They don't have Wes Welker. They don't have Rob Gronkowski or, for that matter, Aaron Hernandez. Their rookie receivers looked lost at times, their tight ends were all but useless (at least as far as receiving is concerned), and their lead back couldn't hold onto the ball.
But the New England Patriots still have Tom Brady. On Sunday, that was enough to beat the Buffalo Bills.
Brady engineered the 36th game-winning fourth-quarter comeback of his career, driving the Patriots 49 yards in 12 plays to set up a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal with five seconds to play that lifted them to a skin-of-their-teeth 23-21 victory, their 10th consecutive Opening Day win.
It salvaged an afternoon in which the Pats committed two turnovers that led directly to 14 Buffalo points, committed another that cost them seven points of their own, and found them trailing 21-17 with nearly 11 minutes left.
"I didn't have a lot of doubt [that the Pats could pull it out]," said Brady. "I felt like that's what we were capable of doing."
"Tom, as always, competed as he always does and made some great throws at critical times," said coach Bill Belichick.
At the beginning, it didn't seem like the the Pats would need a fourth-quarter comeback on this day.
A C.J. Spiller fumble -- forced by Kyle Arrington and recovered by Tommy Kelly -- gave the Patriots the ball on the Buffalo 16, and Brady rifled a nine-yard scoring pass to Julian Edelman 47 seconds later for a 7-0 lead. Then, after a 16-yard punt return by Edelman set up New England at the 50, Gostkowski finished off a nine-play drive with a 48-yard field goal that made it 10-0.
That was how the first quarter ended, and the Pats continued their domination in the next quarter as they drove to the Buffalo 24. But that's when Stevan Ridley committed the second -- and last -- of his fumbles for the day (the Pats had recovered the first), stumbling to the ground untouched and dropping the ball. Da'Norris Searcy picked it up and raced 74 yards for a touchdown. It cut the Patriots' lead to 10-7 and earned Ridley a seat on the bench for the rest of the day.
New England recovered nicely; Arrington forced another fumble -- Rob Ninkovich recovered this one -- and the Pats got the ball on the Buffalo 32. It took four plays for them to capitalize, as Brady hooked up again with Edelman for an eight-yard TD that made it 17-7. And they seemed poised to add to the lead when the defense forced a three-and-out, allowing Brady and company to take over on their own 25 with 1:14 left in the half.
But Justin Rogers stole the ball from rookie tight end Zack Sudfeld on the New England 31 on a second-and-four pass, and returned it to the 18. On the next play, E.J. Manuel hit Robert Woods in the end zone . . . and a game the Pats could have led by as many as 24 points was suddenly 17-14 at halftime.
"We let them back in the game with some turnovers," said Belichick. "We've got to take care of the ball better, that's all there is to it."
And -- astoundingly -- it got worse.
First, the Bills went 80 yards in 11 plays after the second-half kickoff, with an 18-yard, Manuel-to-Steve Johnson pass putting Buffalo ahead 21-17.
Then, the Pats drove from their 20 to the Buffalo 1, where they faced a fourth down. Belichick went for the touchdown instead of the field goal, but Brady fumbled the snap and the Bills recovered . . . the third lost turnover of the day, costing them seven more points.
And then, when they got deep into Buffalo territory on their NEXT possession, both Edelman and Kembrell Thompkins led catchable passes go through their hands in the end zone. They eventually got to the 5, but that's where the drive stalled and they were forced to settle for a 33-yard Gostkowski field goal that cut Buffalo's lead to 21-20 with 10:52 left.
The Pats' defense then stepped up, holding the Bills to only one first down on their next two possessions and keeping the score at 21-20.
It was enough, however, to get them in field-goal range. That's all Brady needed.
He simplified things on the last drive -- which started at the New England 34 with 4:31 left -- by turning exclusively to the three players on the field he trusted: Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. He completed a six-yard pass to Amendola on a third-and-three for a first down; found Amendola again on the Buffalo 29 with a 10-yard pass on a third-and-eight, and then -- for only the second time in the drive -- called a running play, which caught the Bills defense flat-footed. Vereen burst off left tackle, got to the outside and stayed in bounds as the raced 15 yards to the Bills 14 with 56 seconds to go, putting them well within Gostkowski's range.
"That was a huge run [Vereen] had at the end," said Belichick, "[to] get us down in field-goal range, keep the ball in bounds and force them to use another time out. It was a good play and it was a smart play."
Brady called two more runs to run down the clock and position the ball for Gostkowski, and the veteran kicker drilled it through the middle for the victory.
"We got a long way to go," said Brady. "We got a lot of work ahead of us . . . But it's good to start with a win."