September 15, 2009
Off-Kilter Patriots Barely Escape With Win
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
FOXBOROUGH -- Great teams know how to win on bad days. Bad teams find ways to lose when they play great.
The Patriots hardly looked like a great team in their 2009 season opener against the Buffalo Bills. Receivers could catch colds better than passes. Tom Brady saw an interception returned for a touchdown. Adalius Thomas committed a penalty that the other guys usually commit. Twice the Patriots went for it on fourth down, and twice they failed.
But these are the Buffalo Bills, who despite putting up a very game effort against the Patriots on Monday night at Gillette Stadium, somehow found a way to go home a loser. Brady was able to find Benjamin Watson twice in a span of 1:20 for touchdown passes late in the fourth quarter, then the defense found it within themselves to withstand one final Buffalo push. The final was New England 25, Buffalo 24, and the crowd went home deliriously happy. Brady and Bill Belichick will go home feeling the opposite.
Both teams wore throwback uniforms in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AFL, and in the team press release the Patriots were referred to as the "Boston Patriots". The Patriots played the game as if they were still based in Boston, though the uniforms were supposed to represent their one playoff season based in Boston, that being 1963. Still, the Patriots were out of sync right from the start, and despite Brady having some runs of success during the evening, it was a performance that neither he nor Belichick will be happy over. It can get by a team like Buffalo, but it will not get the Patriots to Super Bowl XLIV.
From the very beginning, things just didn't look right. Randy Moss, who would go on to catch 12 passes for 141 yards, dropped a pass thrown right at him on the game's first play. The first drive ended on a hideous fourth down and one call, with Laurence Maroney being stuffed for no gain on a left tackle run when usually the situation screams for a Brady sneak.
On the next drive, Wes Welker, who also would catch 12 passes (93 yards), dropped an easy toss out of the backfield. Maroney had some decent runs on the drive, but it ended with Stephen Gostkowski pushing a 41-yard field goal attempt wide right. The third drive ended with a three-and-out thanks largely to a sack of Brady for a 12-yard loss by Aaron Schobel.
The Patriots did finish well in the first half offensively, getting a touchdown and a field goal on their last two drives. But they trailed at the half, 17-10 thanks to Schobel intercepting Brady at the Patriot 26 and taking it to the house and an 11-yard touchdown pass from Trent Edwards to Shawn Nelson.
When Brady eventually did find a rhythm, the Patriots then had problems finishing drives. Another fourth down attempt in the third quarter failed because Brady threw behind Welker on a right sideline pass he usually makes in his sleep. The Patriots drove 67 yards on the next drive but stalled at the Buffalo 11-yard line, and Gostkowski had to kick a 28-yard field goal. The biggest problem the Patriot offense was facing was dropped passes and lack of execution at key moments, along with Maroney having another miserable rushing performance other than the second offensive series in the first half.
It is debatable whether to place the blame for the dropped passes on Brady or the receivers. In most cases the ball was thrown right at the receivers and the ball simply found more fingertips than hands. But Brady was clearly uncomfortable at times, not always being fully able to step into his throws and possibly throwing off his trademark timing. Brady was able to find his range in the fourth quarter, but that was thanks to the Patriots going into a hurry-up offense and the Bills not being able to respond correctly on defense.
Going into the game, the Patriot defense was supposed to have problems with Terrell Owens and Fred Jackson, the running back starting in place of the suspended Marshawn Lynch. Jackson had 140 all-purpose yards, and when Owens finally got going in the second half had two catches for 46 yards (and one drop). Jackson turned out to be more deadly receiving than rushing, as he led the Bills in pass catches (5) and receiving yards (83). Edwards wound up with a passer rating of 114.1 thanks to 15 of 25 passing for 212 yards and two touchdowns, as the Bills tried to tire the Patriots out with a no-huddle offense all game long.
Defensively, the Patriots played a fair game and managed to hang on in the end thanks to a big special teams play and not playing the prevent nothing defense on the final drive. There were two roughing the passer penalties called on the defense, one of which was questionable and one which was just plain stupid. On the second play of the third quarter, Vince Wilfork induced Edwards to intentionally ground the ball in the end zone, which should have been called a safety. Instead, Wilfork was called for roughing the passer after merely tackling Edwards after the quarterback released the ball, unable to stop his momentum. But later in the second half, Thomas sacked Edwards and threw the quarterback to the ground after the whistle blew and Edwards was ruled in the grasp.
Still, the Patriots, despite trailing 24-13 with 5:38 to go, were able to riddle the Bills defense with two quick touchdowns to take what would be their only lead of the game. Brady drove the Patriots 80 yards in 11 plays and hit Watson from 18 yards out to make it 24-19, but Brady was intercepted on a subsequent two-point try. Leodis McKelvin then gave the Patriots their biggest break of the game by not downing the kickoff for a touchback. He instead ran the ball out, was blasted by Brandon Meriweather at the 26, was stripped of the ball by Pierre Woods, and Gostkowski, of all people, was able to fall on the football to give the ball back to the Patriots. Three plays later, Brady found Watson again from 16 yards out, and again the two-point conversion was missed.
The Patriots then made what turned out to be the ultimate winning key to the game, by backing off of the prevent defense on the final drive. On the first play of the last drive, Edwards hit Owens for 19 yards, and the Patriots immediately switched away from rushing three to rushing five. Sure enough, Edwards scrambled for no gain, threw an incomplete pass on a hurried throw thanks to a fierce rush by Mike Wright, and then was sacked for a 10-yard loss by Tully Banta-Cain. Out of timeouts and down to the final seconds, Edwards could only launch a 25-yard pass to Derek Schourman, and three laterals and a fumble later, the game was finally over.
The Patriots will take the win, but it may have come at a huge cost. Further burdening the defense was the loss of Jerod Mayo, who went down in the first half with what was presumed to be a knee injury, a chilling reminder of last year's opening game. The Patriots did manage to make just enough plays to win the game, and despite playing well for most of the game, the Bills in the end did hand the Patriots the game. The Patriots have now beaten the Bills 12 in a row going back to the 31-0 season opening loss at Buffalo in 2003.
The Jets are next on the Patriot platter. If the Patriots aren't careful, Rex Ryan may shoot off his mouth and things may still not matter.
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