TAMPA BAY -- This wasn't the way it was supposed to go. Back before the season, the Patriots were expected to roll, and roll over everyone, and not stop rolling until they ended up in Minnesota. Then the Chiefs game happened. Then the Panthers game happened.
And now here they are. Happy to have beaten the Bucs, 19-14, in one of their sloppier victories in recent memory. Thrilled even.
Inside the visitor's locker room at Raymond James Stadium, there was a sense of relief, a sense of pride for having responded after being backed into a corner.
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"As soon as we came in, we said, 'We gotta build on this,' " Duron Harmon said. "It's still not going to be good enough. We're gonna watch the film. We still made mistakes. We didn't tackle as good as we wanted to in certain situations.
"We know we gotta get better. We gotta continue to get better. But the season's still young. This is Game 5 of a 16 game season. Trying to tell you, man, we're excited. This is a good win, man."
It was a win, yes. And by definition, it was good. Certainly better than the alternative. But the formula the Patriots used to get there on Thursday night was decidedly unsustainable.
They committed 12 penalties for 108 yards. They converted just 30 percent of their third-down attempts. They turned it over twice and didn't create any turnovers themselves. They converted on one of three red-zone attempts. They got Tom Brady sacked three times, hit three more, and it appeared as though the man on pace for 5,400 yards passing had difficulty peeling himself off the turf on more than one occasion.
On Thursday night the Patriots were the cartoon character trying to plug the dike with a finger, then another, then a toe . . . and somehow they held.
For instance, things looked much improved in the secondary, with Stephon Gilmore (this week's Public Enemy No. 1 in New England) matched up with Mike Evans and Malcolm Butler (demoted in Week 2) checking DeSean Jackson. But then a leak sprung at quarterback, as Brady threw a head-scratching interception in the first quarter and lost a fumble on a blitz he never saw coming in the third.
Then there was the pass rush, which got going late in the second quarter thanks to a sack shared between Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy. But soon thereafter, the Patriots front lost its collective head and hit Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston late on back-to-back plays, taking the Bucs from their own 27 to the New England 38 and into field-goal range in two plays at the end of the half.
Nick Folk missed the kick with time expired, his first of three misses on the night. No leakage. Luckily for them.
But as ugly as it got, even Bill Belichick was willing to emphasize the positive for one night.
"Really proud," Belichick said, "of our football team tonight . . . I thought they really responded with a great effort this week in preparation and getting ready for the game . . .
"I was proud of the way our guys played. I thought defensively, we responded to a good offensive unit . . . Certainly, there was a lot of things in all three areas of the game we could do better and need to do better . . . But good to come down here and win, and I thought our team gave a really great effort on a short week so I'm really proud of them for that."
Proud. It's not the word that would have come to mind to describe Belichick when he watched Brandon Bolden jump offsides in the third quarter -- his second penalty of the night -- before a Buccaneers punt that gave away five yards a free first down. Or when Belichick saw Deatrich Wise commit a hands-to-the-face penalty on third-and-20 in the second quarter that helped extend the drive that led to Tampa's first touchdown.
But that's what winning does. It allows those moments to be pushed back into the deep recesses of one's short-term memory. For a night, at least.
With a long break before a matchup with the Jets in Week 6, Belichick understands better than anyone that there's plenty to clean up, starting with the flags that rained down steadily Thursday night.
"We've had two weeks in a row we've had far too many penalties," Belichick said. "We're obviously not being coached well enough. We have too many mistakes in that area. I have to do a better job and our team has to do a better job. We can't keep giving opportunities to good football teams and continually have to overcome penalties. I gotta do a better job of getting that corrected."
It's just not sustainable. The penalties. The hits to the quarterback. The turnover differential.
The Patriots know it. Happy as they are right now to get back into the win column, happy as they are to be looking at a weekend off at 3-2 instead of 2-3, they know it.
Nate Solder was asked a fairly simple question as he was headed out of the locker room late Thursday. How does this feel?
The pregnant pause spoke volumes.
"I'm excited," he finally let out. "I mean, we made it as tough as we possibly could on ourselves. Not taking advantage of those opportunities when we were in the red zone and all that.
"But when you put yourself in that sort of situation, you don't give yourself any advantages and still pull off the win, that shows a lot of gritty, tough ball. Hopefully we don't have to win them all like that. It can hurt you."