ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — New season, new receivers, familiar finish for Tom Brady, who looked like his old self in the clutch.
Whatever chemistry Brady still lacks within the Patriots new-look offense, the quarterback overcame by rallying New England to a 23-21 season-opening win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Brady marched New England 49 yards in 12 plays to set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal with 5 seconds left.
“I didn’t have a lot of doubt,” Brady said, referring to the final drive, which began at the Patriots 34 with 4:31 remaining. “We’ve got a team full of fighters. There’s going to be some ugly wins, but we’re always going to fight until the end.”
Shaking off a sloppy start, Brady completed all six attempts for 34 yards on a final drive during which he twice completed passes to convert third downs. That included threading a throw to Danny Amendola in traffic for a 10-yard gain on third-and-8 at the Bills 39.
Shane Vereen ran 15 yards on the next play, and the Patriots settled on running time off the clock before Gostkowski won it.
Amendola, an offseason free-agent addition, showed grit by returning to the game despite a nagging groin injury he aggravated late in the first half.
“He really toughed it out, which was impressive,” Brady said of Amendola, who led the Patriots with 10 catches for 104 yards — similar numbers to what Wes Welker used to provide for Brady.
And Brady leaned heavily on his most experienced returning receiver, Julian Edelman, who caught both touchdown passes.
“I was proud of our team today,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Obviously, it wasn’t perfect. And there’s a lot of things we can do better. But they played the last few minutes of the game the way we needed to play it.”
Brady finished 29 of 52 for 288 yards and two touchdowns in helping the Patriots win their 10th straight season opener. That ties Portsmouth/Detroit (1930-39) for the NFL’s third-longest streak.
It also marked the 36th time of Brady’s career that he’s led the Patriots to victory while tied or trailing in the fourth quarter.
Belichick won his 206th career game to move one ahead of Marty Schottenheimer for sixth place on the NFL list.
The new-look Bills nearly pulled off a stunning upset in their first game under coach Doug Marrone and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.
It instead turned into an all-too-familiar outcome for the Bills against their AFC East rivals. They dropped to 1-19 in their past 20 meetings. They are 3-24 in 27 games since Bill Belichick took over as Patriots coach in 2000.
“You talk about sense of disappointment: It is devastating,” Marrone said. “When we go out there and we have opportunities, and you can’t win that game, I’m letting them down.”
The Bills squandered an encouraging debut by Manuel, the rookie first-round draft pick out of Florida State.
Manuel was inconsistent, but looked poised in the pocket in completing 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards with two touchdowns.
After trailing the entire first half, Manuel put the Bills ahead 21-17 on the first possession of the third quarter by capping an 11-play, 80-yard march with an 18-yard pass to Stevie Johnson.
The Bills had difficulty mustering any further offense, managing just three first downs and 73 yards on their final five possessions.
“Overall, at the end of the day, we lost. So I can’t really say we did this great, we did that great,” Manuel said. “At the end of the day you want to win.”
The Bills also squandered a sturdy effort by a revamped defense that forced three turnovers, including safety Da’Norris Searcy returning Stevan Ridley’s fumble 74 yards for a touchdown. The Bills also limited the Patriots to 6 points on three drives inside Buffalo’s 20 in the second half.
Discipline was an also an issue for Buffalo, which was penalized 10 times for 75 yards.
The Patriots’ defense was opportunistic, too. Cornerback Kyle Arrington forced two fumbles, both of which set up touchdowns.
“It’s a game of opportunity. You’ve got to capitalize as much as possible,” Arrington said. “We were just very fortunate to come away with enough plays to win the game. It wasn’t perfect.”
Patriots rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins with four catches for 42 yards despite being targeted 14 times.
And then there was Ridley. After fumbling by slipping at the line of scrimmage without being touched, Ridley spent the rest of the game on the sideline with his helmet perched on his head. Vereen took over finished with 14 carries for career-high 101 yards.
NOTES: Marrone had no update on WR Marquise Goodwin, who did not return after hurting his right hand late in the first half. … Gostkowski also hit a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter. … The Bills have lost 14 of their past 20 openers, and dropped to 21-33 overall.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org