The Expatriated Patriots Fan: Pats commentary from outside New England.
2013 was a season of great ups and downs for myself, and the Patriots Despite them ending with their normal stellar record and the 2nd seed in the AFC, there were significant challenges throughout the year. Let’s review the 1st quarter of the season.
I am not going to lie, I was nervous before our opener at the Bills. I know we have owned them for what seems like forever, but because of that, I figure they are playing with nothing to lose, while even if the Pats win, they are just meeting expectations. Add in the swirl of the off-season. Hernandez’s shocking arrest, Gronk not in uniform yet and Welker in a Bronco’s uniform. So it was with a serious amount of unease that I settled in to watch the season opener.
And for a while, it seemed as though my fears where going to be realized. Ridley getting benched for fumbling the ball without contact, and our young receivers, so promising in the preseason, dropping far more than they were catching. (Thompkins finished with 4 catches on 14 targets) So when rookie EJ Manuel put the Bills up 21 -17 on their first possession of the 2nd half, I was ready to write the season off. (I jump to conclusions easily; it’s the only exercise I get anymore …)
But then something happened that I hadn’t seen in a long time. The defense started leading the way. They only allowed the Bills 3 first downs and 73 yards in their remaining 5 possessions of the half. And while the offense wasn’t exactly blistering for the Pats either, there were some flashes of hope. Edelman beginning to show hints of what would be his best season ever, caching Brady’s only two TDs of the game. Vereen, seemingly uncoverable whether running or catching the ball, finished with 14 carries for 101 yards plus 7 catches for 58 yards. Amendola , in contrast to the rookies, showed some flashes of a connection with Brady, finishing with 104 yards despite a groin injury.
So I left the game feeling decidedly more optimistic then I began it. But then the post-game injury reports began coming in, seemingly setting the pattern for the season. Amendola’s groin injury might end up keeping him out multiple games (surprise) and Vereen broke a bone in his wrist, also keeping him out for multiple games.
Therefore, I had some concerns going into week 2, as the Jets came in for our home opener. However, the Jets (despite winning in week 1) were supposed to be a bad team this year, and wining in Foxboro is tough. So I wasn’t super worried, and the first series capped off with Brady actually completing his lone TD throw to a rookie receiver (Dobson) left me feeling reasonably secure.
But then both offenses turned as sloppy as the weather on that Thursday night. With Amendola and Vereen out, Brady’s lack of synch with his rookie receivers was on full display, with 13 of the his 19 completions going to Julian Edleman, who led the team with 78 receiving yards. Fortunately, the defense stepped up again, getting 3 interceptions in the last 4 Jet’s possession (And forcing a punt of the other) allowing us to slip by 13-10, despite not scoring in the second half.
Thus, despite the poor offensive showing, I again exited the game feeling pretty good. Two gritty, defense led wins had me starting to think of the glory years at the beginning of the millennium, when we took 3 Superbowls in 4 years, from 2001 to 2004.
And so as the Patriots prepared to host the Buccaneers, I was reasonably confident. The Bucs were 0-2, although both wins were by less than 3 points, one against the Saints, and one against the Jets, who had just played us so closely. But the game was in Foxboro and I was beginning to hope for a return to the Defense of Belichick teams of old. I can’t say I was impressed to start the game though, as the Pats punted on their first 3 possessions. However, the defense again was holding, allowing only one FG to the Bucs in their first 3 possessions. (Although they did miss a 48 yarder on their first possession) And after the second quarter rolled around, Brady seemed to get untracked and the offense came to life. While his final stats weren’t amazing (25/36 for 225 with 2 TDs and a pick) he was able to get the rookies involved in a significant way for the first time all season. Dobson tied Edelman for 7 receptions, and led the team with 52 yards. Thomkins hauled in both TDs, the first and second of his career. Blount gave a glimpse of things to come, as he led all rushers with 65 yards, perhaps motivated to be facing his former team.
The final score was 23-3, Patriots, and the Bucs never even got inside the Pats 30 until the last drive of the game, where they turned the ball over on downs. The result was encouraging. The offense showing signs of clicking, while the D continued to stay strong. True they had not faced a top QB yet, but after years of making second rate QBs look like hall of famers, the new defensive swagger was greatly appreciated.
Next up was a prime time joust against the Falcons in Atlanta. The Falcons were only 1-2 at this point, but both losses were on the road, one against the Saints. And they were coming off a great 2012 campaign. This was the top notch QB that the D needed to measure itself against. Plus, I was traveling to see the game. As those of you who read my first column know, I try to make it to at least one away game a year, to make up for my living outside the normal area of the Patriots fan base.
And so, ensconced in front row seats on the 15 yard line for the Patriots, we prepared to watch a really good game. (The picture to the side is my wife showing off her Patriots high heels from our seats during the game) At first, it appeared to be the case, with the Falcons tying it at 10-10 with a TD on the final drive of the half. In the 2nd half, the Patriots started out with a 3 and out, but then kicked it into gear, scoring on their next four possessions. It appeared as though there might be a blowout in the making, with the Patriots building a 30-13 lead, before Atlanta began to rally. They had a chance to send it to overtime, and I won’t deny I was nervous when the Falcons recovered an onside kick that was bobbled by Zach Sudfeld, a play that was at least partially responsible for the release of the preseason TE standout, who had disappeared with the start of the regular season. The Falcons had driven deep into Patriots territory in the waning seconds of the game when Talib knocked away a 4th down pass intended for Roddy White in the end zone, allowing the Patriots to escape the Georgia dome with a 30-23 win.
The game was very encouraging. At this point, I still believed Atlanta to be a top tier team, and despite giving up a lot of yardage to Matt Ryan, we held them to 23 points, and the D made a stand when it had to. Plus, they put together the best offensive showing of the season, with Brady throwing for 316 yards with 2 TDs and no picks. Edelman continued his stellar season, with 7 catches for 118 yards, and Thomkins had the best game of his career to date, hauling in 6 catches for 127 yards with 1 TD. Blount led all rushers again, with 64 yards on 9 carries, although most came on a 47 yard TD scamper. (Can a 250 lb. back scamper?) The only downside was Vince Wilfork injuring his achilles tendon, which would land him on IR for the season. However, at the end of the game, we didn’t know his status yet.
And most importantly the Patriots were 4-0 for the first time since their 2007 season. I left Atlanta heading for my home in Richmond Va feeling very good about the year’s prospects as the first quarter of the season came to an end. I should have known better then to let my guard down, but we will cover that next week as I continue the 2013 review up through the mid-point of the season.