Don’t overanalyze it. When he needed to be Sunday, Tom Brady was Tom Brady. When they needed to be something else, the Bills were, well, the Bills.
And even though they let a chance at a major statement win slip away, the Bills still have longterm benefits to derive from Sunday’s thrilling, albeit unartistic opener in The Ralph.
The Patriots had much more immediate goals: Win the game, get on the plane and get the heck back to Foxborough stat so they could start watching Jets film, since they play again Thursday night.
They have a lot of work to do in a short time.
Brady was far from himself for much of this one and it wasn’t that surprising because the only receiver he had Sunday with any real Patriots experience was Julian Edelman. Wes Welker is in Denver and injured Rob Gronkowski was rehabbing rather than returning home to be The Gronk. And, of course, Aaron Hernandez gets his name in a much different section of the newspaper these days.
But when the Patriots took over on their 34 with 4:31 to play, was there any real doubt what was coming? No. 12 had none.
“I felt that’s what we were capable of doing,” Brady said. “We had got the ball down in the red area a few times and didn’t get any points out of it. It wasn’t as much moving the ball, it was just not being consistent enough to score points.
“You have to make a big play or string a bunch of good plays together. We didn’t make any big plays today. As we were stringing them together, we just made our own mistakes.”
That list was clear: Stevan Ridley’s fumble that Da’Norris Searcy rumbled and stumbled home for a 74-yard touchdown. The interception Brady threw to Justin Rogers 63 seconds before halftime. And Brady’s stunning fumble on fourth-and-goal at the Bills’ 1 late in the third quarter.
“We’ll see on the film what happened on that one,” Brady said. “I wish it was a touchdown. Seven points is a lot to give up at that point. It was a very critical situation.”
The film will show Brady simply stepped out early before he had the snap. He loves the sneak in that situation and basically never fails. How rare a gaffe was that? Footballoutsiders.com and Sports Illustrated said Brady had converted 88 of 91 runs on third or fourth down and 2 or fewer yards – including 56 straight. In fact, it was the first third and 1 or fourth and 1 he didn’t convert since 2005.
But on the decisive drive, Brady made no mistakes as he went 7 for 7. Two of the throws were crucial third-down conversions to Danny Amendola, the free agent signee who did his best Welker impression by clutching short balls in traffic exactly when his team needed them.
“He really toughed it out, which was pretty impressive,” Brady said of Amendola, who battled through an aggravated groin. “He fought all day.”
Brady and his receivers were out of sync far more than you normally see. Brady threw 14 times to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and completed only four. He missed a few reads and receivers ran some bad routes.
It could have been worse, too, as this was against a secondary that didn’t include Jairus Byrd or Stephon Gilmore. So Brady understood all the attention being paid to the new-look receiving corps.
“This was our first opportunity and things are a lot different on the game field, very unpredictable,” he said. “You’re just trying to react. You’ve got to build confidence in each other.”
Brady is 21-2 against the Bills but admitted this was quite a battle. With all the unknowns the Bills were throwing at them, you wonder if Pats coach Bill Belichick spent the last few weeks checking out more tape on Syracuse (Doug Marrone), Florida State (EJ Manuel) and the New York Jets (Mike Pettine) than anything else.
There was no book on these Bills. Quite a conundrum for the Pats to solve.
“We weren’t perfect,” admitted Belichick. “There’s a lot of things we can do better but they played the last few minutes of the game the way we need to play it.
“There’s always a lot of unknowns on Opening Day. Teams have got a lot of time to prepare and you haven’t seen everything from preseason. It’s always a challenge. … You make a lot of adjustments in all three phases during the game.”
The Patriots had scored 30 or more points in six straight games against the Bills. When they had a 17-7 lead with 1:55 left before halftime, who imagined the streak would not continue?
Who imagined they’d need a field goal in the last five seconds just to survive? Without Brady, they don’t.
“We all know Tom has been in this situation before,” Amendola said. “He’s one of the best. We really rallied behind him. He’s our leader and he did a great job today.”