Monday, September 9, 2013

Patriots Eke Out 23-21 Victory Over Buffalo

The Patriots kicked a late field goal to escape their turnover-laden performance with a 23-21 win.  The victory puts them in a three-way tie for the division lead.  Next up are the New York Jets, this Thursday night on the NFL Network, with a chance to put themselves a game up on yet another division foe.

The parties most responsible for the Patriots win are not in the employ of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.  First, the Bills had 10 penalties for 75 yards, and there were some absolute killers (big plays called back, second chances given to the Patriots).  And if that wasn't enough, rookie head coach Doug Marrone continued to run the hurry-up offense for two drives when the game situation dictated he should have been running out the clock.

Quarterback play?  Brady a pedestrian 76.4 QB rating and only 55.7% completions, E.J. Manuel 105.5 and 67%.  Turnover battle?  Bills won that 3-2, and points off of turnovers went their way, too, 21-14.  The Patriots tight ends had only one catch and caused one interception.  And the interior defense was gashed by inside runs and short crossing patterns.

And yet, down by four points late in the game, the Patriots drove for two fourth-quarter field goals to win.  And in those drives, Brady was clutch: 10 for 17 for 87 yards, no sacks, and not a single ball put in harm's way.  And breakout star Shane Vereen was the only running back in the entire league to break 100 yards this weekend (ended up with 14 carries for 101 yards, and 7 catches for 58 yards).

The receivers were really a two-headed monster, starting with apparent circus-refugee Danny Amendola and his 10 acrobatic catches for 104 yards.  (Note: Brady put those throws into some tiny, tiny openings.)  And Julian Edelman had 7 grabs for 79 yards, and most importantly, 2 touchdowns.  Without those two, the team would have been in huge trouble.

On the downside, rookie Kenbrell Thompkins looked like a guy in his first NFL game, with several wrong reads and at least two plays where he didn't leave himself enough room to come down in bounds.  And if you expected help from the tight ends, Michael Hoomanawanui had one catch and not much in the way of blocking, and rookie Zack Sudfeld had no receptions and slipped, causing Brady's only interception.

Oh, and before we leave the turnover situation entirely, nice game by Stevan Ridley.  Nine carries, one fumble returned for a touchdown, and another fumble recovered by the Patriots offense.  No wonder Vereen had so many yards, Ridley was on the bench by the second quarter.

One thought on the offensive line; they are very good at run blocking plays outside the guards, but they allowed too much pressure on the quarterback.  Seven quarterback hits and multiple other hurries, along with two sacks; that's too much time for Brady to be on the ground.

On defense, the leading tacklers were mostly linemen and linebackers: Jerod Mayo (15), Rob Ninkovich (8), Tommy Kelly (7), Chandler Jones (6), Dont'a Hightower (4), and Vince Wilfork (4).  So you'd think they stuffed the run and short passing game.  But they were repeatedly gashed by inside runs, and time after time on short crossing passes.

The front seven made enough plays to stop drives (when Bills' penalties didn't), as the Bills averaged only 4.35 plays per drive, and managed just 1 drive of over 10 plays.  But the inside trap blocks sprang their backs multiple times for big yards, and the linebackers were just gawd-awful in short coverage.  Mayo might be a tackling machine, but he is ill-suited for pass coverage, and that will be even more obvious against veteran quarterbacks.

The secondary did an okay job most of the time, but when they blew it, they blew it big time.  One touchdown came when Kyle Arrington missed a jam at the line and the receiver outran him and the safety.  And the other was to a WIDE open receiver in the end zone, and there was some bickering between corner Aqib Talib and safety Steve Gregory after that one.

Arrington's two forced fumbles redeemed the secondary, and with all that's on his plate, Alfonzo Dennard acquitted himself quite well (er... no pun intended).  Steve Gregory led the secondary with nine tackles, and the safeties are sure to be a work in progress until they solidify communication with the cornerbacks.

Rookie punter Ryan Allen had an up-and-down day, botching one pooch punt, but doing a very good job with the holder duties (sometimes on mediocre snaps). And Stephen Gostkowski was absolutely money on the day -- neutralizing the Bills kickoff return game and nailing two clutch field goals in the fourth quarter.

The offensive coaches took too long to switch to the running game, and no fault of theirs, but the passing game needs more diversity.  Amendola/Edelman could become the new Welker/Gronkowski -- and the team needs more targets to more different players if they expect to keep up with better quarterbacks and teams.

So where does that leave us?  1-0 and atop the division, although just one field goal away from being 0-1 and at the bottom.  The Jets won a gift game on Sunday, and having to travel for a Thursday night game makes them a likely loser to the Patriots.  No guarantees this early in the season, with the key injuries facing the Patriots.  But you have to feel good about getting the win last Sunday.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Patriots have won their last ten season openers, and in those ten games, they played the Bills three times.  The Pats won those games by a total of five points.

Weekly Water-Cooler Wisdom: "Good enough against Buffalo, but they need at least two more receiver targets."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  1-0!

PPS.  Sorry, no trivia question this week :(

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