No matter which way you slice it, a win is a win any day of the week. Despite not exactly having their "A-game" on Sunday afternoon against the Buffalo Bills, the New England Patriots were able to escape with a 37-31 victory.
Here are the five most important things that we learned.
Wes Welker has to be better in the absence of Aaron Hernandez
The typically sure-handed Wes Welker made a couple of costly mistakes during Sunday's contest that Patriots' fans aren't used to seeing from No. 83. In the game's opening quarter, Welker was wide open down the far sideline and quarterback Tom Brady put the ball right into his hands, leading him perfectly for what would have been a touchdown. However, Welker simply dropped the football. Late in the fourth quarter on the Patriots' final drive of the game; he would drop another crucial pass that would have given New England a first down. Typically, these things are overlooked, especially from a player who's been as valuable to the Patriots as anyone over the past five years, but in the absence of all-pro tight end Aaron Hernandez, Welker has to be on his game.
Danny Woodhead can be valuable asset in a limited role
In my Patriots' midseason report cards piece, I stated that reserve tailback Danny Woodhead could be a very valuable part of the New England offense IF he was used in the right capacity. No, I don't mean hand-offs up the middle and toss plays on third-and-one. Where No. 39 is most useful is on screen plays, dump-offs and draw plays. On Sunday afternoon against the Bills, this was exactly how the Patriots chose to use Woodhead, and it paid off in a huge way. The undersized running back had five touches and picked up 61 yards of offense and two touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be wise to take note of Woodhead's increased production in this role and continue with it as the season moves along.
Patriots involve everyone in the offensive attack
Quarterback Tom Brady made his money, early in his career, by spreading the ball around and naming his favorite target to be "the open receiver". Despite the absence of Aaron Hernandez, Brady was able to distribute masterfully, finding a total of six different receivers during the game. Five of those receivers (Rob Gronkowksi, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Deion Branch) accounted for at least thirty yards each in the passing game. Running back Shane Vereen had one catch for eleven yards. Just a few short years ago, the Patriots' offense was forced to focus a great deal of their game plan and attention on feeding the ball to malcontent receiver Randy Moss, in order to keep him happy and stop him from causing any problems in the locker room. As it turns out, it didn't really matter, as "straight cash homie" still became a problem and was eventually shipped out of town. Now, with model citizens making up the entire receiving core, Brady is able to distribute the ball to the open man without having to worry about one man's stats. This, in and of itself, is a huge benefit for the New England offense.
Patriots survive on Bills' self-inflicted wounds
The Buffalo Bills made more preventable mistakes on Sunday afternoon, especially early on, than I've ever seen from a professional football team. It started early when 20 yards of penalties turned a third-and-one for the Buffalo offense into an insurmountable third-and-21. Over the course of the entire game, the Bills were whistled for 14 penalties, totaling 148 free yards for the Patriots. Not only did the Bills draw flag after flag after flag against them, but they also turned the ball over three times. To make matters worse, the turnovers came in the most costly of situations. Running back Fred Jackson put the ball on the ground at the Patriots one-yard-line early in the fourth quarter and Fitzpatrick sealed the Buffalo defeat by tossing the ball right into the hands of cornerback Devin McCourty who was standing a good five yards away from his intended receiver. It's amazing in itself that the Bills came as close to winning as they did, given their incredible amount of self-inflicted wounds.
Defensive secondary has reached a new level of incompetence
As if it came as a surprise to anyone, the Patriots secondary played awfully poorly against the visiting Bills on Sunday afternoon. Facing another, with all due respect, mediocre quarterback in Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Patriots still couldn't gain any sort of defensive momentum moving forward. The Harvard University product passed for 337 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for a spectacular quarterback rating of 99.7. I could sit here and harp upon the performances of each individual back, but I really don't feel that's necessary. They were all equally to blame for Buffalo's offensive outburst. The sad reality for the Patriots is that it's never been more clear that this defense simply isn't good enough to take them anywhere this season. If they're allowing this much success against a player like Fitzpatrick, how do you think they'll fair come playoff time against the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck and Matt Schaub? I'm sure one of those men is licking his chops in anticipation of a field day against the Patriots defense next week at Gillette Stadium.
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