Just two weeks ago, Tom Brady stood in a clean pocket without a care in the world, going deep to Rex Burkhead for 32 yards in the fourth quarter of a game the Patriots would go on to win 43-0 in Miami.
Brady completed four passes, including one for a touchdown, to Antonio Brown in the game, and it was as close to 2007 as we'd seen since, well, 2007. Throw in the fact that New England was running up the score in the house of horrors that is Hard Rock Stadium, and there was no telling just how high the ceiling was for the 2019 Patriots on offense.
Brady spent the majority of Week 4's 16-10 win over the Bills, in contrast, running for his life, New England's video game offense suddenly stagnant.
Give Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier credit, for sure, but it was a systematic failure in every phase of the attack for the Patriots offensively. Brady recorded the sixth-worst passer rating of his 313-game career at 45.9 — his lowest ever in a win — as New England went three-and-out seven times at New Era Field.
New England had only two passing plays go for more than 20 yards, down from five a week ago against the Jets. Brady wasn't sacked, a credit to his acumen when it comes to getting rid of the ball in time, but he still took his fair share of licks from Buffalo's front seven. The Bills were credited with only three quarterback hits, even if it felt like five times that amount.
Brady had little time to throw, forcing the ball to Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett and Julian Edelman with poor results. He was 18 for 39 for 150 yards overall, which is bad enough, but even worse when it came to his top targets, completing just 9 of 23 throws for 86 yards.
"They played great, they had a good game plan," Dorsett said. "I wouldn't say there was something that they did specifically — we know how they play, we know what they play, they just played well."
Brady threw his first interception of the season when looking Edelman's way in the end zone in the second quarter, a play which Bills safety Micah Hyde said that Brady was "staring him [Edelman] down."
Even James White, who caught eight of the 10 passes thrown in his direction, wasn't his slippery self. Aside from a 26-yard gain on a wheel route — Brady's best throw of the day, by far — in the first quarter, White had seven catches for just 31 yards. The Bills sniffed out New England's screen game early and didn't budge for the duration.
Jakobi Meyers played only four snaps, Burkhead curiously got just one look from Brady, and the tight ends were once again a non-factor. Both Ryan Izzo (44 snaps out of 65) and Matt LaCosse (18 of 65) weren't targeted once.
"It's a team game, whatever I can do or whatever the tight end group can do in general to help us win, it doesn't matter if we have 20 catches or zero catches," said LaCosse, who has two catches for 33 yards on the season.
Tight end Ben Watson is eligible to return from suspension this week, which will help, but at 38 years old, it's not fair to expect him to play the role of savior.
It's easy to make fun of the Bills, who haven't scored a touchdown in the postseason since the 1990s, but their defense has quietly become as good as their quarterback, Josh Allen, is bad. Brady struggled similarly last December when facing the Bills in Foxboro, racking up a 48.3 rating, and in his last five games against Buffalo, has topped a passer rating of 88.6 — the league average — just once.
To top it all off, the running game was of little help for Brady once again, with 74 yards on 23 carries (3.2 yards per rush). Sony Michel's season-long slump continues, as he's still yet to top 4.0 yards per carry in a single game.
For his part, Brady is aware of how ugly Sunday's win was, acknowledging on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI Monday morning that it wasn't a great day for the offense.
"Our offense has a lot of work to do," Brady told the show. "We're gonna need to get some healthy bodies out there."
The good news for the Patriots is that the cupcake schedule continues, with this week's opponent, Washington, having allowed the second-most points (118) in the NFL through four weeks.
Winning on defense has its perks, too. It worked in Super Bowl LIII last year. Playing in a close game now can pay dividends down the road; in 2007, the Patriots won their first eight games by an average of more than 25 points per game, none by fewer than 17.
Regardless of how it happened, New England is 4-0 for the fifth time under Bill Belichick, one of just two unbeaten teams remaining in the AFC (Kansas City is the other). The Patriots have had problems in September before, but almost never while emerging with a perfect record still intact.
That the team has the ability to work through its struggles without falling behind the 8-ball for home field advantage should have the rest of the NFL remaining on high alert.