How Far Can Tom Brady Really Lead the 2013 Patriots?
Like the second hand of a finely crafted timepiece, Stephen Gostkowski's right leg clicked forward and launched the ball through the uprights, sealing yet another New England Patriots win.
The well-oiled Patriots machine had relentlessly ticked off another 60 minutes of winning football, as it did 19 of the last 20 times it's faced the division-rival Buffalo Bills. For the 65,519 fans at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson stadium, Tom Brady and the Patriots' march toward victory must have seemed as unstoppable as the setting sun.
For all the doubts, questions and stunning events of this offseason, Brady proved that between the lines, nothing's changed: He's still so good he can win games by himself.
The question for the Patriots is, how many games will he have to win by himself?
Brady a Rock, Brady an Island?
Though the Patriots have long lived by their "Next Man Up" philosophy—meaning everyone on the roster is expected to perform, no matter their spot on the depth chart—they have an awful lot of "next men" in key roles on offense.
Though their defense has been everything from dominant to dormant over their dynastic run, the losses of stalwarts like receiver Wes Welker, running back Danny Woodhead and tight end Aaron Hernandez finally led national media to question whether the offense or defense was more likely to fail:
Those departed Patriots, along with injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, all had key roles. Brady has a career-long track record of turning D-listers into All-Stars, but even he needs some talent to work with—doesn't he?
In the second quarter, 2011 third-round draft pick Stevan Ridley lost the ball after falling to the ground untouched. Ridley led the Patriots with 1,263 rushing yards last season, according to Pro Football Reference, but he also led the Patriots with four fumbles.
Bills safety Da'Norris Searcy scooped up the ball and ran it back 74 yards for a touchdown. This was actually Ridley's second apparent lost fumble of the game, the first erased by officials after review.
Next man up? Patriots head coach Bill Belichick thought it was time; Ridley was immediately benched.
"It was pretty obvious, man," Ridley said, per ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates. "You can't have two turnovers in one game and expect to stay in."
To make matters worse, No. 1 receiver Danny Amendola pulled up gimpy after aggravating a groin injury, per Doug Kyed of NESN, just before halftime.
Next man up? Maybe, but Amendola just signed a five-year, $31 million contract to be Welker's "next man."
Shortly after that, Brady zipped a short pass to rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld, whose hands the pass hit but didn't stick to. The deflection was picked out of the air by the Bills, and suddenly, Brady had an interception charged against him.
Next man up? Were there any men left who could step up?
Brady took a pounding from the Bills defense. He was sacked twice and under pressure all day. His final stat line shows it: 29-of-52 passing (55.8 percent completion rate) for 288 yards (5.54 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and an interception are very un-Brady-like numbers.
Worse yet, the Patriots defense couldn't shut down an unexpectedly competent Bills offense.
The Bills rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel, stared down Belichick's storied outfit and completed 18-of-27 passes (66.7 percent) for 150 yards (5.56 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Worse yet, Manuel statistically outperformed Brady with little help from the running game. Electric tailback C.J. Spiller was switched off, pitching in just 41 yards on 17 carries, as well as losing a fumble of his own.
The Patriots gave up the lead on the first drive of the second half, when Manuel hit wideout Stevie Johnson for an 18-yard score, and they didn't regain it until there were just seconds left.
Worst of all, Brady couldn't help himself, either.
On 4th-and-goal in the third quarter, he fumbled a snap to Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. On 2nd-and-goal in the fourth quarter, Brady passed up a sure rushing touchdown to fire an off-target bullet to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who couldn't bring it in; Brady was sacked on the next play, forcing the Patriots to settle for three points.
Brady Gets By With a Little Help...
Fortunately, the clockwork Patriots proved they haven't wound down just yet. Shane Vereen, given the rock when Ridley was benched, rumbled through the Bills defense for 101 yards on just 14 carries. Receiver Julian Edelman, who scored even before Amendola pulled up lame, added another touchdown on the way to a seven-catch, 79-yard day.
The biggest story of the day, though, was Amendola himself.
Amendola started this season smothered by the 5'9" Welker's mile-high shadow.
Welker, a perennial favorite of Brady, Patriots coaches, ownership and fans, was beloved for his speed, production and above all, toughness. Welker fearlessly ran into the teeth of every NFL secondary he faced, over and over again. Welker recovered from his only major injury, an ACL rupture suffered in the 2009 season finale, with Adrian Peterson-like speed.
Worst of all, Welker bolted when the Patriots wouldn't offer him anywhere near the five-year, $31 million contract they gave Amendola.
Amendola, whose young career has been hampered by injuries, has football talent to match Welker's. When Amendola willed himself back onto the field in the third quarter, though, it looked like he had more steel in him than many gave him credit for.
When Amendola caught his 10th pass of the day—a 3rd-and-9 grab, pushing his yardage total into triple digits and the Patriots inside field-goal range—he also took a wicked shot (at the 2:58 mark of this video):
When he hung on, bounced back up and walked back to the huddle, he'd proved his mettle.
The Beat Goes On
Someday, Brady's arm will falter. Someday, Belichick will lose his steely edge. Eventually, the Patriots' perpetual-winning machine will succumb to entropy—but not today.
Belichick, the NFL's master engineer, has, again, pieced together a running back stable and wide receiver corps from mismatched parts and undrafted free agents. As long as he's still meticulously constructing the roster and game plan, and as long as Brady is still making everyone around him better, the Patriots will still be the Patriots.
As sure as Monday morning will start another day, and another week, which will bring another game, the Patriots will keep winning regular-season games.
How far can that take them? How far into the playoffs can they push? That depends on Ridley, Vereen, Edelman, Amendola and the rest. Only their performance can elevate the 2013 Patriots from "still the Patriots" to the best team in football.
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