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. 

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