Thursday Night Football has gained notoriety for producing some less-than-stellar contests, and tonight’s matchup between the Patriots and Buccaneers was no exception.
Encouraging may not be the word, but New England’s 19-14 win in Tampa Bay on Thursday night at very least put to bed the notion the Patriots are in the midst of a full-fledged free fall.
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Nothing was official until Jonathan Jones broke up Jameis Winston’s final pass to the end zone from 19 yards away as time expired in the fourth quarter, but New England survived its short week. The Patriots improved to 6-0 on Thursday Night Football since the season-long package began in 2012 (excluding season openers).
With Rob Gronkowski (thigh) inactive, Tom Brady and the New England offense struggled to get into a rhythm all night long. Still, when all was said and done, Brady made just enough plays to earn the 186th regular season win of his career, tying Peyton Manning and Brett Favre for the most all-time.
More importantly, he did enough to get the Patriots out of Florida above .500 at 3-2.
"I’m really proud of our football team tonight, coming off a tough game on Sunday," New England head coach Bill Belichick said. "Going on the road Thursday night, I thought they responded with a great effort this week in preparation."
Brady overcame an interception on the very first drive of the night to still finish 30 for 40 with 303 yards, including one stretch of 13 consecutive completions. He threw his lone touchdown pass of the night to Chris Hogan on a 6-yard curl route, giving the Patriots the lead for good.
Hogan has matched a career high with his five touchdown receptions in as many games to begin the season.
It was far from a perfect night for the defense, either, but after the atrocities of the first four weeks, it can’t be looked at as anything else but a massive step in the right direction.
"Pretty much everything," Belichick said when asked what the defense did better in tonight’s game than it had over the previous four weeks.
"Our backs were kind of against the wall," safety Devin McCourty said. "We had to come out and play well. You take adversity and it helps you bond as a team. We had to come together, we had to stick together through a rough one Sunday and on a short week where we couldn’t go out there and practice hard and run around – we had to talk to each other, communicate through walkthroughs, trust each other to come out and execute. I thought that’s what helped us tonight."
Facing a Tampa Bay offense that came into the game ranked third in the NFL in passing yards per game (277.7), the 32nd ranked pass defense of the Patriots, which had been giving up a ghastly 324 yards per contest through the air, did allow Winston to throw for 334.
He averaged only 7.3 yards per completion, however, as the New England secondary did a good job keeping things underneath for the most part. For perspective, Cam Newton averaged 10.9 yards per completion in last week’s game and DeShaun Watson averaged 9.1 against the Patriots the week before.
The safety play was outstanding for New England, as McCourty finished as the team’s leading tackler with 11 and Patrick Chung had three passes deflected. Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore were much sounder along the corners as well, the duo combining to hold Mike Evans to just 49 yards receiving – his lowest output of the season. DeSean Jackson (five catches, 106 yards) had his moments, but much of his yardage can be attributed to his game-changing speed rather than the communication issues that have plagued the Patriots.
"Those aren’t two easy guys to cover," McCourty said after the game of the Evans and Jackson duo. "It really helped settle the game plan down knowing we’ve got Stephon on Evans and Malcolm on Jackson. We know those two guys love that. They love to go out there and compete and be out there on islands, one on one against guys. That helps the defense."
The number of points allowed tonight is much more in line with what you’d expect of a Belichick defense. New England had been allowing the second-most points per game in the NFL coming into tonight, at 32. Thanks to a collective effort on third downs – the Bucs were just 4 for 13 – the Patriots, by and large, kept Tampa Bay out of the end zone.
No question Belichick may be sending a gift basket the way of Buccaneers kicker Nick Folk, who missed all three of his field goal attempts on the night. His first miss, from 56 yards at the end of the first half, is understandable. His next miss was from 49 yards out, and while no gimme, it came at a pivotal moment of the game with Tampa Bay trailing 16-7. The miss kept New England ahead by two scores.
His final miss all but sealed the deal that the Patriots would be flying back to New England via AirKraft victorious. Still down nine with 5:04 remaining in the fourth quarter, Folk lined up for a 31-yard field goal and sliced it well wide to the left, the finishing touches on a night to forget.
Folk’s counterpart, Stephen Gostkowski, was a perfect 4 for 4 on the night with makes from 27, 23, 45 and 48 yards away. Gostkowski’s 48-yarder came with 1:14 remaining in regulation, ensuring Tampa Bay would need to come away with a touchdown on its final possession rather than merely a field goal. Gostkowski is now a perfect 12 for 12 on his field goals in 2017.
The Buccaneers accepted 12 penalties against New England for 108 yards, featuring some truly un-Patriot like penalties to boot.
Down 13-7, Tampa Bay was the beneficiary of back-to-back roughing the passer calls with 2 seconds remaining in the first half against Deatrich Wise Jr. and Cassius Marsh, giving itself a chance to head into the locker room down just a field goal. Folk of course missed, but it was alarming nonetheless.
The Patriots improved to 44-6 following a loss since 2003, and now have 10 days to prepare for the New York Jets. Kickoff is Sunday, Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. at MetLife Stadium.