By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - After his Bills lost to the Patriots 38-30 on Sunday, rookie C.J. Spiller was asked what Buffalo can take from the loss.
"It's definitely going to give us confidence going into our next game," he said.
Oh, it's not like it used to be. The Patriots. Former crushers of self-esteem. A team that sparked bowel-spasming waves of doubt even among decent opponents. They now plant geraniums of optimism with the likes of C.J. Spiller (he of the 228 total yards) and the winless Buffalo Bills.
There is a "we need to know and we need to know right NOW" aspect to the NFL that really doesn't exist in the other major sports. Chalk it up to the fact there's 16 games and not 162. Attribute it to the fact the entire offseason of free agency, the draft, training camp and the preseason is spent in forecasting and analysis. Blame it on the week of blame, credit and hype following and preceding every game.
Whatever it is, there's an expectation of the way things need to go on Sundays. And if that expectation isn't met, there's some fallout.
People expected the Patriots to eviscerate the Bills on Sunday. Or they hoped to see such a thing as a sign that they were still elite.
The Patriots did not do that. Instead, they trailed 13-7 in the second quarter, led 17-16 at halftime, had a one-point lead deep into the third and wound up winning by eight after turning away two would-be game-tying drives by picking off a backup quarterback from Harvard named Ryan Fitzpatrick.
This was a win that would not please the voters. Big deal?
Not to the people to whom it matters most.
"You're trying to win the game," explained Tom Brady when asked about the expectations of dominance. "At the end of the year when you look at your record, [you don't say], 'Oh that was a close game, it counts for a half a win.' A win's a win. It doesn't really matter if you win by 50 or by one. Because the following week, it really makes no difference how you did the previous week.
"It's like a chapter. Once this chapter's over, you move on," he theorized. "You don't sit there and reflect, 'Well last week we lost by 30. This week we won by seven, so we’re still a crappy team.' No, you’re 1-1. The goal is to win the game. It’s really not a matter of 'That was a great-looking win or that was a bad win.' You’re trying to win."
The book analogy is a good one because, especially with this developing Patriots team, the plot is going to have some twists.
Already, a defense that had a ton of question marks in the offseason has been altered by the loss of its best cover corner and one of its mainstay defensive linemen (Leigh Bodden and Ty Warren). Meanwhile, the young players they're incorporating continue to play like young players.
On Sunday, the Patriots played more aggressively on defense in the first half. That yielded some big plays -- a pressure by Gary Guyton, a sack by Jerod Mayo, a nice pursuit play by Brandon Meriweather. And it gave up some plays as well -- Darius Butler taking a bad angle on a blitz that allowed Marshawn Lynch to duck under him, a coverage screw-up by Meriweather on a short out to Spiller in the first half.
Through three games, the Patriots defense has played two quarters of excellent defense: The first two against the Bengals. (You really can't count the work done by the Patriots' offense in the first half last week in keeping the ball away from New York as defensive prowess). And, really, the first defense closed the preseason unimpressively.
Right now, this defense isn't in a position to shut down anybody. In days gone by, the Patriots were smart enough and versatile enough to find the holes in their defense and fix them over the course of a few games. Now? One leaks gets plugged and another springs. The Bills ran for 134 yards on 26 carries Sunday (5.6 per rush) and Fitzpatrick went 20-for-28 for 247 yards. The picks that popped the balloon of the Bills weren't caused by the Patriots defense as much as they were operator error by Fitzpatrick.
The Patriots are now 2-1. Not an impressive 2-1. Not a 2-1 that makes anyone say, "Dallas in February, woooo!"
Just 2-1 and fighting to figure out how to get better. As much as the Patriots preached "one game at a time" during the last decade, they could always count on January football. Now? Not so very much. They are week-to-week.
"I don't think you ever know how the game is going to go," said Bill Belichick. "You just go out there and try to do your best in all three phases every week and hope it's enough. Whether it's 3-2 or 50-49 or whatever, it's just trying to come out with a few more points than they do."
The Patriots aren't in a position to worry about margin of victory right now. Victory by any means is, well . . . a victory.
Tags: Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, Tom E. Curran