Donald Jones caught the ball just seven yards from the line of scrimmage and bolted down the field, and it certainly felt like the Patriots season was escaping with him. The Buffalo Bills had a 21-7 lead and seemed well on their way to victory. The Patriots seemed headed for 1-3.
Instead, the Patriots are 2-2 today following a 52-28 victory in Orchard Park, NY on Sunday that had the feel of a chain reaction. In the final 26 minutes against the same old Bills, the Patriots scored 45 points in what felt like a contact-free drill. During one succession from the early part of the third quarter to the early part of the fourth, the Patriots scored on five straight possessions while the Bills ran just 13 plays (non punts) and managed just two first downs.
Patriots touchdown. Bills three-and-out. Patriots touchdown. Bills four-and-out. Patriots touchdown. Bills fumble. Patriots touchdown. Bills interception. Patriots touchdown.
In the process, the identities of the two most consistent franchises in the AFC East over the last dozen years were fortified. The Patriots are winners. The Bills are hopeless.
One quarter of this 2012 Patriots season is now in the books, as it is, and we can all agree that September didn't go exactly as many of us had envisioned. We never imagined being so happy to go 2-2. Coming off a second Super Bowl loss in five seasons, the Patriots seemed positioned to be a juggernaut this season, with a more balanced and perennially explosive offense, not to mention an improved, more aggressive defense. On top of it all, they had a schedule that looked softer than Kleenex.
One month in, have any of those storylines developed as we thought they would?
What the Patriots have experienced thus far has been nothing short of a true struggle, which is not a criticism as much as it is reality. Aaron Hernandez and Logan Mankins have been injured. The secondary still looks suspect. There have been surprises (the Arizona Cardinals are 4-0, after all) and confirmations (Tom Brady still has it), and there has been indisputable misconception.
For example: the softness of the schedule was determined largely because the Patriots play their non-conference games this season against the NFC West, which seemed to be one of the worst (if not the worst) divisions in football. It hasn't been. At the moment, teams in the NFC West are 11-5, which just happens to be the best aggregate record in football. At the moment, the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers rank a respective second, third and fourth in the NFL in scoring defense, and we all know that defensive teams are the ones who have given the Patriots fits in recent years.
Thus far, of course, the Patriots have faced only the Cardinals, though that game remains the biggest blip on their schedule. If the suddenly worrisome Stephen Gostkowski had made a 42-yard field goal at the end of regulation in Week 2, the Patriots would be 3-1, pretty much right where we expected them to be.
Instead, the Patriots are 2-2. San Francisco comes here later in the year. The Patriots are at Seattle in two weeks. Even the Week 8 meeting against St. Louis (in London) looks to be a more challenging task than anyone predicted, the Rams having played quite respectably under new coach Jeff Fisher.
In the interim, the Patriots have their next meeting scheduled against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who are 2-2. And before you suggest that Manning hasn't looked quite as sharp as he did, say, three years ago, remember that Denver's only two losses this season are against Atlanta and Houston, who are a combined 8-0.
In his other two games this season, Manning has completed 49 of 64 passes (76.6 percent) for 591 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Given the cracks Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco revealed in the Patriots defense last week, Sunday's upcoming affair in Foxboro should at least make you a little nervous.
In his last seven games against Bill Belichick, manning is 5-2 with 17 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a completion percentage of 65.4. Belichick's inability to stop Manning, in fact, remains the single greatest factor behind that infamous fourth-and-2.
The Patriots being the Patriots, we expect them to win every week. The Brady-Belichick era is measured almost exclusively in Super Bowls, which is a testament to their greatness. The most worrisome part about this early season is that the Patriots feel very much like they did last year ... or the year before ... or maybe even the year before that. New England has the coach and the quarterback to win a championship, it seems, but there is still significant question about that defense.
In fact, finding the Patriots' last win against a legitimate top 10 NFL quarterback is something of a challenge, one that might take you all the way back to Week 6 last year against Dallas or even Week 2 against San Diego. The Patriots still have ample time to develop between now and the start of the playoffs, but the first month of this season nonetheless made something quite clear.
For lots of reasons, the Patriots have more ground to cover than we might have initially believed.
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