Patriots vs. Bills: Full Roster Report Card Grades for New England
The New England Patriots spent all of Sunday afternoon struggling to defuse the "underdog electricity" at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Finally, with five seconds left on the clock, they clipped the right wires and waltzed out of Buffalo with a 23-21 victory.
With a short week ahead, the Patriots are already gearing up for another AFC East divisional showdown on Thursday night against the Jets. Before we get set on the battle to come, let's take a closer look at the battle that was.
Here are the positional report card grades for the Patriots' win over the Bills.
Tom Brady had a blurry game. He threw an interception and fumbled a sketchy snap at the goal line. He was also sacked twice and hit seven times.
At certain points, he seemed visibly frustrated with himself and his inability to connect with the new chess pieces around him—notably tight end Zach Sudfeld and receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, with whom he shared several communication breakdowns.
Nevertheless, Brady manufactured some of his classic magic in the end. Trailing, 21-20, with less than five minutes left, he led a triumphant march and hooked up with receiver Danny Amendola for several Troy Brown-type grabs. Eventually, Brady set up kicker Stephen Gostkowski for a 35-yard field goal with five seconds left to win it.
Brady racked up 288 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns. He also completed his 49th straight regular-season game with a touchdown pass.
Not too shabby for a slightly rusty afternoon in Buffalo.
Danny Amendola also flourished, hauling in 10 catches for 104 yards. He made four tough grabs for 26 yards during the Patriots' winning drive, absorbing some bone-crunching shots in the process.
Amendola was visibly nursing a lingering injury, but certainly proved his toughness in the defining moments late in the fourth quarter. Then again, we already knew that he was tough as nails.
We knew Edelman had this type of prolific game in him, as well. He had scored twice against the Jets last Thanksgiving and he's routinely shown flashes of being a scoring threat.
Really, these guys didn't teach us anything new. They simply reinforced the picturesque notion of what Patriot Nation wants from them. If they can deliver similar performances consistently, the Patriots would be good as gold.
Tom Brady only connected on one of three passes to his tight ends on Sunday with a five-yard toss to Michael Hoomanawanui late in the third quarter).
Different observers will take away different things from that piece of data. Some will say the team's tight end sect is in "construction mode." Others will say they're stalling for time until Gronkowski gets back. Others will say the tight end-oriented onslaught in New England is simply over forever.
To a certain extent, it is over, and that's all right.
New England's tight end attack from 2011 and 2012 was always something of an illusion. The experiment seemed perfect, but the Patriots didn't win a ring and thus the experiment was never perfected. Moving forward in 2013 at 1-0, the Patriots can look for a better recipe to unveil another banner.
Still though, as glad as I am to see them return to the receiving game and the run game, Zach Sudfeld still needs to be in the mix.
Like Julian Edelman, Sudfeld has the work ethic, the charisma and the elusive "je ne sais quoi" to be an ambassador of the Patriot Way.
However, like Kenbrell Thompkins, he had a poor showing in his first day as a professional football player. At times, he looked out of sorts. Late in the second quarter, he seemed to lose his footing and focus, as a "fish in the barrel" reception somehow spun off his fingertips and turned into an interception.
Look for Thompkins to rebound Thursday night against the Jets with one or two momentum-swinging plays. He's a player. One botched game can't keep him down.
Glitz gets you a 16-0 season. Grit wins the Super Bowl.
Heading into 2013, I'd like to see the Patriots abandon whatever finesse they've gained over the years, whether it be through reality or reputation. They need to get back to their temper which built a dynasty. In a way, going back is the way to move forward.
As far as Sunday in Buffalo went, Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington did his best to find that vintage, confrontational style. He forced two critical fumbles, including a highlight takedown of running back C.J Spiller. Arrington's forced fumbles also led to momentum-shifting touchdowns from Julian Edelman.
The New Enlgand secondary went haywire again when Manuel hit receiver Stevie Johnson with an 18-yard touchdown pass. Defensive back Devin McCourty was a bit manhandled in the process, as was Arrington, who looked a step late.
Two Super Bowls have been lost in part because this secondary failed to make the big play or simply gave up the big play. And let's not forget about the inability of this secondary to force Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to alter his patterns or throwing decisions in last year's AFC Championship Game where Flacco threw the exact passes he wanted all night long.
New England's "bend, but don't break" philosophy is wearing thin. They bend too much and, if we're being honest, they eventually break. So, we shouldn't call it "bend, but don't break," we should call it, "bend now, break later."
But why bend at all? This secondary needs to get ruthless. Their championship chances will depend on their ability to finally get this right.
Stevan Ridley is partially defined by his fumbling. He coughed it up four times in 2012, plus another time in last season's AFC Championship Game.
Ridley's demons continued to pester him at training camp this year, and on July 28, Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston touched on the subject:
Ridley fumbled once in a practice-ending goal-line running drill, with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork scooping it up and racing away to wild applause. It marked the second time in the practice that Ridley lost the football.
On Sunday in Buffalo, Ridley's ghosts made an appearance. He fumbled without even being touched, which led to a 74-yard return touchdown for the Bills. Ridley was benched for the remainder of the game.
On the other end of the spectrum, second-in-line running back Shane Vereen played like a franchise back on Sunday. Echoing memories of Brandon Bolden's 137-yard breakout in Buffalo last September, Vereen went nuts in this season's opener with 101 yards on 14 carries along with 58 receiving yards. He continues to emerge as a "high IQ" back with a pure ability to moonlight as a pass-catcher.
Ultimately, the Patriots' running back situation will come down to trust. When it comes to Ridley and Vereen, whose hands do you trust?
Defensive Linemen and Pass-Rushers
Two Super Bowl appearances for the Patriots were squandered because the New York Giants' pass-rushers forced Tom Brady to play their game while the Patriots' pass-rushers allowed Eli Manning to play at the exact tempo he wanted.
It's a matter of dictation, hypnosis and influence. The idea is to violate the other team's serenity, to force them to play your game at your speed, your pace and your time step. It unsettles their brains and bodies. Eventually, the ripples become waves amd opponents implode.
Still though, all these years after Super Bowl XLII, Super Bowl XLVI and the 2012 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots can't seem to figure out the recipe for stopping good quarterbacks in the playoffs.
Sunday's game offered little solution. True, it was only the first game of the season and not the playoffs, but still, the Patriots didn't sack EJ Manuel once. Instead, they allowed him to throw two touchdowns without any picks. For a hefty amount of time, the Bills had the momentum and Buffalo's quarterback looked comfortable and energetic.
That's unacceptable. What happens down the road for New Englandf when the quarterbacks they face get tougher than Manuel? This is more of that "bend, but don't break" stuff. It's ridiculous. The Patriots need to start breaking other teams. It all starts by forcing the quarterback to shatter.
Ultimately, this will come down to defensive ends Chandler Jones, Michael Buchanan and Rob Ninkovich, along with linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes. Can they get it done?
New England's offensive line had their peaks and valleys in Buffalo.
On the low side, Tom Brady was sacked twice and hit seven times. At times, he seemed frazzled and irritated, although in fairness, some of that was likely directed at all the drops and miscommunications between him and his offensive weapons.
The day pretty much went like this: When Brady was lobbing bombs to Julian Edelman, his protection was awesome. When he wasn't lobbing bombs, he was getting smacked around.
Still, this line remains a very bankable unit. It opened lanes for Shane Vereen and kept Brady intact to lead the team to a divisional victory on the road.
Come Thursday night, however, it would be nice to see Brady stay a bit cleaner. There was too much dirt on the passer in this one.
The star of New England's special teams on Sunday was Stephen Gostkowski.
Erasing the memory of last year's mangled game-winning attempt against the Arizona Cardinals, he came through in Buffalo with a dramatic, pressure-packed 35-yard field goal down the stretch, putting teh Patriots ahead, 23-21 with five seconds left in the game.
Also worth mentioning was punter and holder Ryan Allen, playing his first game for the Patriots after nabbing Zoltan Mesko's spot. Allen controlled a sketchy snap in the first quarter, allowing Gostkowski to calmly adjust and nail a 48-yard field goal. Overall, Allen looked cool under pressure.