New England's offense performed exactly as expected Sunday afternoon. Sadly, the Patriots defense did as well.
The versatile, potent Patriots attack moved the ball at will against a porous Buffalo Bills defense, but New England's equally ineffective defense allowed the Bills to remain competitive to the very end. Patriots defenders came down with two interceptions at critical junctures, although both of those big plays had more to do with errant throws by new Bills starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, with New England clinging to a 31-23 lead, Fitzpatrick tried to hit a wide open Roscoe Parrishcrossing underneath in the Patriots red zone. However, Fitzpatrick's pass sailed high and into the waiting arms of Patriots safety Patrick Chung, which came down with the ball in his own end zone before advancing to his team's 25-yard line.
Tom Bradythen marched the Patriots offense 75 yards in 13 plays, ending in a BenJarvus Green-Ellistouchdown run to inflate their lead to 38-23. But Buffalo wasn't finished.
"Obviously the one play that kills me is that turnover in the red zone," Fitzpatrick said afterward. "Just a ball where Roscoe is open. They pick it off. And then they bring it back and score. That kind of changed the game. But all you can ask for is a chance to redeem yourself."
And he did. Fitzpatrick responded by leading his team 80 yards in just seven plays, the final one being an excellent look-off touchdown pass 37 yards to Steve Johnson. The throw threaded the needle of two Patriots defenders (Chung and rookie cornerback Devin McCourty) and gave the Bills hope with about four minutes to go in the game.
That would be the end to the scoring on this shoot-out of an afternoon, however. After forcing the Patriots to punt on their next possession, the Bills got the ball back, but Fitzpatrick promptly surrendered it by throwing another interception, this time to safety Brandon Meriweather, sealing the Bills' fate.
"That's the situation as a quarterback that you want to be in. And I thought that was great and we were playing as a team right there, and feeding off each other. But it didn't turn out the way we wanted it to," Fitzpatrick added.
"It's one of those situations where I tried to force something where we weren't in a situation where we needed to start forcing balls. We had time and we could have driven it down the field. [I] just tried to throw it to David Nelsonon a corner route and it wasn't the throw I wanted. I'm not upset with either one of the decisions. You know, both throws and how they ended up were both high, which is upsetting. The throw to Roscoe, I could throw a hundred times. I could throw it in my sleep and I'm just disgusted that that one sailed high."
Fitzpatrick has every right to feel confident about his choices. Both of his intended receivers were open on the interceptions, and if either pass is completed, the outcome of the game could have been altered.
As efficient as Brady was on the day (21-for-27, 252 yards, 3 TDs), Fitzpatrick was nearly identical (20-for-28, 247 yards, 2 TDs), save the INTs. The Bills, who'd struggled on third down plays in their previous two games, were successful half the time Sunday against the Patriots defense -- a unit that continues to give up more points than it did the previous week.
New England's defenders, at least, acknowledge that they aren't playing well enough to sustain them through the rest of the long season ahead.
"Nothing outweighs the score. The less points they score, the better chance you have to win," Chung noted. "You have to diminish those points, execute, and if you have big plays, it's going to help, but you have to stop the points, too.
"You can't get complacent. We've got a lot of games to go … just got to get better off this one."
"You always want to keep them down as much as possible," said linebacker Gary Guyton. "It's definitely something we want to try to get better at – coming in and playing good defense as a unit. I think you can always improve. We'll come in tomorrow and sit down, watch film, kick ourselves to try to get better."
The Patriots defense should be thankful that it has such a powerful offense to help pick up the slack. An offense that may have lost a valuable weapon in third-down back Kevin Faulk, but that may have gained a threat in newly-acquired Danny Woodhead, who started his first NFL game and scored his first touchdown as a pro.
But New England succeeded offensively, more often than not, by avoiding third downs altogether.
"We had positive gains on first and second down, and not even having to put ourselves in that situation," wide receiver Wes Welkerobserved, "it's always big to get ahead on first and second down. We were able to mix it up and try to take advantage of some mismatches."
"I think there was some good situational football as well. That field goal just before halftime, getting the ball with 30 seconds. To move it and get three points with 30 seconds left, those are critical points in the game," Brady commented.
"We go into the locker room feeling good about what we're doing and knowing that we can go out and move the ball. It was just a good win for us. It was a good win. This week will be a great week. We got to win up there. We've got to win a meaningful game on the road. If we're going to be a good team, we've got to start winning on the road."
For that to happen, New England's defense needs to make dramatic improvements immediately. It won't be enough to rely on the opposing quarterback to make a mistakes. As Brady alluded, the Patriots head to Miami – a place that's always given them trouble – for a Monday Night Football showdown with the Dolphins next week.