Patriots rally for 23-21 victory over Bills

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Patriots rally for 23-21 victory over Bills

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 their 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 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 Kenbrell Thompson 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 that 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 long of work ahead of us . . . But it's good to start with a win."

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass-rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

MORE: How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track. 

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

How does Derek Carr's new deal impact Jimmy Garoppolo?

Ever since Derek Carr signed a five-year, $125 million extension with the Raiders to give him the highest average annual contract value in league history, some version of the same question has been posed over and over again. 

What does this mean for other quarterbacks looking for new deals? 

Despite the fact that Carr's average annual value surpasses the previous high set by Andrew Luck ($24.6 million), and despite the fact that Carr's contract provides him the security that alluded him while he was on his rookie contract, his recent haul may not mean much for the likes of Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and other top-end quarterbacks.

They were already expecting monster paydays down the road that would hit (or eclipse) the $25 million range, and Carr's record-setting contract may not even serve as a suitable baseline for them, as ESPN's Dan Graziano lays out.

So if Carr's contract did little more for upper-echelon quarterbacks than confirm for them where the market was already headed, then does it mean anything for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo? 

Carr and Garoppolo were both second-round picks in 2014, but from that point, they've obviously taken very different roads as pros. Carr started 47 consecutive games in his first three years and by last season he had established himself as one of the most valuable players in the league. Garoppolo, by comparison, has started two games. 

Both players still hold loads of promise, but unless Garoppolo sees substantial playing time in 2017 and then hits the open market, he won't approach Carr's deal when his rookie contract is up.  

ESPN's Mike Reiss projected that a fair deal for Garoppolo on the open market might fall between the $19 million that was guaranteed to Chicago's Mike Glennon and Carr's contract, which includes $40 million fully guaranteed and $70 million in total guarantees, per NFL Media.

Perhaps something in the range of what Brock Osweiler received from the Texans after Osweiler started seven games for the Broncos in 2015 would be considered fair: four years, with $37 million guaranteed. Because Osweiler (before his deal or since) never seemed as polished as Garoppolo was in his two games as a starter in 2016, and because the salary cap continues to soar, the argument could be made that Garoppolo deserves something even richer. 

Though Garoppolo is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2017 season, there is a chance he doesn't get there quite that quickly. The Patriots could try to come to some kind of agreement with their backup quarterback on an extension that would keep him in New England, or they could place the franchise tag on him following the season. 

Either way, Garoppolo will get paid. But until he sees more time on the field, a deal that would pay him in the same range as his draft classmate will probably be out of reach.