You can still count on Tom Brady

You can still count on Tom Brady
September 9, 2013, 12:15 pm
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“Time is getting short for the New England Patriots . . .”

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel said that yesterday in Buffalo, as Tom Brady and the Pats took the field with 4:31 left to play. At the time, the Bills led 21-20, and you could say that it had been a tough day for the New England offense. Stevan Ridley was on the sidelines, benched after two early fumbles (even if only one of them counted). Rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins looked lost. Rookie receiver Josh Boyce, even more so. The tight ends? They were non-existent. On the afternoon, Brady targeted his tight ends twice. The first resulted in an interception, and the second, a five-yard completion on third and 11. Danny Amendola was playing, but battling a nagging groin. (He and Julian Edelman were the only two targets Brady had any confidence in.)

For his part, the quarterback was far from perfect. The spiral wasn’t as tight as we’ve seen in the past, and there were numerous instances where he looked uncomfortable in the pocket (the most unTom Brady of traits). On top of it all, he fumbled the snap on a fourth-and-goal at the goal line. Of course, it didn’t help that he’d been under pressure all game, and already spent more time face down on the Ralph Wilson turf than you ever want to see from your 36-year-old franchise quarterback.

But despite all that, this is what New England lives for. Tom Brady under center, with one drive standing between the Patriots and a victory.

If there’s no faith in that, there’s no faith at all.

On first down, Brady hit Shane Vereen for a quick two-yard flare pass. It was basically a hand-off, and it didn’t get New England very far.

(Vereen moved into the featured back role after Ridley’s benching and was the Pats most consistent offensive weapon on the day. He finished with 101 yards on 14 carries, while catching seven balls for another 58 yards. And most importantly: NO FUMBLES.)

“And as we hit the four-minute mark, Buffalo with a 21-20 lead on New England . . . 2nd and 8.”

That’s Gumbel again, as Brady hits Vereen (again) on a five-yard slant.

(Vereen’s a natural receiver. You can see it in the way he lines up wide, the confidence with which he runs his routes and the instincts he shows once the ball is in the air. It’s not uncommon to see a running back used as a receiver in today’s NFL, but it’s rare to see a running back that doesn’t look totally awkward in the process. That’s Vereen. A receiver in a damn good running back’s body.)

“Here’s a 3rd and 3. Let’s see if they do more than just fake pressure . . .”

This is Dan Dierdorf, wondering what we all were: Is Buffalo really going to just stand back and let Brady pick them apart?

Yes. Yes they were.

Now with 3:20 left on the game clock and 14 seconds on the play clock, Brady walks up to the line (his own 41) and points out a few adjustments. He then steps back, signals for Danny Amendola to come in motion, and HIKE. Brady drops and fires the balls a few inches above an official’s head and right into the arms of a streaking (clothes on) Amendola, who then slips between three defenders for the first down.

“As we come up on two and a half to play . . .”

A draw to Vereen (six yards, up the gut) brings the ball into Bills’ territory with 2:30 left, and then on 2nd and 4, Brady finds Amendola, who catches the ball one yard short of the marker, takes one hard step left, puts his head down and explodes right for another three yards and another Patriots first down.

(Amendola’s often compared to Wes Welker because he’s shifty, sure-handed and white; so much so that the comparison has lost most of its meaning. The camera could catch Amendola scratching his butt on the sideline and someone would be there to point out: “Ooh . . . he did that just like Welker.”

That said, Amendola’s catch on this particular second down was so unbelievably Welker-like. The way he carved out space in the zone, how his feet were always moving and his willingness to give up his body for the first down . . . Aaah! I’ve become everything I despise. And we’re at the two-minute warning.)

“Back at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, it’s first down New England. They trail by one, with a minute 58 to play— (whistle!!)”

A false start on Dan Connolly moves New England back five yards to their own 46. Bad timing for the offensive lineman, but overall it was only New England’s fourth penalty on the day (for a total of 36 yards). That’s pretty good, especially compared to Buffalo’s 10 penalties for 75 yards.

On first and 15, Brady’s back in the shotgun and finds Amendola over the middle for a simple four-yard slant. On 2nd and 11, it’s Brady to Vereen again on a short out pattern. Vereen doesn’t get much (only three yards) but battles out of bounds with 1:20 left.

“Third and 9 and . . . Oh! Amendola!”

Just another ridiculous catch by No. 80. This one’s deflected at the line, but Brady (under immense pressure) manages to sneak it by, as Amendola, body parallel to the ground, throws his hands up and makes the grab seconds before being undercut by safety Aaron Williams.

(Amendola was heavily criticized in the media before even playing a snap in New England because of his reputation for always being hurt. And when he limped off the field in the first half after re-aggravating his groin, the reaction was predictably insane . . . and retroactively embarrassing. Is it troubling that it didn’t even take a game for the injury-prone Amendola to come up limping? Of course. This won’t be the last time that his groin’s a problem. But in this case, maybe we need to make a distinction between “injury prone” and  “soft”; there should be a way to worry about Amendola’s ability to stay on the field, without questioning his toughness.)

“New set of downs for Brady at the 29 . . .”

Once again in the shotgun, Brady hands it off to Vereen, who immediately finds himself four yards behind the line of scrimmage and face-to-face with 6-5, 300 pound tackle Alex Carrington. Vereen simply runs around Carrington, and looks up to see 6-7 Nate Solder out in front, running at full speed and ready to end anyone who gets in his way. Vereen follows Solder’s path for 15 yards and first down. Perhaps most importantly, Vereen has the presence of mind to stay in bounds, and keep the clock moving.

Buffalo takes their second timeout with 56 seconds left.

“Tom Brady knows that he is within game-winning field goal range . . .”

Yes he does, Mr. Gumbel, which would explain why Brady takes the first down snap and falls to his right in an attempt to center the kick for Stephen Gostkowski.

Buffalo takes their third and final timeout with 54 seconds left.

“Tom Brady will take a knee, and they’ll let some time run off . . .”

With nine seconds left, the Patriots take a time out. With five seconds left, Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal splits the uprights. And just like that, the Patriots escaped.

On the final drive, Brady was 6-6 for 34 yards, and two for two on third down. He wasn’t flashy, but he was flawless. He patiently, calmly and methodically did exactly what he needed for the Patriots to come home with a win.

Final score: New England 23, Buffalo 21.

OK, so, what do we take from a game like this?

On one hand, like at least 5,000,000 people have said since the moment Gostkowski’s kick went through — a win is a win. It won’t be long before no one either cares or remembers how it went down yesterday in Buffalo. How hyped the crowd was as Brady took the field for the final drive. How close the Pats were to dropping their first Week 1 game since 10 years ago in that same stadium, and opening themselves up to a short week of panicked criticism from every corner of New England. But, in reality?

You can’t get too down on the defense. After all, they only gave up two touchdowns on the day, and repeatedly made stops in the fourth quarter; keeping the game close while the offense jogged in place. All in all, the defense was OK. They played well enough to win.

At the same time, there were obvious break downs in the secondary, and for all the talk about the mind games Belichick’s defense would play on the Bills’ rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel never looked all that confused or uncomfortable. The Pats didn’t sack him once, and barely pressured him. Manuel was 18-27 for 150 yards and two TDs. His rating was an impressive 105.5; even more impressive compared to Brady’s 76.4.

How low is that for Brady? Over the last three regular seasons (48 games), he’s posted a lower QB rating only five times. And this time, it came against a Bills defense that isn’t that good to begin with and was missing their best cover man (Stephen Gilmore) and Pro Bowl safety (Jairus Byrd). Other than that last drive, Brady and the offense pretty much followed the script set out by every Patriots cynic in the business. Amendola got hurt. The rookies looked lost. Brady lost his temper. The tight ends gave them nothing. Ridley couldn’t hold onto the ball.

If not for that one drive, New England would be a miserable place today. And in some circles, it still will be. While a win is a win, this one provided as many new questions as it did answers. The Pats left us with plenty to talk about, as we wait out the requisite few months it takes to learn what any team is truly made of.

But in the meantime, and for all the indecision, there’s one weapon that the Patriots have that, short of an injury, no one can take away.

That’s Tom Brady under center, with one drive standing between the Pats and a victory.

When time is getting short, sometimes that’s all you need.

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