by Greg Doyle
A second look at the Patriots 19-17 opening day win over Buffalo reveals it was not nearly the near disaster portrayed by some. In fact, these eyes felt the Patriots played well for the most part. I heard one shrieking media person who longs to make himself more relevent than he is wondering aloud whether they were only 2 points better than Buffalo and thus a middle of the pack, mediocre team. Kind of a ridiculous question considering they were 6 points worse than a terrible Cincinnati team on opening day in 2001…..and then won the Super Bowl, that they were 31 points worse than a 6-10 Buffalo team on opening day in 2003….and then won the Super Bowl….and were 14 points worse than Pittsburgh early in the season in 2004…..and then won the Super Bowl knocking off the same Pittsburgh team by 14 along the way.
The point is, yes the Patriots only won by 2. But they beat a Buffalo team that played pretty well, that isn’t as bad as people think and which only scored 10 points on offense all day long. You can’t take out the first play, but it is not like that score resulted from a long stretch of being outplayed. It was simply one bad play. Disregard that one, albeit significant, screw up to open the game and the Patriots outplayed Buffalo by 9 the rest of the way and were driving for another potential score as time ran out. I don’t see the problem.
QUARTERBACKS: It was far from Tom Brady’s best performance. He wasn’t real sharp. But he made some good throws too. The first touchdown pass to Troy Brown was vintage Tom Brady. The throw for the touchdown to Kevin Faulk for the Patriots second touchdown was a thing of beauty. The throw to Reche Caldwell for a big 24 yard gain on the tying field goal drive was also very well placed. It wasn’t his best day, but it more resulted from circumstances than anything else and he seemed to get things cranked up a little better in the second half.
RUNNING BACKS: Obviously, Laurence Maroney’s debut was electrifying. Watching some of his runs over and over again today, I can’t think of another back in the entire NFL who hits the hole and gets upfield as quickly as he does. Give him a little room and boom, he is downfield 4-5 yards quicker than the defense knows what hit them. Its early, but he showed potential Sunday that he could quickly become one of the very best backs in the NFL. He did have one drop in the passing game, however, and it remains unproven how he’ll contribute in that area. Corey Dillon ran very hard and had an outstanding day as well. You have to like the physical pounding he laid on Buffalo. He has been doing that since his first carry in exhibition game one and seems determined to dish out as much punishment on defenses as possible this year and to run his absolute hardest every single carry he gets. He looks like a man on a mission. My only concern is, he clearly seems to have lost a little bit of speed and one wonders if he can continue to withstand the pounding will surely take given the way he is running or if he’ll wear down a bit. The fact he’ll be splitting time with Maroney will be a blessing for him, but perhaps at some point this year the staff should consider limiting Dillon’s carries for 3-4 games in a row so that he is fresh in the cold weather December and January games when his current style will be best utilized. Kevin Faulk had a good game in limited time. When the Pats have a game they need to open it up a bit more, Faulk should continue to be a great weapon for them and he did have that outstanding one touchdown catch.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Not a lot of production from the three that were active, but Troy Brown did have a nice touchdown catch. Reche Caldwell made two nice plays on both his catches. The first a nice run for a 9 yard gain on a quick receiver screen and the second a nice 24 yard catch in traffic with the safety bearing down on him to keep the game-tying drive going.
TIGHT END: Three catches by Ben Watson, including two big ones that kept drives moving. On a day when the Patriots have a different, more air-oriented game plan, Watson showed he will be a dangerous weapon. Daniel Graham had a nice catch to help a drive going and kill the clock. He also blocked well all day long in the running game. Watson did miss one block that helped cause a sack and he remains inconsistent at that area of his game.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A somewhat tough day for Matt Light. He was good in the running game, but struggled versus Bills speed rusher Aaron Schobel. Speed rushers typically give Light the most trouble and one wonders why the Patriots didn’t give Light more help as they have typically done with teams that have skilled speed rushers. But with only three receivers active, perhaps it was difficult to use backs and tight ends to help out as much when you needed them running routes. The good news for Light is next week’s opponent, the Jets, have traded away John Abraham, another speed rusher who typically gave Light trouble. Ryan O’Callaghan struggled as well in his NFL debut. He seemed to settle down in the second half and showed great potential in pre-season, so we’ll chalk it up to opening day nerves. Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen, on the other hand, were beasts on the line and had great days. Mankins has really improved in a year and dominated in run blocking. Koppen too really has shown how good he is since he returned in the pre-season from his major shoulder injury of last year. The holes he has been helping create in the middle of defenses really is apparent and its clear he is a difference maker on the line. Its no wonder the Patriots running game really kicked into gear with Koppen back in the lineup and doing great work in the middle.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A very solid performance with just one bad whiff by Vince Wilfork on Anthony Thomas’ 18 yard touchdown run for the Bills the one blemish. Besides that, Ty Warren continued his upgraded play from last year, a trend he started in the pre-season. Richard Seymour was his typical good self and Vince Wilfork played a lot better in the second half. There are few worries with this unit.
LINEBACKER: A good performance. Roosevelt Colvin made several good plays and was stout all day long in stringing plays out wide. Tully Banta-Cain, though he didn’t have a sack, caused some disruption and was also good in the running game. In the middle, Mike Vrabel was excellent and Junior Seau solid and seemed to follow the flow of the defense, particularly in the second half. He was the Patriots leading tackler.
SECONDARY: The cornerbacks had a good day, particularly Ellis Hobbs. At safety, Eugene Wilson had an outstanding day and was all over the field. He looked comfortable again back there after an inconsistent 2005. Rodney Harrison had a pretty uneventful return to the lineup and got off to a slow start. He even missed a tackle on Bills running back Willis McGahee, something you rarely see. Harrison is perhaps the best form tackler in the NFL. But he got a few licks in and there is nothing to indicate he won’t be back to his old, top form within a couple games.
KICKING GAME: Nothing to complain about here. Steven Gostkowski converted the critical tying kick and his kickoffs were deep. With one exception, the coverage was good against Buffalo’s top notch return team and Josh Miller had a solid day punting.
Overall, contrary to some, I was encouraged by this performance. You didn’t see the gross breakdowns on defense that were apparent right from the opening whistle last year. The running game was improved. The offense wasn’t explosive, but controlled the clock when needed with the run and put together several good drives. Give it time. I think fans who like running-oriented football on offense and good, smart, physical defense are going to like this team. And come the cold weather of December and January, it may very well serve this team perfectly. It also marks more of a return to the style that won this franchise three championships, as opposed to last year’s team which was somewhat out-of-character in style and performance in many ways both offensively and defensively. I liked what I saw. They’ll only get better and this style will feed off each other on both sides of the ball once they begin to gell. On to the Jets next week.