FOXBORO – Julian Edelman walked into Gillette Stadium Saturday, sunglasses on, the hood on his black leather jacket pulled over his head. His coat was left strategically unzipped to broadcast the message on his white t-shirt.
“Ain’t Nobody Care,” it read.
For the first time in a long time, the Patriots entered a game in late December with the AFC East up for grabs. Lose to the Bills, a team equipped to give the Patriots sputtering offense fits, and the two teams would be tied atop the AFC East.
That would likely mean the Patriots would be playing the first week of the postseason. Beyond that, though, it would further the belief there is no switch to flip, no button to push, no lever to pull this season that would make this team fire up and start humming with the kind of late-season momentum we’ve seen before, most recently last year.
But nobody … circles the wagons … like the New England Patriots.
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Ain’t nobody care who’s hurt or how bad. Ain’t nobody care how many times players in this uniform had won high-leverage games in the past in this stadium or what happens after the season or what happened in the past month-plus in other games against other teams or what media insists you can’t do.
Put all that in a box. Put it on a shelf in the closet. Forget about it. That’s one definition of the word resilience.
“It means continuing to do the right thing for the team when things aren’t going right for you personally,” said Bill Belichick after the game. “That could involve a lot of different things, but sometimes when things aren’t going your way, the way you want them to go, you still do what’s best for the team and do what you can to make the team better. We have 53 guys in there and a coaching staff that does that on a daily basis, so that’s all you can ask for.”
“When you talk about being resilient and being mentally tough, that’s when it comes down to the character of the men that you have on your football team,” said Matthew Slater. “That’s something that you can’t measure and there’s no metric for it. You either have it or you don’t. Over the years, we’ve been really fortunate to have high character people in this building that have really made this go. That really means something in terms of life and in terms of what happens beyond the game of football. That’s going to serve these men really well. That served us well tonight on the football field and I can’t say enough about these guys and who they are as people.”
There are reams of video and pages of statistics showing the travails of the Patriots 2019 offense. But against the best defense they’ve seen since the last time they saw the Bills, the Patriots drove 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown on their second possession and 81 yards in 17 plays on their next drive for a field goal.
For the season, the Patriots were averaging six plays per drive and 29 yards. Lower-tier stats. In their most important game, they answered the bell. Led by the player who’s answered the bell more than any man in NFL history, Tom Brady.
He went 16 for 22 in the first half and 10 for 11 in the second half. At least three of his seven incompletions were throwaways. He didn’t take a sack behind his maligned offensive line which played out of its mind. This after so many spent the week wondering if he sucked last week because of his sore elbow or just because he was old.
“I think we’ve all seen Tom play a lot of his best football in the most critical games of the year, in the most critical situations in those games,” said Belichick. “Nobody prepares harder than Tom does, and he was ready to go, got a lot of help from the running game, the offensive line, the receivers. But, as you said, he was on the money, he was sharp. Again, that’s what we need from everybody this time of year. We’ve got to play like this every week or our season is going to end quickly. We all know that and nobody knows it better than he does.”
That’s the truth and it explains why – in the absence of playing like they did Saturday night – Brady’s been brooding. It hadn’t been good enough and it was going to end their season quickly if it didn’t improve. It did. Perfect? Well, relative to expectations, pretty close.
“No ‘buts’ after this one?” a Patriots staffer said to me after the game, referring to my habit of finding qualifiers to diminish victories.
No. No “buts.” This game was but-less. But-free. Not a but in sight.
Even the mistakes were atoned for. Rex Burkhead fumbled. The Patriots got outflanked before halftime with a blown-up fourth-and-1 attempt giving Buffalo a chance to cobble together a seat-of-their-pants touchdown drive that tied it.
But Burkhead went on from his fumble on the first drive to have possibly his best game as a Patriot with five carries for 20 vital yards and four catches for 77. The defense finished the game allowing third down conversion 2-of-11 attempts. They let up a 53-yard touchdown then forced three-and-outs on the next two drives.
“For all the talk that our offense keeps hearing, tonight was awesome,” said Devin McCourty. “We got stops on defense but they really controlled the game. Driving the ball up and down the field, finishing drives and when Buffalo took the lead, they didn’t blink. They went down and got a touchdown and once that happened, as a team we felt, ‘OK, we’re good. (The offense) did what it had to do now (the defense) is gonna go out and get a stop.’ And you could just feel it as a team.”
“Swagger” is the ultimate S-word in Foxboro. It evokes a poser, someone trying to project an image of confidence and competency. The Patriots most definitely didn’t need to get their “swagger” back. But they didn’t need to demonstrate consistent competency against a really good team to themselves and for themselves.
“We’ve locked in to the fact there are minimal weeks left,” said McCourty. “There’s no time to go out there and not play our best football. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t pretty. But the resiliency and determination, I think that was there.”