ORCHARD PARK — It didn’t come easily, but Tom Brady’s dominance of AFC East rival Buffalo continued Sunday afternoon, as the New England Patriots came back to defeat the Bills 23-21 in the teams’ season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Brady guided the Patriots on a clutch drive in the final four minutes that was capped by Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal with five seconds to go. It marked the 21st time in 23 games that the Pro Bowl quarterback has beaten the Bills. Playing without his top five pass catchers from last season, including injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady and the Pats’ offense struggled mightily at times. He finished 29-for-52 for 288 yards and two scores. He also was sacked twice, fumbled a snap at the Bills’ 1-yard line and was intercepted once.
But in typical Brady fashion, he kept his cool and pulled it out in the end, relying mostly on veteran receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen. Edelman caught two touchdown passes and Amendola, in his first game as a Patriot, had 10 catches for 104 yards, and played through a groin injury, which he re-aggravated. Vereen rushed for 101 yards on 14 carries and caught seven passes for 58 yards.
“I’ll take it,”‘ said Brady, who has 53 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions against the Bills in his career. “Opening day and we didn’t execute great, but the boys made some clutch plays when they needed to and it was an all-around team effort. We talked a little bit (Saturday) night about what the situation is and we have to make critical plays and try to stop them on defense, throw the balls down and get into position to make kicks.”
The loss spoiled the NFL debuts of Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and first-year head coach Doug Marrone. Manuel played a solid game, completing 18-of-27 for 150 yards and two touchdowns to finish with a 105.5 quarterback rating.
“The biggest thing is you want to lead the offense and get guys in position — move the ball down the field and not have three-and-outs or anything like that,” said Manuel, the first Bills rookie quarterback to start a season opener since Joe Ferguson 40 years ago. “Overall, for the first game, I thought it was pretty good, but we’ve got to win at the end of the day.”
The Bills hurt themselves with two turnovers that New England cashed for 10 points. They also were flagged for 10 penalties, including at least two that killed promising drives.
“That was frustrating,” Manuel said. “When you have a big first down or a big play and they you get it called back, you definitely want to continue to fight those battles. But you kind of shoot yourself in the foot when you do that.”
Brady, who has thrown 53 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions vs. Buffalo, was not pleased with the offense’s performance.
“We had a lot of mistakes,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have to do a lot better.”
Marrone was hoping to become the first first-year head coach in Bills history to win his debut game with the team. Buffalo coaches are now 0-16 in those games.
Bills star running back C.J. Spiller managed just 41 yards on 17 carries and 14 yards on five receptions. Backup Fred Jackson took up some of the slack, finishing with 67 yards rushing in 13 carries and catching four passes for 41 yards.
The Patriots took a 7-0 lead on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Edelman with 4:14 into the game. The score came three plays after Tommy Kelly recovered a fumble by Spiller at the Bills’ 15.
New England went up 10-0 on a 48-yard field goal by Gostkowski.
The Bills closed the gap to 10-7 midway through the second quarter when free safety Da’Norris Searcy picked up a fumble by running back Stevan Ridley and rumbled 74 yards for a touchdown. Ridley wasn’t hit on the play, but stumbled and lost his footing and the ball.
The Patriots capitalized on another Bills turnover to go up 17-7 with 3:45 left in the half on an 8-yard touchdown pass to Edelman. The score was set up when Kyle Arrington stripped Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin and Rob Ninkovich recovered at the Buffalo 32.
The Bills cut it to 17-14 just before intermission on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Manuel to rookie wide receiver Robert Wood. The score came two snaps after Justin Rogers intercepted a pass that went off tight end Zach Sudfield’s hands.
The Bills took the lead with a textbook, 11-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Manuel to Stevie Johnson. Manuel kept the march alive with a 19-yard scramble.
The Patriots drove 79 yards on their ensuing drive, but were stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1 when Brady pulled away from center too rapidly and fumbled. The ball was recovered by linebacker Kiko Alonso who ran it to the 14-yard line.
New England closed the gap to one point on its next possession as Gostkowski made a 33-yard field goal. The drive stalled when Kyle Williams sacked Brady on a third-and-goal from the 5.
NOTES: Pats linebacker Brandon Spikes left the game in the first quarter because of dehydration. … As expected, Gronkowski, who is still recuperating from offseason back and forearm surgery, was inactive. … Manuel became just the fourth rookie QB in Bills history to start a season opener. Dan Darragh (1968), James Harris (1969) and Ferguson (1973) were the others. … Patriots tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Sufield combined for one catch for five yards. … Searcy started at free safety in place of injured Jairus Byrd at free safety, while Justin Rogers replaced injured Stephon Gilmore at right cornerback for the Bills.