Three things we learned Thursday night in a gutty Patriots victory over the Buccaneers.
1. A defensive resurgence? OK, so which way do we want to go with it? Was the Patriots’ 19-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a signal that the New England defense made a few revelatory steps after the first-quarter of the NFL season, or was the lack of scoring more a matter of the Thursday night product. Well, probably a little bit of both. It wasn’t the most offensive performance by either team, each of which came into the game as the first and ninth-best offenses in the league, a by-product of the debate over quality of play following only three days of rest and preparation. But both Tom Brady and Jameis Winston threw for over 300 yards and a trio of running backs (Dion Lewis, 53, Mike Gillislee, 52, and Doug Martin, 74) each had 50-plus yards rushing. The Patriots, again, allowed more than 400 yards (409) in total net yards. Thats four weeks in a row for a defense, that also was efficient enough to force the Buccaneers to attempt a trio of field goals, each unsuccessful. A week after he was taken to the shed though, Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore actually shone with a couple examples of nice coverage. Devin McCourty had 11 tackles a week after he looked to be lost on assignment. The Patriots survived Thursday night. The defense didn’t get worse. That’s about the best that can be said for a game that will eventually go down as the door opening for a defensive turnaround, or remembered as just another lackluster Thursday night game.
2. A game of kickers. The Patriots’ first-quarter, 89-yard drive, which ended with a 27-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, should have been an indicator of what type of game this was going to be. Gostkowski hit all four of his attempts on the evening, while Tampa Bay’s Nick Folk, coming off a clutch kick that helped beat the New York Giants in Week 3, was 0-for-3 in Week 4, missing kicks of 56-yards (final play of the first half), 49 and 31 yards, the final one of which all but sealed the Bucs’ fate, failing to pull within six with five-and-a-half minutes remaining. The Patriots won by five. Folk will be a goat in this game, but only one of his attempts was really a gimmee. It was also his most crucial one. Tampa Bay pulled within two late in the fourth quarter after Winston found tight end Cameron Brate in the end zone, but Gostkowski’s 48-yarder with 59 seconds remaining essentially sealed a game that came down to the final play. Needing a touchdown instead of a field goal, the Bucs were forced to cover more field in the final minute. Winston couldn’t fully lead the charge in that amount of time, even if it did come down to the final play of the game. He can thank Folk. The Patriots can most definitely thank Gostkowski.
3. Brady holds up, but for how long? The win was the 186th regular season victory for Pariots quarterback Tom Brady, tying him in first-place in that category with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in NFL history. He may not remember the game for the intrigue which it delivered, but odds are likelier that he may still feel some aches from this October showdown at some point down the road. Brady’s line — 30-for-40, one touchdown, 303 yards — was all the more impressive considering that tight end Rob Gronkowski was a last-minute scratch with a leg injury that popped on the injury report on Wednesday. But Brady spread the ball out to Brandin Cooks (85 yards), Danny Amendola (77 yards), Chris Hogan (74 yards), and James White (57 yards) with keen effectiveness all the same. He was also sacked three times by the Tampa Bay defense, and was on the ground enough during the first half that it started to become worrisome with each time he had to rise to his feet. Brady also kept flexing his wrist and looking at his forearm, which some alluded might signify that he was hurting in some way. If he is, his performance didn’t show it, but he still needs a much better performance from his offensive line.