FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – With an unimpressive offense, the New England Patriots are unbeaten after strong fourth quarters by the defense.
But what will happen when they don’t play rookie quarterbacks?
They’re about to find out.
After squeaking out wins over the Buffalo Bills, with E.J. Manuel at quarterback, and New York Jets, with Geno Smith under center, the Patriots will face two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, in the next four games.
Rookie quarterbacks, though, aren’t always easy to stop.
“I don’t know if I’d call it easing” into the season against Manuel and Smith, Patriots safety Steve Gregory said Friday. “Those guys are still pretty talented guys. They can run. They can definitely create some things when they get outside the pocket and present challenges.”
In the opener, the defense forced the Bills to punt on all three of their fourth-quarter possessions before Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal with five seconds left gave the Patriots a 23-21 win.
Just four days later on Thursday night, the Patriots had three interceptions against Smith in the fourth quarter and beat the Jets 13-10 despite being shut out in the second half.
Smith “did a pretty good job throughout the game, but it’s tough, you know, when you’re seeing some things for the first time,” New England safety Devin McCourty said.
Aqib Talib’s second interception of the game in the final minute clinched the victory. Alfonzo Dennard also picked off a pass at the Patriots’ 31 with 4:23 left when the Jets needed a field goal to tie the score.
But he doesn’t change his basic approach whether the opposing quarterback is a rookie or a veteran.
“I just say we’ve got to work on ourselves no matter who we play,” Dennard said.
The Patriots have extra time to prepare with nine days between their home-opening win over the Jets and their next game, also at Gillette Stadium, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Josh Freeman on Sept. 22.
“I don’t really see it as a break,” Coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s not like we’re going to go to Hawaii for a vacation for a week.”
The challenge gets tougher after that with consecutive games against Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals, and Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
That matchup on Oct. 13 against New Orleans could be the day Tom Brady ties Brees for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Brady’s streak is at 50, four fewer than Brees’ run that ended last year.
Brady extended it on his first series Thursday night with a 39-yard touchdown pass to rookie Aaron Dobson, who was wide open down the right sideline. But Brady showed his frustration later by raising his hands to his helmet after a rookie receiver ran the wrong route.
“I have to do a better job with my body language,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a real strong point of mine right now.”
In his 14th season, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history is working with a raw receiving group. Wes Welker signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos, Rob Gronkowski is sidelined after forearm and back surgery, and Aaron Hernandez is being held without bail after pleading not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder.
The Patriots signed veteran wide receivers Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones, but both were cut in training camp. With Danny Amendola out with a groin injury, the Patriots’ only receivers against the Jets were Julian Edelman, who caught 13 passes, and rookies Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce.
“I don’t really have any expectations for any rookie players,” Belichick said. “We just coach them from the day they get here.”
Last season the Patriots averaged 34.8 points per game. This season they’ve scored a total of 36 in two games.
Now the competition should get tougher. But until Brady and his new receivers jell, the Patriots will have to keep relying on their defense.
“We welcome that,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said.
“Whatever situation we’re in, it might have to be the defense that will win the game for us.”