ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – By their own admission, the Patriots were fortunate to leave western New York with a victory. New England nearly beat itself, mostly because of turnovers, which stalled drives and led directly to Buffalo points that kept the Bills in the game till the very end.
In the first half, the Patriots were the ones capitalizing on Bills mistakes, scoring both their touchdowns after Kyle Arrington forced Buffalo fumbles and the Patriots defense recovered. However, New England returned the favor several times, but came through with a much-needed long, sustained drive to win the game in the closing seconds.
Here are some other observations that stood out from our vantage point in the Ralph Wilson press box Sunday afternoon:
…After aggravating his right groin injury in the first half, which limited him in practice this past week, wide receiver Danny Amendola returned in the second and put on a truly gutsy performance./He made several crucial catches and absorbed some major hits to keep New England's hopes for a win alive when the situation seemed bleakest. His effort was very reminiscent of his predecessor, Wes Welker.
…Amendola and Julian Edelman aside (two first-half TDs), Tom Brady and his receivers just couldn't connect consistently for much of the day. Rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who flourished in the preseason, had significant trouble getting separation from the Bills secondary, which was operating without staring safety Jairus Byrd and starting corner Stephon Gilmore. Brady targeted Thompkins 14 times, but the rookie came down with just four of those balls. In all, Brady had 23 misfires: nine underthrown passes and eight overthrows. He completed 29 passes.
… Thompkins and Brady did have one particularly nice hookup in the first half, which demonstrated the rookie's football acumen. It came in the second quarter as Thompkins was running a go-route down the left sideline. He spotted that the other receiving options for Brady were well covered, so he cut short his route and turned back to Brady, who spotted Thompkins after going through his progression. Brady fired a nice pass across the field and his Thompkins for a nice gain. Excellent recognition by both players.
…RB Stevan Ridley got away with another fumble on the opening drive (Buffalo challenged, but lost), but his troubles holding onto the ball are a concern. Later in the second quarter, he slipped on the Ralph Wilson turf on his own and fumbled. The Bills returned that one for a touchdown. He was benched from there on out, replaced primarily by Shane Vereen, who took full advantage of the opportunity. Vereen more than doubled his single-game career high rushing with 101 yards on the ground. Vereen ran hard and protected the football very well, putting both arms around the ball whenever Bills defenders came close to him. Ridley's history of fumbling just might be a long-term concern for him and his starting job.
…LT Nate Solder lined up as tackle eligible several times in the game. Marcus Cannon replaced him at left tackle. With James Develin at fullback, it seemed the Patriots were employing this tactic to make up for the loss of Rob Gronkowski as a blocking tight end. Solder even motioned from one side of the formation to the other a few times. That was a new wrinkle in the offense using the tackle eligible. Hadn't seen that from him before.
…Brandon Spikes left the game very early in the first quarter because of dehydration. The linebacker later returned (in the second half), but looked very slow and out of position far too often. He made headlines this offseason, you'll recall, for choosing to skip the team's voluntary strength and conditioning program, opting to work out on his own down in Florida. If today was any indication, the results of that decision seem to have backfired on him.
… … CB Aqib Talib seemed to know right away that he blew his assignment on the Bills' touchdown just before halftime. New England was in a cover-2 deep in their own territory, and he failed to stay with his man, rookie WR Robert Woods, who simply ran to the open space between Talib and the nearest safety, Steve Gregory, for a wide-open scoring reception. Immediately afterward, Talib dropped his head looking in the direction of Gregory, as if admitting fault. Talib may have thought he was supposed to stay put and cover the flat.
…Rookie holder Ryan Allen did a great job on a bad snap on the first FG attempt of the season. He pivoted sharply to his right to snag the ball that was far off target and got it down on the correct spot for Stephen Gostkowski to drill a 48-yard first-quarter field goal. Allen hasn't held for kicks in games previously in his college career. This is his first experience in that role, and he acquitted himself well.
…As encouraged as I was to see the team re-sign running back/kick return man Leon Washington, I was equally discouraged to see that he was deactivated for the Bills game. New England's kick return game desperately needs improving over last season, and Washington, who was second in the league in that department for Seattle a season ago, could be just the player for that role. However, in pregame warm-ups, he was seen limping through exercises under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash. Seems he just wasn't fit to perform today.
…The Aaron Dobson downgrade was also a major surprise. Typically, when a player is seriously injured, he is not allowed to speak to reporters until he is cleared to play again. Dobson practiced all last week (albeit on a limited basis) and conducted media interviews once during the week. That the team's second-round pick was not made available on opening day was disappointing.