was a statement made with the expectation that the running game would be a strength for the Pats — and until that facet becomes at least respectable, New England is subject to struggle against good defenses.
The Bills are just that, a good defense, and deserve credit. The job they did Sunday is consistent with the way they’ve played through the first quarter of this season, which follows a 2018 campaign in which they yielded the second-fewest yardage in football a year ago. That the Pats entered their 10th possession averaging a measly four yards per play wasn’t entirely an indictment on the ineffectiveness of their attack.
However, as they slogged their way through — with six three-and-outs among their first 10 possessions — the Pats far too often looked like a team overwhelmed by the challenge in front of them. They lacked answers for pretty much everything, and Brady had nowhere to turn when he needed a play to extend a drive, or even to simply start one. Part of it may have been the chest injury that Julian Edelman was playing through, but beyond that the quarterback connected on just five of 16 throws to Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon. He didn’t even try throwing to a tight end. Everything else was to a running back.
There should be enough weaponry among those three receivers plus James White and the back-soon Ben Watson for Brady to be effective through the air — but there’s probably not enough in that group to carry the entire load. It’s better suited to be complementary, and capable of seizing opportunities created after the defense has been softened up on the ground.
When that doesn’t happen, we see what we saw Sunday: Brady throwing balls away because the timing has been disrupted; the QB spinning before he throws, almost blindly; and the longstanding tell-tale of offensive frustrations for the Pats, the desperate heave with no better hope for third-and-long.
The debate over Brown isn’t going anywhere. The Pats’ trip to Buffalo suggests it could last all season, because Sunday isn’t likely to be the last game like it this year. But the reason Brady finished with 21 incompletions isn’t entirely the fault of him or his receiving corps.
It’s because the running game was so unimpressive he needed to throw the ball 39 times.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE STRUGGLES
The most surprising stat of the day has to be that Brady completed less than 50 percent of his pass attempts. It’s just the 15th time it’s happened in the 271 regular-season games in which he’s thrown at least 10 passes.
Those who watched the game might find the second-most surprising Brady-centric stat to be that the quarterback wasn’t sacked in the game.
The shock there comes because it seemed as though he spent the entire day scrambling away from danger or getting rid of the ball before a route of any depth could really develop.
Sunday stood out as the first game this season that the Patriots’ makeshift offensive line appeared to be a serious problem. Through the first three weeks, the line certainly shouldered some of the burden for the fact the Pats ranked 28th in yards per rushing attempt, but the group mostly held up in the passing game.
That changed against the Bills’ stout defensive front, which repeatedly overwhelmed the left side of the Pats’ offensive line — the edge manned for the moment by journeyman Marshall Newhouse, who’s on his eighth team in a 10-year career — and sent Brady rolling right with regularity. That appeared to be the plan, as rarely did the quarterback find any opportunity on that side of the field, and on top of several rushed throws he was whistled for one intentional grounding and probably deserved another.
It was a wrinkle in the tried-and-true tenet that the best way to beat Brady is to get him off his spot by bullrushing the Patriots up the middle, but its effectiveness could shine a light on Marshall and Brady’s blind side as an exploitable vulnerability. With no Trent Brown, David Andrews, Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James Develin or Isaiah Wynn — at least any time soon — New England was already taking steps to help the line on Sunday, using Jakob Johnson at fullback and enlisting an extra tackle at times, but between Brady’s happy feet and a grand total of 74 yards on 23 rushing attempts (3.2 per), the performance says it still wasn’t enough.
PLAYMAKERS MAKE TIMELY PLAYS
There isn’t a lot that’s overtly comparable between James White and J.C. Jackson. The former is a running back whose personality tends to slide under the radar. The latter is a cornerback who plays with a brashness and a swagger.
But what unifies them is that their status as playmakers. And they delivered the biggest plays of the Patriots win Sunday.
White set up New England’s first touchdown by beating a linebacker in single coverage and holding on through the defender’s hands to haul in a 26-yard catch during the first quarter. That not only positioned Brandon Bolden to run it in from the 4, but it also converted a tricky third-down try, which became an increasingly difficult task as the afternoon continued. The Pats finished just 5-for-18 on third down, but White was responsible for three of those conversions himself.
Jackson’s biggest play was the blocked punt that Slater scooped and scored on — although his two interceptions each enormous, as well. The first came at New England’s 10, with Buffalo holding a belief they could threaten down field, then the latter coming as the Pats clung to a three-point lead in the third quarter. Niftily hanging on as he navigated the sideline, his pick set up the Patriots with precious field position, and they proceeded to turn that into a field goal.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 29, 2019
Those were the only points the visitors scored over the final three quarters of play. The Pats needed to make something happen. They needed someone to play. And Jackson has joined White as one of the guys they can count on to make that happen.
JOSH ALLEN IS NOT GOOD
Those who’d heard the hype about the Bills’ 3-0 start may have been led to believe that Josh Allen had taken a second-year leap, and improved enough behind center to make the Bills viable competitors at the top of the AFC.
If so, you were misled.
Allen creates some challenges for opposing defenses, who need to respect his big arm and fleet feet. His problem is that he trusts those talents too much, and it gets him into trouble.
At one point early Sunday afternoon the Patriots secondary had caught two of Allen’s passes, compared to one catch by a Bills’ receiver, and with his three-pick performance he’s now the owner of a three-to-six ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions on the season.
He did become the first player to score a touchdown against the New England defense this season, using his 6-foot, 5-inch length to get the nose of the ball to the goal line on a fourth-down leap, though too often he fled his pocket without seeming to have much of a plan, and was sacked four times. That doesn’t account for the errant throws his hyperactivity rendered, either.
Aside from one impressive series at the start of the second half, Allen didn’t look to have a grasp on what the Patriots were presenting him across the line of scrimmage, and struggled to diagnose things. Add that to his skittishness and inaccuracy, and in spite of what the record says the AFC East is still Brady — then a wide chasm to the next-best quarterback.