FOXBOROUGH – This week was about statements.
New England was attempting to make one by winning their fourth and final game without their suspended leader, Tom Brady. Buffalo, meanwhile, coming off its first win of the young 2016 season, was eager to show that it wasn't intimidated to pay a visit to their undefeated division rivals.
The gamesmanship started early in the week, when the one question dominating discussion of the Patriots was who would quarterback New England against the Buffalo Bills.
Both options – veteran Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett – are nursing injuries to their right (throwing) shoulder and hand, respectively. Brissett's sprained thumb appeared to be much less of an issue than Garoppolo's sprained AC joint. The club apparently felt the same way, as Garoppolo was deactivated for the second consecutive game.
Those of us who monitor this team closely – and have done so for many years – were not surprised in the least by this move. We understood that last week's display of Garoppolo throwing passes at practice conspicuously on the field closest to all the media and cameras was little more than a red herring.
Meanwhile, Bills head coach Rex Ryan did his part to put on a show, impersonating Bill Belichick at the podium and pretending to be a member of the media to ask a question to WR Julian Edelman during a conference call.
The Bills then took the psychological warfare to a higher level on the field prior to kickoff. When Brissett came out for pregame warmups, he was jogging along the Patriots sideline, as he and other New England QBs regularly do when they first arrive on the field. Bills safety Robert Blanton took issue, claiming later that the QB was being "disrespectful" for venturing onto the Bills' side of the 50-yard line. He approached Brissett and barked at him before shoving the rookie. A brief scuffle ensued between players and coaches from both clubs.
The Patriots nearly packed an even more powerful counterpunch – figuratively speaking – on the game's first play from scrimmage. However, Julian Edelman's phenomenal 90-yard catch-and-run was negated by a pair of Chris Hogan penalties on the play. That encapsulated New England's entire day.
New England was flagged 15 times against Buffalo (nine penalties were accepted by the Bills). The few times the Patriots moved the ball offensively and got into scoring position, they found a way to thwart themselves. Either they turned the ball over (Brissett lost a fumble), committed costly penalties, missed a field goal, or dropped a catchable touchdown pass.
"We just got out-played; we couldn't execute today," Edelman lamented. "Anytime we have penalties, it just puts you behind down in the count. So, it's tough to overcome those types of things – negative plays – it's hard to establish a rhythm. We turned the ball over, we didn't do well on third down… That's what the game comes down to, is staying ahead in the count, especially against a defense like that, they played well."
"Yeah the biggest setback was, I mean [Buffalo] played very well; they were the better team today," declared tight end Martellus Bennett, one of New England's few bright spots (109 yards on five catches). "We had a lot of negative plays: penalties, holdings, false starts; a lot of setbacks. In those situations, you have to stack as many positive plays as you can. We'll get a couple positives and for every positive we had, we had two negatives. Every two steps we took forward, we took two steps back, so, that was the biggest thing out there today."
"Yeah, every time you start a new drive, you want to gain positive yards. You want to go forward; you don't want to go backwards," echoed TE Rob Gronkowski, who is still admittedly not 100 percent (although he did make his first reception of the season in the early fourth quarter). "You don't want to be second-and-15, you want to be second-and-five, second-and-four and stuff like that. It's tough. It was a tough day. You've got to give hats off to the Bills. They played well. They played better than us today. We've just got to improve overall."
Offensively, Buffalo frequently marched down the field with time-consuming drives. The Patriots' defense had few answers for wide receiver Robert Woods (seven catches, 89 yards) or running back LeSean McCoy (70 yards rushing, 38 receiving). QB Tyrod Taylor proved slippery as well, evading would-be sacks several times to complete passes downfield.
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 2, 2016.
"We didn't' play well from the start – the opening kickoff, defensively not being able to get off the field, [the Bills] moving the ball up and down the field on long drives – we just didn't play well," emphasized safety/co-captain Devin McCourty.
"A lot of times, you're flat because you're not making plays, you're not playing well and there's nothing to get you going, so obviously we've got to keep working. It wasn't a good performance, but we've got to keep working and play better next week."
"If you don't play anywhere near perfect, and we don't make any plays," observed DE Chris Long, "that's a recipe for not a great day."
The Patriots can be counted on to have at least one game each year like this, when they play sloppily against an opponent for four quarters and lose a game they're expected to win. They aren't machines, after all. Chalk it up to just a bad day?
"I mean, you do, but you don't," replied McCourty. "You've got to still go back and see what you did bad and fix those things because obviously whenever you go out here and play a game, you put that on film for teams to watch [and they] will come back and try to do things you didn't handle well. It's not chalked up to [a bad day], they did a good job of playing and out-playing us. So you've got to watch the film and be prepared for next week and the weeks after to see the things we didn't handle well today.
This was the first time the Patriots have ever been shut out on the scoreboard at Gillette and the first time as a franchise since Drew Bledsoe's rookie year in 1993.
The good news for New England?
Once they have games like this, they generally don't repeat the poor performance in that same season. That… and Brady suits up again next Sunday in Cleveland.
"It's going to be good. He's our leader and it's going to be great to have him out there," predicted Edelman. "We're going to have to have a great week of preparation to get back in sync. That's where it all starts from, going out there and having a good week in practice. We had a good practice this week, we just didn't turn it on.
"You got to tip your hat to the Buffalo Bills. They just out-played us and now we have to move on and start thinking about Cleveland."