New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady overcame a scoreless first quarter to throw two touchdowns in a 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium, handing the Bucs their third straight loss in three games.
Brady was without top targets Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski, but managed to make stars out of a pair of rookies in Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson who, coming into this game, had a combined nine catches total.
Brady molded them into winners today. It just took a little bit to get going.
In the second quarter, the future first-ballot hall-of-famer found Thompkins mismatched against defensive end Adrian Clayborn on a 16-yard touchdown in the second quarter, putting the Patriots up 7-3 with 7:37 to go in the first half.
Thompkins also managed to slip past safety Dashon Goldson due to a breakdown in coverage. Thompkins then beat rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks into the end zone on a 5-yard touchdown pass, extending the Patriots’ lead to 14-3.
“That’s a play that we work on every day in practice,” said Thompkins, who became the first rookie undrafted wide receiver to catch a touchdown pass for the Patriots since 2005. “To go out there, for me to be open, and to have Tom [Brady] trust me to throw me the ball felt good.
Rookie second-round draft pick Aaron Dobson caught seven passes for 52 receiving yards, including a 15-yard catch on third-and-4 and a 6-yard catch on fourth-and-2, setting up Thompkins’ first touchdown.
“He definitely had a great day, and I’m proud of him,” Dobson said of Thompkins. “We started together, so I’m very proud of him.”
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski also had a big day, hitting three field goals, including a 53-yarder just before halftime.
With 16 seconds left in the first half, Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib undercut Bucs wide receiver Vincent Jackson, picking off quarterback Josh Freeman at the Tampa Bay 43 yard line to set up Gostkowski’s kick and giving the Patriots a 17-3 lead before halftime.
The Bucs had gotten off to a fast start on offense, including two trips to the red zone on the first two drives, but just three points to show for it.
Freeman connected with wide receiver Mike Williams on a 28-yard sideline route, and then on an 8-yard strike at the New England 44.
On third-and-15, he found running back Doug Martin for a 13-yard pickup, but head coach Greg Schiano opted to bring out the field goal unit.
Kicker Rian Lindell’s 38-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right, giving him his second miss in two weeks. He would return on the very next possession for the Bucs to make a 30-yarder, giving the Bucs their only points for the game.
“I pushed it right. Missed kicks are tough on any team in any situation,” said Lindell. “Everyone counts on me. The one true stat that seems to carry over is turnovers and [a missed field goal] is basically a turnover.”
Vincent Jackson, who was matched up against Aqib Talib, caught three passes for 34 receiving yards, including a 19-yard catch on third-and-8 and a third-yard catch on third-and-2 to set up Lindell’s kick.
Jackson left the game in the third quarter with a rib injury and did not return.
Williams finished the game with five catches for 65 receiving yards, but said none of them matter because the offense didn’t come away with points.
“I don’t really look at it as an individual performance. We did bad as a team [by] not moving the ball and not putting up points,” said Williams. “If you move the ball and not put up points you might as well not move the ball. So I think as an offense we need to put up more points and give our defense a better chance.”
The Bucs receivers experienced more success early on versus later in the game due to the Patriots defense playing one high safety before putting two safeties back.
“We give all the credit to them for making the adjustment. They adjusted to a lot of things…but as an offense we have to know the adjustments that are coming and have an adjustment to their adjustment. It is basically a chess game and today they came out on the better end,” said Williams.
“We certainly had our opportunities. I think we had something like 14 plays in their territory in the beginning of the game and came away with three points,” said head coach Greg Schiano.
“And it starts with me and we have to work through everything. And we have got to get better. There is no magic pill, we’ve just got to keep working and hopefully start to get into a little bit of a groove. We did some things at times, offensively, but then were unable to finish drives and you aren’t going to win this league that way.”
And it was almost worse.
The Patriots threatened to score a third time at the beginning of the third quarter, after a gashing 46-yard run by running back Brandon Bolden.
Brady hit Thompkins for a 20-yard gain on third-and-11, but on third-and-goal, he threw a pass right into the hands of Bucs safety Mark Barron, who led the team with 11 combined tackles and a half-sack shared with Lavonte David.
David finished with nine combined tackles, including two tackles-for-a-loss. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn and Akeem Spence both recorded sacks, with Spence’s setting up a tough third-and-19.
The Patriots opted to go for it on fourth-down, however, and Barron failed to wrap up Michael Hoomanawanui, resulting in a 16-yard gain. Gostkowski drilled a 46-yard kick, giving the Patriots a 20-3 lead.
The Bucs were 0-4 on fourth-down conversions.
Quarterback Josh Freeman finished the game 19 of 41 with 236 passing yards, no touchdowns, and one interception.
Doug Martin, coming off a 144-yard rushing performance against the Saints, finished with 88 yards on 20 touches and two catches for 20 yards receiving.
The Bucs offensive line, playing with Pro Bowl guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph together for the first time in a regular-season game, surrendered three sacks.
The Patriots are now 3-0 for the first time since 2007, while the Bucs are 1-8 in the last nine games under Schiano.