By Sal Maiorana Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.-This was not the Tom Brady that Bills fans have come to know and despise through the years.
During New England's sigh-of-relief 23-21 escape against the Bills on Sunday, the 36-year-old Brady looked like a mere mortal for much of the day, and there were several explanations, though none more prominent than this: He's still trying to figure out the names of his receivers and what they can do.
The Patriots do not have the downfield threats they once had, and they don't appear to possess the quick-strike ability that defined their once-explosive passing game. As Brady waits for Rob Gronkowski to get healthy, what he has right now are a bunch of Wes Welker-type gnats who drive you crazy with their underneath routes, body punchers rather than knockout artists.
There are about five or six quarterbacks in the NFL who could win with this group of guys named Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins, and luckily for the Patriots - who sure don't need any more luck to go their way - Brady happens to be one of them.
There was another reason why Brady struggled - if 288 yards passing, two TDs, and yet another game-winning fourth-quarter drive constitutes a struggle - and that was the Buffalo defense.
Yes, the Bills failed at the most crucial times and were unable to get off the field on two critical third-down plays during New England's final drive. However, given all the worry everyone had about the defense going into the game, this wasn't an awful day.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has built a reputation as an attacking play-caller, and he stayed true to his blueprint even without Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd in the back end. He blitzed, he gave Brady multiple looks, he trusted his young DBs to cover.
Some of it worked as Buffalo came up with two sacks and several pressures of Brady, plus a pair of turnovers that led directly to two touchdowns.
Some of it didn't work as the Bills were awful on third down (11 of 20 success rate for the Pats), they gave up 26 first downs and 431 yards, and they couldn't make a play on that fateful final drive that led to Stephen Gostkowski's winning field goal.
It was a loss, but at least there seems to be something to build on with this defense.
A few other thoughts:
• FS Da'Norris Searcy was in danger of losing his starting job if Byrd had been healthy, but he turned in a big game with a 74-yard fumble return TD and a sack off a blitz.
• I was disappointed that offensive coordinator Nate Hackett didn't take a few more shots downfield. EJ Manuel spent the game throwing short stuff, and I understand why they were trying to hold his hand, but it's time to let go. He needs to play without handcuffs on.
• Along those same lines, where was T.J. Graham? One ball thrown his way, which he did not catch. Same thing with Marquise Goodwin, who got hurt and couldn't finish. They have blinding speed, so why not utilize it?
• The analytics people will argue that Mario Williams does things so that others can succeed. I see a stat sheet that has him making two tackles, and nothing else. No sacks, no pressures, no batted down passes. For all that money, I want more than analytics from this guy.
• Meanwhile, Kyle Williams had six tackles, and a sack. In my non-analytic world, he had a better game than Super Mario.
• FS Jim Leonhard, who has been on the team less than a week, co-led the way with nine tackles.