The New England Patriots offense wasn't at its best for the second straight week, but consecutive matchups against rookie quarterbacks can do a whole lot for a team's win-loss record.
Geno Smith was unable to get his second fourth-quarter comeback in as many career games, throwing an interception to Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib as the Pats locked up a 13-10 victory over the New York Jets Thursday night in Foxborough.
The aftermath of the interception saw multiple players ejected after a shoving match ensued on the New England sideline. It was a fitting end to a game that dragged along and often felt far uglier than it needed to be.
Tom Brady and Co. overcame a still-developing chemistry, scoring the game's only touchdown on the opening drive and holding on for the remaining 58 minutes on a rainy evening in Massachusetts.
Playing without star tight end Rob Gronkowski and top free-agent acquisition Danny Amendola (groin), Brady was stuck making the best out of playing with a young, inexperienced receiving corps. The two-time NFL MVP finished the contest 19-of-39 passing for 185 yards on a struggle-filled night where the Patriots have to feel they left points on the field.
The Patriots' only touchdown went to rookie wideout Aaron Dobson, who was making his first appearance after missing last week with a hamstring injury. He got behind the Jets defense on a broken-down coverage, running a beautiful wheel route and connecting with Brady for an early touchdown.
The score capped off a quick six-play, 81-yard drive. The Patriots looked fluid on the drive, Brady connecting with confident passes to the receivers and running back Stevan Ridley providing a good mix on the ground.
It would be the last time anyone mistook either offense for fluid the entire night. New England's offense finished the contest with a paltry 232 yards—a total wholly unbecoming of an attack that's been among the NFL's best for a decade running.
Brady's relationship with his pass-catchers is still very much a work in progress.
After Dobson made his opening-drive catch, the remainder of his night was a series of unfortunate events that show just how difficult it is to be a rookie wideout. He made a critical drop on a beautiful Brady deep ball in the second quarter that could have gone for a touchdown, and then gave up a guaranteed score on the next drive after (presumably) running the wrong route in the red zone.
Brady expected the former Marshall standout to stop his route at the goal line. Dobson instead continued on a corner route, and the pass fell meekly to the ground. Brady started jawing at his young teammate after the mistake.
In fact, Brady's preexisting relationship with Julian Edelman proved to be his only reprieve. The slot star grabbed 13 balls for 78 yards, providing a much-needed safety valve in a sea of youngster inconsistencies.
The Jets had their own bout with rookie mistakes. Geno Smith's interception on the final drive was his third of the game's last four drives, all of which came at times where the Jets could least afford it. The most painful of those picks came as New York drove to the Patriots' 27-yard line before the former West Virginia standout threw a tipped pass into Talib's hands.
He finished the game with 214 yards on 15-of-35 passing and those three picks. Smith's struggles also overshadowed a strong performance from the ground game. Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell combined for 100 yards on 25 carries, with the latter punching the ball in on a three-run score in the third quarter.
For New England, it will likely be back to the drawing board. Again, this is its second straight week of offensive struggles for Bill Belichick's squad, all while facing two teams expected to finish toward the bottom of the AFC.
The Patriots' 11 punts are their most in nearly a decade, since a 12-0 win over the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 7, 2003. Like that game a decade ago, the Patriots came away victorious. Thursday night, the contest was Brady's seventh win in his past nine starts against the heated rival, and the Pats were surprisingly triumphant as the clock struck zeroes.
Just don't expect him to stay that way.
Tom Brady (QB, New England Patriots): B-
The first two games of the 2013 season might be the perfect representation of the co-dependent relationship between quarterbacks and their receivers. There were multiple times in the contest where Brady probably could have thrown a touchdown, extended a drive or have any positive result whatsoever.
His receiving corps just wasn't up to the task.
Nonetheless, this is the lot Belichick left him. Rather than spending his evening barking his frustrations, Brady needs to display the skill he's so often hailed as being the best at—leadership. All parties involved knew coming in that Amendola was made of porcelain and Gronkowski probably wouldn't be back until midway through the season.
It's a lot to ask for Brady to be both teacher and quarterback, but these are different times in New England. The Patriots receivers need to be better for Brady to succeed, while Brady needs to be a better leader for his receivers to succeed. This relationship will definitely be one to watch going forward.
Geno Smith (QB, New York Jets): C-
Smith is going to have games where his mediocre (at best) supporting cast doesn't totally show up. He won't recognize a couple blitz packages and will go down on unnecessary sacks, or his throws will go wayward and his team probably would have won with an above-average quarterback under center.
We're two games into his career, but it's been obvious from the beginning that Smith was never going to join the Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson hierarchy. If you want to draw a comparison to a 2012 rookie, he's more Ryan Tannehill; there will be good and bad moments.
How Smith handles his next start will be far more important than barely losing to the Patriots on the road.
Patriots Receiving Corps: D
An aversion to giving rookies failing grades is just about the only saving grace for this Patriots bunch Thursday night.
Dobson dang near drove Brady to a life with padded walls in the first half with his coverage misreads and drops. Things didn't go all that well in the second half, either. And Kenbrell Thompkins hasn't been what one would call impressive these past couple weeks.
Edelman was a saving-grace safety valve. Well, kind of.
The reason Edelman has stayed mostly on special teams over the years is because he's only a partial clone to the Wes Welker-Amendola role. He's a small, shifty guy who's hard to keep up with. Brady can trust that he'll get open for 10 or so short digs per game.
But what sets Welker and Amendola apart is their ability to get to the second level. Both are tough enough in the open field and shifty enough to extend that six-yard dig into a 10-yard gain and first down. Edelman runs six yards and gets six yards.
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