Monday, September 23, 2013

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3 New England Patriots 23

Brady celebrates with Thompkins after the first
of the rookie's two touchdown catches on the day

What: Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New England Patriots, NFL Week 3

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA

When: 22 September 2013

We will learn a lot more about the 2013 New England Patriots in the next three games (at Atlanta, at Cincinnati, vs. New Orleans) than we have so far in the first three. But Patriots fans breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday when the Patriots finally started looking like the Patriots again after an uneven performance in the team's first two games. The wins against the Bills and the Jets were close contests that could have gone either way; the Patriots weren't lucky to win those games (they made fewer mistakes in the fourth quarter in each contest) but they are games that they easily could have lost. Not so on Sunday, in a game that marked the Pats' best all-around performance since the 41-28 shellacking of the Texans in January.

This isn't a complete team yet, but the main sign of progress that was expected -- a better rapport between Tom Brady and his receivers -- was evident on Sunday. Whereas Brady was reluctant to go to his new targets in the red zone early in the season (recall that both TDs against the Bills were on red-zone passes to Julian Edelman), both Pats TDs against the Bucs went to Kenbrell Thompkins, a man who caught just 4 of the 14 passes thrown his way two weeks ago. Tampa Bay prevented a certain third touchdown to Aaron Dobson in the third quarter with some nice pressure at the goal-line, but the important takeaway was that Brady was looking for the rookie in the end zone on that play.

I can't sit here and say that the connection (or lack thereof) between Brady and his new teammates was the reason for the Pats' shaky start. Whether he trusted them or not, Brady had no choice but to throw to Dobson and Thompkins in the last two games, and Brady is not the kind of player who will force a throw to a double-covered favorite of his rather than pass to a wide-open lesser receiver (though I do recall one pass where Brady threw a pass to the sideline into coverage instead of hitting one of two wide open receivers streaking down the middle of the field). Brady was going to make the correct throw, and if his wideout couldn't make the play, there's nothing Brady could have done about it. But I've got to imagine that the improvement in his receivers' performance against Tampa Bay was only a good thing for Brady. Like Peyton Manning, Brady is a perfectionist, and his frustration against the Jets in Week 2 was evident for all to see. Once it becomes second nature for Brady to hit his rookies, he'll have one less thing to worry about in the pocket, allowing him to focus on the relatively simple tasks of diagnosing the coverage, evading pressure, making his reads and throwing the ball into space. (To be clear, the end of that sentence was sarcastic: playing quarterback in the NFL is hard.)

Some more thoughts from the game:

Why the Patriots won

  • I mentioned it above, but a better overall performance from the receivers (fewer drops, less miscommunication on routes) had a dramatic effect on the Patriots' offense. Brady's overall numbers weren't earth-shattering (25-for-36, 225 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), but his completion percentage (69%) was far superior to what he posted against the Bills (56%) and Jets (49%).
  • Bill Belichick's teams are known for their ability to play situational football. What that means, essentially, is that they are constantly aware of the clock and game situation and use this knowledge to adjust the goals of each play accordingly. No series embodied this better than the final seconds of the first half. Trailing 14-3, Tampa Bay had 1st and 10 from its own 31 with 16 seconds remaining in the half. Josh Freeman (showing a lack of situational awareness) threw underneath intended target Vincent Jackson, where Aqib Talib was waiting for the interception (his third in two weeks). Freeman needs to know that the one thing he can't do in that situation is turn the ball over and the way to avoid that is by eschewing the underneath throw for a pass with more loft. If it goes out of bonds, fine, but Freeman couldn't afford a pick there. Talib, on the other hand, gambled for a turnover on the play, knowing he had some field to work with and that there wasn't much time left for TB to get in field goal range. He made a good play on the ball, but he was able to do that because he was aware of the situation and knew the risk-reward ratio of his decision was weighted heavily toward reward. Taking over with 11 seconds remaining at the TB 43, New England needed about seven yards to justify attempting a field goal. Brady threw a quick pass to Brandon Bolden (who played a solid all-around game on Sunday) for three yards and called timeout. On the next play, with six seconds remaining, Brady ran a sneak up the middle for five crucial yards, allowing NE to call timeout with three ticks left. Brady is the master of the QB sneak, and this one was even more effective because TB likely expected a short pass rather than a running play, let alone a QB sneak. On the final play of the half, Stephen Gostkowski tied his career long with a 53-yarder. The points didn't end up making a difference, but the way each team reacted to the situation showed the difference between NE and TB on Sunday.
  • The pass rush was solid (3 sacks, 8 hits) -- not as good as last week against the Jets, but better than it was against Buffalo. Stalwart linebacker Jerod Mayo had a great game, recording nine tackles, including a sack and a tackle for loss. The Pats got also another sack from Chandler Jones (his third on the season).
  • The Pats had their best rushing day of the season, with 33 carries going for 156 yards (4.7 ypc). Stevan Ridley wasn't particularly effective (11 carries, 35 yards) but both LeGarrette Blout (14 carries, 65 yards) and Brandon Bolden (3 carries, 51 yards) looked good behind the Pats' O-line.
  • Gostkowski had a good day at the office, tying his career long with the 53-yarder and adding makes from 46 and 33.
  • You can quibble that the Bucs missed some opportunities and that they're a bit of a mess right now, but the defense was very good overall. They didn't allow Doug Martin to bust any big plays (no run over 12 yards) and Freeman completed just 19 of 41 passes. Most importantly, the Pats only surrendered three points, total.
Why the Buccaneers lost
  • Injuries to the Bucs' top wideouts, Jackson and Mike Williams, really hurt them in the second half. Without them, Freeman was forced to rely on Eric Page and Kevin Ogletree, not exactly a winning formula. Tampa looked good moving the ball on the Patriots in the first half and should have come away with more points than they did. Not so in the second half, as they were largely shut down by the New England defense.
  • Missed opportunities. Tampa missed an easy opportunity to draw first blood when Rian Lindell missed wide right from 38 yards on their first possession. The Bucs then had to settle for three on their second drive after having 1st and 10 from the NE 15. As I mentioned in my Tulane-Syracuse recap, good quarterbacks get touchdowns in the red zone. Tampa had to settle for field goals (or missed field goals). Tampa then failed on fourth down their next two possessions (4th and 5 from the NE 34 and 4th and 1 from the NE 38, both good decisions and bad execution) before Freeman's costly INT before the break. That second fourth down failure was immediately preceded by a costly drop by Jackson that would have given TB a first and goal situation. That was all five Tampa possessions in the first half. I'll talk a little bit more about the final one in my next point, but when you're able to get that close to scoring range every time, you want to have more than just three points, total, to show for it. 
  • I mentioned that Freeman's bad decision gifted the Pats three points before the half, but Greg Schiano's playcalling also has to be questioned in that situation. Tampa took over at their own 20 with 47 seconds to play in the first half and two timeouts. They ran the ball on first down for five yards; 25 seconds elapsed before they got the next play off. Instead of kneeling, however, Freman attempted a deep pass that fell incomplete. On third and five, TB picked up the first down with a short throw to Tim Wright and called timeout. They still only had the ball at their own 31, but elected to throw another short pass to Jackson on 1st and 10 with 16 seconds left. So the sequence was as follows: run, deep pass, short pass, short pass (INT). What was Greg Schiano trying to do there? That sort of incoherent playcalling suggests no larger plan and looks embarrassing compared to the Patriots' precise playcalling once they took over possession. Run plays there end the half; deep passes mean that interceptions at least don't give NE great field position. A run play followed by short passes doesn't make any sense and Schiano was punished for it.
  • The result of the above play was that Tampa entered the second half down two touchdowns and had to throw on most plays. New England knew it was coming, dealt with it effectively and shut out the Bucs over the final 30 minutes. If Tampa took its opportunities in the first half, it could have been an entirely different ballgame.
  • More free Patriots points: the Pats had 3rd and 19 at the TB 44 in the third quarter. Brady threw a short pass to Michael Hoomanawanui, which safety Mark Barron should have stopped easily for a short gain. But Barron blew the tackle, allowing Hoomanawanui to pick up 16 yards on the play, getting NE well within field goal range. Gostkowski made the ensuing 46-yarder to put NE up 20-3.
  • Tampa was 0-for-4 on fourth down attempts.
These sections will be shorter than usual, because I feel the right teams won on Sunday.

Why the Patriots could have lost
  • I know that criticizing Brady borders on heresy in New England, but I've noticed that he's been short on a lot more throws than normal through three games. His interception at the goal-line in the third quarter also prevented NE from scoring at least a guaranteed field goal. Some of his struggles have been due to the receivers, but Brady hasn't shown the crispness and pinpoint accuracy on his passes that we've come to expect. I'm not panicking, but Brady is 36 years old and it's something that bears watching for the rest of the season.
  • Bolden gave up on a sideline route in the second quarter that could have resulted in a big gain for New England. Brady was justifiably furious with his Bolden, as his pass sailed several yards in front of him -- exactly where Bolden would have been if he had run hard for the entire play.
Why the Buccaneers could have won
  • I think the "Why the Buccaneers lost category" epitomizes this pretty well -- they made several costly errors that gifted New England points and could not capitalize when they were able to move the ball on the Patriots' defense. I would not want to be a Bucs player forced to rewatch this one in film study this week.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Tulane 17 Syracuse 52

Hunt won his first career start as the Orange rolled Tulane

What: Tulane vs. Syracuse, NCAA football Week 4

Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY

When: 21 September 2013

Syracuse looked like a different team on Saturday, and it wasn't just the new two-tone helmets the players were sporting. With redshirt sophomore Terrel Hunt making his first career start, the Orange (2-2) scored touchdowns on five of their first six drives to roll to a blowout win at home. Though this game wasn't a "measuring stick" game -- Tulane is coming off a 2-10 season and lost to South Alabama two weeks ago -- one thing was undoubtedly proven. Terrel Hunt is the right man to be leading this team right now.

With apologies to Drew Allen (who I have repeatedly confused with Patriots punter Ryan Allen), Hunt showed more promise in his first two drives on Sunday than Allen has in any of his four outings so far this season. His stat line gives a pretty accurate picture of how Hunt played -- 16-for-21, 175 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs. Hunt was given the benefit of fantastic field position on three drives, starting at the Tulane 6-, 15- and 17-yard lines. But he did what any quarterback worth his salt has to do in that situation and got Syracuse into the end zone all three times. As his line suggests, Hunt didn't make many mistakes and capitalized on his opportunities.

Two plays in particular impressed me. The first was Syracuse's first touchdown, a 15-yard pass from Hunt to Jerome Smith under three minutes into the game. Hunt was under pressure; in fact a defender pretty much had him in his grasp by the time Hunt released it. But the QB kept his eyes downfield and found Smith in space just past the yard of scrimmage. From there, the 6'0", 225-lber rumbled to the end zone to give the Orange a 7-0 lead.

The second play was Syracuse's fourth TD, at 13:39 of the second quarter. The drive had begun with great field position as Tulane punt returner Kedrick Banks gifted the Orange the ball at the Tulane 15.  Hunt's pass went incomplete on first down  and Smith lost a yard on second down, giving Syracuse 3rd and 11 from the Tulane 16. Hunt dropped back to pass and, after going through his progressions, tucked it and ran with the ball. He blew by one Tulane defender, giving him a clear path to the end zone. Hunt bumped into a teammate as he launched himself toward the end zone, and by the time his acrobatics had ceased, he had his second career rushing touchdown and the Orange had a 28-10 lead.

The first play stood out to me because it showed Hunt's calm in the face of the rush and his patience. If Hunt waited a fraction of a second longer, he probably would have taken a sack on that play. But he was able to get the ball out to the best option in time, and Syracuse was better off for it. The second play may have impressed me more given the situation. If you're given the ball on the opponent's 15-yard line, anything but a touchdown is a disappointment. On third and long, it would have been easy for Hunt to force something into the end zone, but instead he made the right read and took off for the touchdown. It wasn't just that Hunt scored; it's that he took what would have been viewed as a "losing" possession -- losing yards and settling for the field goal after inheriting great field possession -- and turned it into a win. That's the kind of response great quarterbacks make in those circumstances.

I know the last few paragraphs read like a love letter to Terrel Hunt, but I promise I'm not getting delusional. Syracuse beat up on two bad teams the last two weeks and was thoroughly outplayed two weeks ago against No. 18 Northwestern (and before you blame Drew Allen, remember that the defense gave up 48 points in that game to a team missing its star running back). And the scoreline against Tulane was inflated somewhat because Tulane gave up four massive plays on special teams that resulted in a ton of points for Syracuse.

The Orange now have two weeks to prepare for the ACC opener against No. 3 Clemson, but that's a game that the Orange will lose even if Hunt is at his best. What I'm more interested in seeing is how Hunt and this team fares over the remaining seven conference games, which will determine if this team can get to a bowl -- and if they could become a semi-serious threat next year with Hunt at the reins.

PS. I recognize that the quarterback is not the only player on the field that matters and that the Syracuse defense did a good job of pressuring Tulane QB Nick Montana (yes, son of Joe) all day. And that there were a bunch of other components to the win other than Hunt's performance. But because how Hunt plays for the rest of the season will have the biggest impact on how this team does (and because I didn't want to write a 2,000-word piece breaking down Tulane vs. Syracuse) I chose to focus this piece on Hunt. If you want a well-rounded game report and analysis, check out my Buccaneers-Patriots post (coming Monday).

Friday, September 13, 2013

New York Jets 10 New England Patriots 13

This was a familiar sight for Patriots fans on Thursday night

What: New York Jets vs. New England Patriots, NFL Week 2

Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA

When: 12 September 2013

I've watched pretty much every Patriots game for the last three years (okay, longer than that, but let's focus on those three). In that span, New England has finished 1st, 3rd and 1st in the NFL in points per game. As much as Pats fans would like to claim that their defense has continually improved, New England cannot depend on that group against good teams. To beat the tough teams on their schedule (beginning in Week 4 with a brutal stretch of @Atlanta, @Cincinnati and home for New Orleans), the Patriots have to outscore them. Yes, that sentence is tautological, but you get what I mean: the New England offense must outplay its opposition for the Patriots to have success. 

In 2012, New England allowed an average of 20.7 points per game, 9th in the NFL. But in the six games against playoff teams last year (in the regular season), that average jumped to 25.8 points per game. Not surprising -- playoff teams generally have better offenses than non-playoff teams, so everything else being equal, the Patriots should allow more points against playoff teams. 

What was odd was how the Patriots did on offense against those same playoff teams. In 2012, New England scored an average of 34.8 points per game, 1st in the NFL. But in the six games against playoff teams last year, that average also jumped, to 36.5 points per game. That's strange in and of itself. But then consider that the Patritos played three of the four stingiest defenses (by points per game) last year. Seattle, San Francisco and Denver collectively averaged 16.8 points allowed per game last year. New England averaged 29.3 points against those three teams, a mark that would have placed them 3rd in the NFL if they held that rate for the entire season. Yes, the sample size is small (with a 16-game season, most results-based samples are small in the NFL), but the message is clear -- New England relies on its offense to win games against good teams. 

You'll hear a lot of people saying that "style points don't matter in the NFL" and that the most important number for New England right now is 2 -- as in 2-0. But in the opening weeks of the NFL season, style points are important. The first two games give a coach 120 minutes of film to see what he's working with. There is plenty of evidence of teams starting poorly and still putting together a successful season -- look no further than the 2001 Patriots, who started 0-2 and ended that season by winning the Super Bowl. The reason why they were able to improve wasn't just the insertion of Tom Brady into the starting lineup (look at his numbers -- Brady was in the "game manager" phase of his career). Rather, Bill Belichick was able to use the film from those first two games to determine which areas the Patriots needed to improve on moving forward. Now, 12 years later, he will look to do the same thing.

Unfortunately for Belichick, the biggest way the Patriots can improve right now is also the hardest to accomplish -- getting healthier. You can coach up players to a degree, but you can't trot a 50% Rob Gronkowski out there and hope to have success (see: Super Bowl XLVI). Both Gronkowksi and injured wideout Danny Amendola would significantly upgrade a receiving corps that submitted what has to rank as one of the poorest pass-catching performances of the Brady era on Thursday against the Jets. Forget about the win, forget about Aqib Talib's three forced turnovers, forget about the defense's four sacks. The biggest takeaway by far was the poor play of New England's two rookie wide receivers, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins (Julian Edelman was much more reliable, but even he made a couple mistakes). The two were targeted a combined 17 times and hauled in just five balls. It's not fair to expect a pair of rookies to catch everything thrown their way, but I would estimate that five to ten of those incompletions were drops. Those drops weren't all easy plays, but they were plays that above-average NFL receivers make about 70-80 percent of the time. Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are not above-average NFL receivers. 

They will get better (it will be hard for them to get much worse), but that will take time, time New England doesn't have. Tom Brady is 36 and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He gives you a chance to win the Super Bowl every year. But all athletes have an expiration date. Eventually, his play will begin to slip. It could happen this season, or four years from now. With great athletes, you never know. The Patriots cannot afford to waste a year of Brady's prime -- of which there are an indeterminate, but undoubtedly small number left -- by surrounding him with precisely one receiver that he trusts (Edelman). Gronkowski and Amendola will ameliorate things when (if?) they come back, but they were known injury risks heading into the season. Belichick had no contingency plan, and now we're here. 

Now onto my thoughts on the game:

Why the Patriots won

  • The New England defense relied on one of its favorite strategies: forcing turnovers. New England was outgained in almost every category: rushing yards (129 to 54), passing yards (189 to 178) and first downs (15 to 9). The Jets were even better on third-down conversions, normally a Patriots strength. But New England forced four turnovers to the Jets' zero ("forced" might be a generous term for Geno Smith's final two interceptions), and that allowed them to win the game. The turnovers were more the Jets' fault than the Patriots -- except the first one, for which Talib deserves credit for making a quick recovery. Talib did get beat one or two other times in coverage, but any time you win and force three turnovers, it's a good day. But, as Bill Belichick would say, "the Patriots made more plays than the Jets."
  • Likewise, New England did a good job holding onto the ball (when they were able to catch it) and surrendered no turnovers, even in monsoon-like conditions in the second half. Geno Smith essentially played Tom Brady to a draw through three quarters, but the difference between the two quarterbacks was that Brady made none of the poor throws that Smith did. All three of his picks were bad throws -- Brady made no such mistakes.
  • Julian Edelman had an outstanding game. He made a couple mistakes -- notably a miscommunication with Brady when he failed to extend a route in the first quarter -- but played very well overall, catching 13 balls for 78 yards. The rest of the Pats' receiving corps combined for just six catches. Edelman deserves major props for making some tough grabs over the middle and for remaining effective even when it became apparent that he was the only receiver that Brady trusted.
  • After failing to pressure Buffalo rookie QB E.J. Manuel in the season-opener, the Patriots' pass rush was much-improved against the Jets' rookie Smith. Though Belichick doesn't like to blitz a ton, New England still generated pressure by having players such as Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones move laterally before rushing, allowing them to attack different gaps in the line. The plan worked, allowing Jones to collect two sacks and linemen Tommy Kelly and Michael Buchanan to grab one each.
  • The O-line did a better job protecting Brady, surrendering just one sack and giving Brady more time to throw than last week, even against a good Jets' front. Brady still felt the heat at times, but this unit's performance was miles better than what they showed against the Bills.

Why the Jets lost

  • Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. On the first turnover of the game, a fumble, Talib was beaten for a 33-yard completion to Stephen Hill, but was able to dislodge the ball while taking Hill down. That changed what would have been a Jets' first and ten at the NE 48 to a Patriots' first and ten from the NYJ 8. The Pats would get a field goal on that drive -- good enough for the winning margin in a three-point game. The Jets' next turnover was similarly critical. Trailing 13-10 with 11:30 to play in the game and facing third and five at the NE 27, Smith lobbed a pass toward Santonio Holmes.. But Smith failed to lead Holmes enough with his throw, leaving it behind him and allowing Kyle Arrington to deflect it upwards for Talib to pick off. Smith made the right read and if that ball is thrown correctly, it's a first down at the NE 10. An incompletion and the Jets at least have a shot at a makeable 44-yard field goal. (It was raining heavily in the second half, but 44 yards would still have been attainable -- though not guaranteed -- in those conditions.) Instead, they saw what would be their best chance at tying/winning the game evaporate. The Jets would get the ball back three more times but not get further than their own 46. Smith's two other picks didn't come in scoring range but were still badly-underthrown balls that killed potential game-tying/winning drives.
  • It's easy to forget because the Patriots receivers were somehow worse on Thursday and because we take the Jets' awfulness for granted, but New York's receiving corps was poor. But that shouldn't come as a surprise when your top three wideouts are a just-back-from-injury Holmes, Hill and Clyde Gates. Smith was just 15-for-35 passing, and while some of those -- including the three interceptions -- were on him, the Jets' receivers didn't do him many favors, either.
  • The Jets bit about as hard as I've ever seen a team bite on a play fake on New England's touchdown. On third and two early in the game at the NYJ 39, the Pats hurried up to the line in a run formation, with an extra offensive lineman and Edelman and Dobson tight to the line on the left and right, respectively. They sent everyone to the right and the Jets bit, hard. Dobson -- on his first NFL snap -- slipped out unnoticed and was the recipient of an easy throw over the top from Brady for a 39-yard TD. 

Why the Patriots could have lost

  • You can probably guess what I'm going to say based on my intro: the receiving corps. Too many dropped balls. Too many misrun routes. Too much miscommunication. The Patriots barely survived against the Jets; if they can't improve, they'll really struggle next week against Tampa Bay and Darrelle Revis
  • Stephen Gostkowski had a good shot at extending the Pats' 13-3 lead right before haltime but shanked a 43-yarder to the left as time expired. It was an ugly-looking kick and could have been a costly mistake if not for the Jets' turnovers.
  • Any time you're relying on turnovers to win, it's a bit risky. The Patriots traditionally are more careful with the ball than their opponents, but Smith was able to move the ball on them in the second half and looked fantastic in leading a 9-play, 58-yard TD drive midway through the third quarter. A solid performance overall from the D, but they could have been vulnerable to a better quarterback.
  • The Pats struggled on third down and in the red zone. In 2012, they led the league in third-down conversions (48.7 percent) and red-zone TD percentage (70 percent). They were just 4-for-18 on third down on Thursday and 0-for-2 on red-zone TDs.

Why the Jets could have won

  • Vince Wilfork did not have one of his best games as Jets left guard Vladimir Ducasse did some solid work on the big man in the middle. The Jets' per-carry average was identical to Buffalo's a week ago (4.0) but the difference between the games is that New England had success running it against the Bills (4.5 ypc) and none against the Jets (2.3 ypc). That edge in the running game helped the Jets almost pull off the upset, and Ducasse certainly played a role in it. 
  • Rex Ryan trusted Smith a bit more than Doug Marrone trusted Manuel last week, allowing the rookie to test the Patriots deep several times. Though it came back to bite him in the end, Smith threw for gains of 37, 34 and 27 and added a 16-yard scramble for a first down. Through three quarters, he looked promising. In the fourth, he looked like a rookie.
  • On the Jets' third possession of the game, they appeared to have a touchdown when Smith connected with Gates for a 9-yard score. The ball popped out in the process, but it was never shown to hit the ground and it wasn't clear that Gates lost possession to New England's Jerod Mayo. Since the initial ruling was touchdown, the best call probably would have been to stick with that, since evidence must be irrefutable for the call on the field to be overturned. But the call was overturned, and New York had to settle for three, not seven.

Final thought

I didn't like the Jets' strategy of going without a punt returner. The obvious benefit is that you get another guy to try and block the kick, but New York didn't really come close to blocking any of Ryan Allen's franchise-record 11 (11!) punts. Instead, they left themselves vulnerable to a massive punt, which the Pats would have had at the start of the second quarter if Marquice Cole hadn't prematurely downed the kick at the Jets' 22. Allen was punting from his own 34 on the play but the ball could have easily rolled to inside the Jets' 10-yard line. I'd like to know why Ryan made this decision since I can't imagine there's a ton of data on the punt-block success of teams that choose not to field a returner. Who knows, with enough evidence, he might even be right. But right now, I just don't think it's worth sacrificing the field position (not only the yards lost in a potential return, but yards gained by the punting team by letting punts roll) for a slightly better chance at an unlikely event.

Monday, September 9, 2013

New England Patriots 23 Buffalo Bills 21

Gostkowski kicks the game-winner from 35 yards
to give the Patriots another narrow win over the Bills

What: New England Patriots vs. Buffalo Bills, NFL Week 1

Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, NY

When: 8 September 2013

As our car rolled up to Lot 3 outside Ralph Wilson Stadium just before 11 a.m. Sunday, I had somehow convinced myself that a Patriots loss to the Bills in their Week 1 matchup was impossible. As I've become a more educated viewer of sports, it has become clear to me that NOTHING is impossible -- and this is especially true in the NFL, where any team can beat another one in any given week (unless you're the 2008 Detroit Lions). Yes, it's a cliche, but it's a cliche because it's true. How else do you explain the 5-8 Chiefs conquering the 13-0 Packers in 2011, or the 2-11 Dolphins stunning the 12-1 Patriots in 2004? I knew this going in, and I even lectured my dad for his supreme confidence in picking the Colts over the Raiders in his survival league. Yet despite everything possessing this knowledge, I still entered that stadium with the belief that nothing -- not an injury to Tom Brady, not a 400-yard day from E.J. Manuel, not even a Martian invasion -- could stop the Patriots from claiming a victory over the Bills, a team they've beaten in 19 of their last 20 meetings. I don't know if the events over the next three-and-a-half hours proved me right or proved me wrong.

You see, deep down, part of me probably knew that there was a remote possibility of losing. But that tiny idea had taken so many big hits over the past 10 years that it couldn't find its voice ahead of Sunday's game. As long as I've followed them, the Patriots have struggled with Buffalo on opening day. Of course, there was the famous 31-0 defeat in 2003, spurred on by a recently-spurned Lawyer Milloy. But do you remember the other two?

2006: Brady is sacked on the first play from scrimmage by Takeo Spikes. He fumbles, and the ball is picked up by London Fletcher, who runs five yards into the end zone to give the Bills a 7-0 lead. Buffalo takes a 17-7 lead into halftime before Brady leads the Pats back. Ty Warren provides the winning points with a safety with 8:55 to play in the game, allowing New England to escape with a 19-17 victory.

2009: A Fred Jackson touchdown reception from Trent Edwards gives the Bills a commanding 24-13 lead with 5:38 to play. Brady, in his first game back after missing almost the entire 2008 season, leads the Pats on an 11-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to make it 24-19. But his two-point attempt to Ben Watson falls incomplete, leaving them with the unenviable task of scoring the winning touchdown with just 2:10 remaining -- and Buffalo about to receive the ball. Somehow Leodis McKelvin fumbles the ensuing kickoff. New England recovers, Brady hits Watson for the game-winner three plays later, and the Pats beat the Bills, 25-24.

I remember watching that game -- the first of many games I would watch at the Dartmouth cross country house on Lebanon Street -- and desperately hoping that McKelvin would fumble that kickoff. I didn't predict that it would happen, but I had a funny feeling that it might -- Buffalo always finds a way to lose those kind of games. When it happened, I was overjoyed. But I couldn't help thinking, same old Bills.

Armed with the knowledge of what happened in the teams' two previous season-openers, Sunday's dramatic 23-21 Patriots victory seems pretty predictable. They weren't necessarily the better team, but with the score close late in the game, the Pats kept their cool and the Bills didn't. Walking out of the stadium after the game, I couldn't help but see the similarities between 2006 and 2013. A narrow opening-day victory over the Bills. A team two years removed from a Super Bowl trip with major questions at receiver. A matchup with the Jets on tap. But aside from Brady, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork and Stephen Gostkowski -- who kicked the game-winning field goal with five seconds to play on Sunday -- this is a different Patriots team. How this team fares will depend not on history, but on how the 53 men on the roster perform over the next 20 weeks.

Enough preamble. Here are my thoughts on the game:

Why the Patriots won
  • Brady did not have his best game (29-for-52, 288 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 FUM), but when he absolutely needed to drive the Patriots down the field, he did so, driving them 49 yards in 12 plays late in the game to set up Gostkowski's game-winner. Brady was 7-for-7 on that final drive. 
  • New acquisition Danny Amendola delivered, making several tough catches over the middle, none more important -- or more difficult -- than his 10-yarder with 1:20 to play that took New England to the Buffalo 29-yard line. Facing 3rd and 9 from the Buffalo 39, Amendola made a diving catch over Aaron Williams to haul in a bullet from Brady. A drop there and New England is facing 4th and 9 with the game on the line. Instead, Amendola's big grab took them into range for the game-winning field goal. Amendola had three other catches on the final drive and 10 on the day, for a total of 104 yards. He missed a few plays due to a recurrence of the groin injury that had hampered him throughout the preseason, but his connection with Brady -- Amendola was unquestionably the team's most reliable receiver on Sunday -- will silence the critics who said the team should have kept Wes Welker over the younger, more injury-prone Amendola. At least until Thursday's game with the Jets.
  • Shane Vereen excelled in multiple roles out of the backfield, carrying 14 times for 101 yards and catching 7 balls for 58 more. When Bill Belichick benched Stevan Ridley after the third-year back fumbled once and had another one overturned after a challenge (the fumble-that-wasn't was less excusable, as Ridley hit the ground before any Bill had touched him), Vereen stepped in capably as the featured back. Like the two players above him on this list, Vereen performed when it mattered most, carrying three times for 24 yards on the final drive, including a critical 15-yarder with 1:08 to play that took New England to the Buffalo 14. He also caught three passes on that final drive. With Vereen sidelined for the next few weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, it will be very interesting to see who Belichick gives most of the work to at running back. 
  • Kyle Arrington forced two fumbles on the day and added a tackle for loss in the victory. Stevie Johnson beat him for an 18-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, but Arrington stood out in an otherwise-average performance from the Patriots defense.
  • Stephen Gostkowski had as good a day as he's ever had in a Patriots' uniform. He was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals (48, 33 and 35 yards, the last of which obviously won the game), hit both extra points and five of his six kickoffs went for touchbacks. The only one that didn't went seven yards deep in the end zone and ended with T.J. Graham being tackled at the Bills' 12-yard line. You can't ask for more from a kicker.

Why the Bills lost

  • There are several reasons, but the easy thing would be to say "everything that happened in the first 29 minutes of the game." In that span, Buffalo had seven drives, and they ended as follows: fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt. Both of those fumbles occurred in the Bills' own half, and the Patriots cashed in with a touchdown each time. It was only when the Buffalo defense intercepted Brady at the Patriot 37 with 1:07 to play in the first half that Manuel and the Bills' offense picked up. But those two massive fumbles and the offense's ineptitude for most of the first half made it very difficult for Buffalo to win the game.
  • Penalties also killed the Bills, as they were whistled 10 times for 75 yards on the day. None stood out as really killing a drive, but two penalties for 12 men on the field is something you'd expect to see in a high school game, not the NFL. Those yards add up and when you're playing as the underdog, you can't afford to give the opposition free yards.
  • C.J. Spiller, fantasy darling, was not even the best running back on his own team. After running for 1,244 yards in 2012 at 6.0 yards per carry (same as Adrian Peterson), Spiller was held to 41 yards on 17 carries on Sunday, an average of just 2.4 ypc. He did catch 5 balls out of the backfield, but those only went for a combined 14 yards. Fred Jackson looked a lot more threatening (13 carries, 67 yards; 4 catches, 41 yards) and while he had a good day, Jackson's peak does not match up to Spiller's peak. The Bills needed more from their top back. 
  • An easy excuse for why Buffalo lost would be to say that they were without their two top guys in the secondary, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd and that they had to start a rookie quarterback in Manuel. But the Buffalo secondary played well -- remember that the Patriots' two touchdowns both came on very short fields -- and Manuel was far from a disaster. Even in the first half, when the Bills' offense struggled, Manuel was 10-for-15 for 77 yards and a touchdown. He didn't get them first downs, but he did not look overwhelmed out there either. The Bills lost for the reasons outlined above, not because of who was or was not on the field on Sunday.

Why the Patriots could have lost

  • Several of Brady's throws were off-line, causing receivers to dive for them (often missing). Some of this was likely due to the fact that many were lacking the chemistry that Brady had developed over the years with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Brady could be seen multiple times yelling at receivers who were out of position and looked genuinely unhappy after a few of those missed connections. But No. 12 deserves some blame as well. A couple times, Brady's throws were just off, and some of his deep balls lacked a tight spiral. Both sides of the passing game share the burden for this performance.
  • The Patriots lacked a reliable red-zone target. This may seem foolish to say after Julian Edelman hauled in two red-zone touchdowns, but New England had two great chances to put up big points in the second half and came away with a total of just three points. With 4:59 to go in the third, NE had second and goal on the 1 but couldn't score. The killer was an uncharacteristic fumble on the exchange between Brady and center Ryan Wendell on fourth down. Brady is normally the best quarterback sneaker in the league; since 2005, Brady had gotten a first down/touchdown on every third/fourth and one rush. Later in the game, the Pats had first and goal from the 10 but had to settle for three after two incompletions and a sack. Which brings us to our next issue...
  • I can't find any stats for pass rush pressure except for sacks (eg. hits, hurries, knockdowns), but Buffalo definitely generated a lot more pressure than the Patriots. They sacked Brady twice and pressured him several more times, making him uncomfortable in the pocket. New England, on the other hand, gave Manuel all day to throw; I can only recall him being pressured once, though it was probably slightly more than that. Still, he was not sacked on the day, and failing to generate a pass rush against quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan -- all of whom face the Patriots this season -- will not end well for New England.
  • Brady did not attempt a lot of deep passes, probably because no one on the team is a good enough deep threat at this point to merit the risk. When (if?) Gronkowski comes back, this problem will be less pressing, but the Patriots have been unable to create a legitimate vertical threat since they traded Randy Moss away in 2010.

Why the Bills could have won

  • Bills head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett did a good job handling Manuel in his first NFL start. Their gameplan centered on short passes to give Manuel confidence and prevent him from turning the ball over. After an 18-for-27 day with no turnovers, I can say: mission accomplished. They didn't put too much on Manuel too quickly, and he looked effective close to the goal line, turning both of Buffalo's red zone visits into touchdowns. The rookie did enough against the Patriots to earn himself some deeper throws next week against Carolina.
  • Aside from the final drive, the defense played well. New England managed just three field goals on drives that began in the New England half. As I mentioned, the pass rush put pressure on Brady, and the Bills did a decent job covering the Patriots' receivers. There were a lot more completions to be had, but you've got to think that the Bill's pressure had something to do with some of those errant Brady throws. Justin Rogers' interception of Brady at the end of the first half was as good a play as you can make on the ball, and Da'Norris Searcy had a big impact, sacking Brady once and returning a fumble 74 yards for a touchdown. Even though the Bills couldn't get a stop when they absolutely had to, this was a big step forward against 2012's highest-scoring team for a Bills unit that ranked 26th in scoring defense last year.

Final thought

Why didn't Bill Belichick wait until there was one second left to attempt the game-winning field goal? I can't recall ever seeing a team botch a snap, fall on the ball and re-kick to win the game. If you botch a snap in that situation, it's going to be absolute chaos, with the distinct possibility that either a) you lose possession or b) time runs out (there were nine seconds left when Belichick calls timeout). I'll admit that the chances of a kickoff being returned for a touchdown (or a subsequent Hail Mary) are also exceedingly rare, but I'd rather eliminate that possibility entirely than hope that my team can somehow recover and fall on a botched snap and still kick the game-winner.