TAMPA, Fla. – Win or lose, defense would be this game's primary focus. So, it seemed fitting that New England's would have to be called on to preserve a tough road win in the final seconds.
Throughout the month of September and the beginning of October, the demise of the New England D has been a growing concern. At or near the top in most NFL categories a year ago, New England's defense came to Tampa at the opposite end of the statistical spectrum.
Worse than the actual numbers, perhaps – the prevailing sentiment that this 2017 Patriots squad has been playing heretofore like the worst defensive group head coach Bill Belichick has ever had in New England (or maybe ever).
"I was out to prove something," admitted cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who bore much of the recent criticism. "You know you've got to perform. If you don't, people are going to talk, but when you do, they'll be back again [supporting you]."
Yet, the Buccaneers' defense didn't have much reason to brag, either, after four games this season. They found themselves in the defensive basement with the Patriots by most measuring sticks, while both teams' offenses have predominantly been productive through the first quarter of this regular season.
Still, after last weekend's seemingly rock-bottom performance against the Carolina Panthers, would the Patriots be able to regroup on defense quickly enough to pay a rare regular season visit to Tampa Bay on just three days' rest? Would this be the rallying cry moment New England needed to turn their defensive fortunes around?
After one quarter of play, it looked like New England's defense was responding well to the challenge. The Patriots blanked the Bucs thanks by forcing them to punt on two short possessions.
"It was a lot better. [We were] communicating better, went out there and played with good confidence," remarked cornerback Malcolm Butler. "As a group, we had a good week of practice. It was short, so, we just went out there and got it done. It helped us focus more because we knew we didn't have much time to prepare. There was a sense of urgency."
Early in the second quarter, though, they had Tampa Bay at a severe disadvantage – 3rd-and-20 from the Patriots' 33 – and appeared to thwart yet another Bucs drive. However, New England committed a pair of penalties on that play, which gave Tampa an automatic 1st down. The Bucs capitalized several plays later with a go-ahead touchdown by newly-returned running back Doug Martin.
The Patriots responded, though, on both sides of the ball. QB Tom Brady directed the offense on a 9-play, 75-yard scoring drive to reclaim the lead. Then, in their next must-stop opportunity, a 3rd-and-9 from the Tampa Bay 26, New England's defense came up with a big play. QB Jameis Winston's deep throw down the sideline should have been picked off by Duron Harmon, but the safety couldn't hold on as he collided with teammate Malcolm Butler and the intended Bucs receiver.
Nevertheless, Tampa was forced to punt, and Danny Amendola set his offense up nicely with a nifty 40-yard return into Buccaneer territory. The O added a field goal to head into intermission with a 13-7 lead.
At the start of the second half, the Patriots escaped the opening drive when Butler, beaten badly by WR DeSean Jackson, saw Winston's pass sail too far from his intended target. The Bucs punted yet again and the Patriots tacked on another field goal to pad their margin.
The New England Patriots take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a regular season game at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday, October 5, 2017.
It looked like the Patriots had stuffed Tampa again on the next possession, but a foolish neutral zone infraction penalty by Brandon Bolden just before the Bucs punted gave Tampa Bay the ball back, but couldn't take advantage of that opportunity or a couple of others the Patriots gave them in the second half, until the Buccaneers finally found the end zone again just before the two-minute warning.
"He made some good throws. He's a good quarterback. He made some plays in the fourth quarter," added Gilmore about Winston.
It proved too little, too late, however, as the Patriots recovered the ensuing on-side kick and added one more Stephen Gostkowski field goal to increase the lead, yet still give Tampa one last chance. In the end, a defensed Winston pass at the goal line proved the deciding factor.
"We go over those situations throughout training camp and the last day of preparation [each week]," Butler pointed out later. "It most definitely came up tonight and we were well-prepared for it."
"[Defense] played great," running back James White maintained. "We try to play complementary football, and as an offense, we could have helped them out more, put more points on the board, but they played lights-out.
"It's definitely good to get a win, coming off last week. As a team, we know we have a lot of things to work on, but it was good to get a win off a short week."
"We grinded it out, man," observed wide receiver Danny Amendola. "It was a long game, came down to the last play. Defense stepped up, played great at the end. We're happy we won… we're stoked."
New England played a lot more man coverage in this game than they had in their first four contests, and it seemed to work well most of the night. Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski's surprise deactivation because of a mysterious left thigh contusion – How did he injure himself in a week of non-padded, non-contact practices? – certainly didn't help matters on offense, but it didn't prove fatal on this night.
"We did a good job of defending the lead and coming out with a victory," said third corner Jonathan Jones, who knocked down the final pass in the end zone. "We have to see what we did wrong. I think it's a step in the right direction. You take the win any way you can get it."
As Thursday games go, this was a typical one – low-scoring, sloppy, penalty-marred. And the Patriots certainly benefitted from a terrible night by Tampa kicker Nick Folk, who missed three field goals.
But on a night when New England's powerful offense wasn't at its best, the still-imperfect Patriots' defense finally played its best game of the season. And it couldn't have come at a better time. What remains to be seen is if this is the start of a positive trend or just a one-off.