Tuesday, September 15, 2009

By the skin of their teeth

Bet you didn't expect this, Pats fans.

Whether it was the late fourth-quarter, 11-point deficit, the fumble by Leodis McKelvin with around two minutes left, or the last-minute comeback, there was plenty of room for the unforeseen and surprising in Monday night's season opener between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills.

The return of Tom Brady against a perennial punching bag was supposed to be the return of 35-point games, three Brady-to-Moss touchdowns and everything else we associate with 2007.

It wasn't.

Instead, the Gillette Stadium crowd had to wonder what was going on as the Brady-led offense suffered bouts of sloppiness that derailed promising drives, and the Jerod Mayo-less defense (Mayo was sidelined with a knee injury) allowed the Bills to stay ahead, and eventually, strike again for a 24-13 lead with 5:32 left.

And then, the Patriots came alive - though the Bills were happy to oblige.

Brady finally found the endzone on a pass to Ben Watson with 2:06 left, and after a failed two-point conversion kept the score at 24-19, the Patriots were kicking off. The only question was whether to onside kick or kick it deep, not whether New England needed help to have a chance at the dramatic victory.

Stephen Gostkowski kicked it deep, into the endzone, and into the hands of Leodis McKelvin. Last year's top kick returner in the NFL took it out. He was hit first by Brandon Meriweather, then by Pierre Woods. The ball came out. Gostkowski, a kicker whose athleticism, toughness and heads-up mentality provides many memories of Adam Vinatieri, recovered at the Buffalo 31.

Patriots ball. Somehow, someway.

From there, it was just a review of what has made the Patriots the NFL's top franchise since 2001. Brady took the field and took command, finding Randy Moss (12 receptions, 141 yards) for six yards, Wes Welker (12 receptions, 93 yards) for nine, and then, on an identical play that resulted in the first score, Watson in the back of the endzone.

New England 25, Buffalo 24. After a last-ditch effort by the Bills to get into field goal range, that's how it ended.

It was a remarkable win for the Patriots, and a crushing loss for the Bills (who lost in similar mind-blowing fashion to Dallas in 2007). Despite the excitement, there are several questions that have to be addressed:

1) Can the Patriots figure out how to stop the screen? Last year, the Patriots were consistently burned by deep passes. On Monday night, it was the screen pass that was a thorn in the Patriots' side. The linebacking corps of Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods and Gary Guyton had a difficult time containing Fred Jackson, who caught five passes for 83 yards. One was for 18 yards on a 3rd-and-15 on Buffalo's final scoring drive, and another was for 10 yards and the touchdown. Screen passes are deadly to a defense; they negate good schemes to shut down the rest of the scoring attack, and they can completely reverse the momentum the defense is building.

2) What is the situation with Jerod Mayo? The new defensive co-captain, expected to be the top linebacker in only his second season, was injured when Gary Guyton stepped on his leg early in the game. He didn't return, and the Patriots had a tough time finding an adequate replacement for him, as Woods and Guyton had the above problems. News broke today that the injury shouldn't be serious, but there is no exact timetable out yet. If he misses any action, the Patriots will have to figure out a solution. Fortunately, they have Bill Belichick, who has made a legacy out of finding the best way to plug big holes on defense.

3) How much more offensive sloppiness will we see? Compared to the top two questions, this is less of an issue. Brady and Co. struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, but they found a way to get it done when they had to - twice. Simple rustiness seemed to explain the first half. With a full game under the belt, the offense should look more like the potent unit we were expecting

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