Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Bottom line, it was a good day
THEY committed three turnovers, one of which led directly to a Bills touchdown, and another that cost themselves a chance for a score. Only four of the 17 balls thrown the way of the rookies they're counting on were caught. They got just one reception from the tight end position. There were several instances where their execution was clearly sloppy. And thus late in the fourth quarter they found themselves trailing a Buffalo team expected to stink.
But all in all, it was a good day for the Patriots.
No, seriously, it was. Just ask Bill Belichick.
"It obviously wasn't perfect, and there's a lot of things we can do better," said the Patriots' coach, "but (we) played the last few minutes of the game the way we need to play it, and we were able to execute and make the plays. It's always tough to win in the division, and on the road. It's good to get off to that start. It's good to win. I'm proud of the way the team played today."
It's always good to win, which means no day that ends in victory can be that bad, and so Tom Brady could walk to the podium wearing a smile Sunday afternoon, having just engineered the 38th fourth-quarter comeback of his career by getting the Patriots in position for the last-minute Stephen Gostkowski field goal that made New England a 23-21 winner.
But although it was by a much narrower margin than he might've liked, or most would've expected, the outcome wasn't the only reason for Brady to be pleased as he walked out of Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Ball security is so important, Belichick simply won't tolerate turnovers. The rookies are still developing, and promise to be better with every piece of experience they accrue. Rob Gronkowski could be back by the end of the month. And there will be plenty of lessons taken when they watch the game film.
In other words, pretty much everything that put the Patriots in a dicey spot Sunday is correctable. And given the way the Patriots ascribe to the school of thinking that the season is a building process where each week the two most important things are winning and improving by learning from mistakes, Sunday should give the coaches plenty of material to teach with, and a humbled cast of players to receive it all — and their ability to do that without sacrificing the first priority speaks to the team's overall attitude, resiliency and toughness.
That's the stuff that can't be taught, and would be far more worrisome if it were lacking.
"I'll take it," Brady said. "Opening day, and on the road in a tough environment, we didn't execute great but we made some really clutch plays when we needed to. So, it was an all-around team effort.
"We talked a little bit last night about 'whatever the situation is we've got to make the critical plays,' and we got a stop on defense, drove the ball down and got in field goal position, made the kick — so, great situational football."
Surely the Patriots' plan wasn't to have Brady throw 52 times in the first game since last year's top five targets either went to other teams, went to jail, or stayed in Foxborough rehabbing an injury. And certainly the team didn't expect 1,200-yard running back Stevan Ridley to go the entire second half without touching the ball, the benching his penance for a fumble that the Bills returned for a touchdown.
Deep down they probably didn't anticipate to be in a spot where they needed points after taking possession at their own 34 yard line with 4:31 to play. But thanks to the defense forcing the Bills to punt for a fourth straight series, they were. And it was thereafter that the Pats allowed themselves to leave encouraged.
They attacked the situation by trying to move into field goal range while simultaneously draining the clock and limiting the Bills' opportunity for rebuttal — which made sense, though that approach forced them to convert a couple of third downs along the way.
Early in the day Brady's favorite target was Julian Edelman, who caught both of his touchdown passes — but with the game in the balance, the quarterback looked to his new big-money weapon. Twice he went to Danny Amendola, the first time gaining six when they needed three, and the second time gaining 10 when they needed eight.
Neither catch was easy — but, then again, nothing was on this day for Amendola, who entered with a strained groin and left the field in the second quarter having appeared to worsen the injury. At that point Brady didn't expect him to return at all, the quarterback admitted after, But Amendola returned in the second half to catch seven of the eight balls thrown his way, and bring the total for his Patriots debut to 10 grabs for 104 yards.
"He really toughed it out, which was pretty impressive," Brady said. "He fought all day. We've got a whole team full of fighters. I think there's going to be some ugly wins, but we're always going to fight, and we're going to fight 'til the end."
And ultimately, that's the takeaway from Sunday. In evaluating the Patriots' offseason personnel decisions, the focus was on talent and skill and intelligence. At different points in the preseason those were apparent enough to maintain the organization's ever-lofty expectations.
But the one thing that was unknown until it had a chance to play out under real-speed, real-consequence game conditions is how a team and its players will respond when it really matters. The way they played Sunday, a better team might not have even given the Patriots a chance. But the Bills did. And the Pats elevated their play at the right time.
"We'll build on this," Belichick said. "We let them back in the game with some turnovers, but then we fought our way out of it and were able to make some plays at the end to win, so, you know, I'm proud of that."
"This is our first opportunity," Brady added. "It was a good experience, a good learning experience."
And, thus, it was a good day.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.