For no less than the zillionth time, rumors of the Patriots demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Tom Brady threw for 447 yards and three touchdown passes to help New England pick up its first win of the season over the New Orleans Saints, 36-20. The 447 yards were the third-highest total of Brady’s career.
The Patriots are now 43-6 following a loss since 2003.
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“There’s definitely a level of critiquing that you do when you do lose that you don’t really do when you win,” Brady said after the game. “Our coaches were all over us this week and they want us to get it right and they want us to get it right now. All of these games are important.”
Short personnel, the entire first quarter for New England was vintage Brady. Playing back in the same stadium where he won his first Super Bowl title, Brady completed 11 of 15 passes for 177 yards and his first three touchdown passes of the season in the first 15 minutes.
With only three wide receivers active, Brady looked to his running backs and tight end Rob Gronkowski to move the chains on the first drive. James White and Gronkowski bailed Brady out on consecutive third down situations, but the usage of Rex Burkhead is perhaps the most noteworthy.
On the 10th play of the opening drive, Burkhead lined up in the backfield to the strong side. Brady sent him in motion to the slot – a place where Burkhead said himself he’d be comfortable if need be – and ran a perfectly executed fade route over rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone in man coverage to open the game’s scoring with a 19-yard strike. Burkhead had established a new career high in receiving yards by first quarter’s end, with 41.
Gronkowski, who was quiet in the opener vs. the Kansas City Chiefs, reintroduced himself in a big way on the ensuing series for the Patriots. Back-to-back runs by Mike Gillislee left New England facing third-and-6 from its own 47-yard line. Seemingly a broken play, Brady exploited Anzalone once again. Gronkowksi was fairly well-covered as the play initially developed, but Brady lobbed the ball in No. 87’s direction, once again right over Anzalone. Gronkowski fought through an attempted tackle by another Saints rookie, Marcus Williams, around the 10-yard line on his way to the end zone for the 69th receiving touchdown of his career (70th overall).
Brady’s three touchdown passes in the first quarter marked a new career high for the opening period; he completed the hat trick with a 15-yard pass to Chris Hogan on a legal pick play on third-and-7 to give the Patriots a 20-3 lead.
All three scorers in the first quarter were hurt to varying degrees later on in the game; Gronkowksi left with a groin injury in the third quarter, Burkhead did not return for the second half with a rib injury and Hogan dealt with a knee injury throughout the game.
Hogan was able to stay in the game to recover a last-ditch effort onsides kick by the Saints, trailing by 16, with 5:03 to go in the fourth quarter.
James White led New England with eight catches and had 85 yards receiving. Gronkowski had six catches for a team-high 116 yards.
“Every time he touches the ball is important,” Brady said of White. “He’s just so dependable and consistent and hard-working and tough. He’s shows up to work every day just doing his job the best he can.
“I’ve played with a lot of great teammates and James is right there at the top. I love his effort and I love his style.”
Philip Dorsett, acquired from the Indianapolis Colts at the end of the preseason, had his first three catches as a Patriot. After putting up a goose egg in Week One vs. the Chiefs, Dorsett had three grabs for 68 yards – including a nifty 38-yard catch in double coverage in the fourth quarter to get all the way down to the New Orleans 3-yard line.
Dorsett wasn’t immune to the injury bug, either; like Gronkowski, he was seen riding a stationary bike on the sideline in the fourth quarter.
Mike Gillislee scored his fourth rushing touchdown of the season to give New England a 27-13 lead in the second quarter, capping off a third scoring drive of exactly 75 yards. Stephen Gostkowski connected on a 28-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter to give the Patriots a 30-13 lead heading into the break.
Gostkowski missed his first PAT attempt of the game but connected each of his next six kicks (three PATs, three field goals). All three of Gostkowski’s field goals were from shorter range than the 33-yard extra points, with a long of 28.
The defense remains far from perfect but after the debacle in Week One, the progress is notable. The Saints converted just four of their 12 third downs and had 126 fewer yards of offense than the Patriots. New England possessed the ball 10:06 longer than New Orleans.
“That’s a tough offense to stop,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “They have a lot of good players, they’re very well-coached and they have a great quarterback. Any time you can get them off the field without giving up points, or even if they get down in the red area and you can hold them to field goals, that’s a good job by the defense.”
A pair of young players stepped up in the absence of Dont’a Hightower, albeit at different levels of the defense.
Defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. had his second career sack in as many games, the rookie fourth round pick from Arkansas getting to Brees on third-and-7 from the Patriots’ 35-yard line on the first New Orleans drive of the second half. Wise, New England’s lone 2017 draft pick on this week’s 53-man roster, had five quarterback hits and another tackle for a loss as well.
Second-year cornerback Jonathan Jones had a pair of pass deflections to lead the team, one of which kept points off the board. Jones knocked the ball clean out of the hands of veteran wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. in the end zone on third-and-8 in the second quarter, which wound up being a four-point swing after the Saints kicked a field goal. He also came up with a tackle in the open field of Josh Hill on third-and-13 in the fourth quarter to force the Saints, trailing by 20 at the time, to punt once again.
The win ensured that the Patriots wouldn’t lose Brady’s first two starts of the season for the first time ever. New Orleans, meanwhile, is now 0-2 for the fourth consecutive season.
“To be 0-1 with a 10-day break felt like a year, it felt good to go out and get a win,” Brady said.
The Patriots are back home a week from today with the Houston Texans (1-1) in town. Houston is coming off an ugly 13-9 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night.
Kickoff is 1 p.m. in Foxboro.