FOXBORO -- Remember when a fun way to spend a September afternoon was comparing the 2015 Patriots to the 2007 Patriots? Remember back in the late summer, when the so-called “F.U. Tour” was alleged to be in full swing and blowhards were declaring, “Anything less than 16-0 is a disappointment!”?
Oh and we laughed! Didn’t we laugh? Such fun.
Yeah, well, party’s over. Now it’s survival mode for the 2015 New England Patriots. The record is still unblemished after Monday night's 20-13 win over the Bills. It’s the offense that’s all smashed up.
It was diminished when Dion Lewis went down two weeks ago against Washington. It was in crisis mode when Julian Edelman went down last week against the Giants. It broke when Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson left on Monday night.
The Patriots went 4-for-14 on third down Monday night. Combine that with the 2-for-8 after Edelman went down after the first quarter last week, and the Patriots are now 6-for-their-last-22 on third-down conversions: 27 percent. They were leading the NFL in third-down conversions at close to 50 percent two weeks ago.
By the end of an interminable game the Patriots desperately needed to conclude, they were down to Chris Harper and Brandon LaFell as their only healthy wideouts. The forecast at that position? Well, Amendola -- who suffered what appeared to be a non-contact injury to his knee or leg while letting a punt drop -- was seen walking out of the stadium with no boot and no crutches, so maybe he won’t be gone too long. Dobson is probably done for a while given the way he limped off the field after making a reception; he was barely able to put any weight on his foot. Early-season pickup KeShawn Martin’s been dealing with a hamstring injury but is about ready to return. So it’s bleak and it’s hard. But it’s supposed to be.
What happened Monday night shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Going against a defense with good corners, an active front and a defensive-minded coach who knows the Patriots better than anyone, you figured it would look sketchy.
Tom Brady agreed in the postgame that he expected it to look choppy.
“I think we (figured it would be tough sledding), but I don't think that's an excuse,” he said. “I think we can play better, and I think some of the things that we didn't do well have nothing to do with missing some other guys. We've just got to do things better if we want to score more points, and I always talk about just execution, us all being on the same page. And I think there were a lot of plays out there where we didn't necessarily do our job very well, and if you don't do it well then no one else can really make up for what you're trying to do. So there were a lot of critical plays that we left out on the field against a good defense. And I think they do a good job challenging you because they've got good players and they've got a good scheme, and if you're not on top of everything then they make you pay. And there were a lot of plays that were just uncontested. We didn't really have much of a chance.”
Brady’s patience seemed thin right at the outset. He is, at this point, accustomed to things looking just so when he finishes his drop and too often it seemed he thought it looked just so . . . messy. Of his 19 incompletions, about 10 were pseudo-throwaways. A couple of others probably should have been. His trust level was not high with anyone not named LaFell or Amendola, and the Bills did a great job taking away Rob Gronkowski.
But just as it was inevitable a few weeks ago that the Patriots would put up 35, it’s inevitable that they will duct-tape and jerry-rig together a working offense over the next few weeks. They will scheme it up. It’s what they do.
“We've lost quite a few guys over the last three weeks,” said Brady. “So I think we'll just keep fighting and figuring out a way to win, and it's good to win against a good defense. Any way you can get these wins, I think it's a positive. I think just whoever is in there, we've got to have confidence in what they're doing.”
The confidence isn’t going to emerge until there’s a demonstrated level of competence, though, and that may take some time.
Which is where the New England defense comes in. On Monday night, they held the NFL’s No. 1-rushing offense to 94 yards on 30 carries. And 27 of those came on one touchdown run by LeSean McCoy. The Patriots have a bona fide top-five defense and it figures to get the ailing Jamie Collins back sooner rather than later.
And that's what they'll be hanging their hat on as they go against Brock Osweiler, Mark Sanchez and Marcus Mariota over the next three weeks.
"You think you’ve got them on the ropes, but at the end of the day, they find ways to win and that’s what championship teams do, and we’re not at that level right now," Rex Ryan lamented after the game.
Few teams are.
The Patriots will be fine. They beat a team that, in the AFC this season, qualifies as a playoff-caliber group. They won’t thrive over the next few weeks like they did. But they will survive.