TAMPA, Fla. -- Perhaps, on a cold early February night in Minneapolis, this game will become part of the mythology, the evening when the New England Patriots turned their season by gutting out a messy victory despite putting their foibles on full display.
It's difficult to identify those moments in real time, and so when the Patriots exited Tampa with a 19-14 victory over the Buccaneers, it was still impossible to know what the Patriots will look like even next week, when they play a didn't-see-that-coming relevant game against the New York Jets. They are surely not the juggernaut that was predicted at the start of the season, at least not yet. But we've seen seasons start like this for the Patriots before, and in 2014, a similar arc ended with a championship.
For now, with a quarter of the season gone, we know this much about the Patriots: They are ping-ponging between vulnerabilities, beating the Bucs in part because the home team was stymied by its own erratic quarterback, hampered by the absence of two of its starting linebackers, thwarted by an inability to convert Patriots penalties and turnovers into points, and crushed by a kicker who missed three field-goal tries.
The Bucs did not convert a third down until there was just 1:26 remaining in the third quarter, and that provided a signal that the Patriots' defense might be righting itself after a disastrous start to the season. Jameis Winston was the fifth quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the Patriots this season, but he completed just 26 of 46 passes. And the defense, which had been beset by miscommunication and shredded in the first four games, did not allow the blown assignments and big plays that marred those first games. That those issues improved on a short week with little practice time was particularly encouraging. It was a game, safety Devin McCourty said, that the defense could build upon.
"Certainly, there are a lot of things we can do better, need to do better," coach Bill Belichick said. But when asked what the defense did better, he replied, "Pretty much everything. You've got a chance to win when you give up 14 points."
Brady observed earlier this week that the Patriots hadn't been in control of games too often this season, and nothing about this game is likely to change that feeling. Their 12 penalties for 108 yards renewed a period of uncharacteristic self-immolation for the second week in a row. Brady was battered again behind a porous offensive line. The Bucs entered the game with just one sack on the season, but they sacked Brady three times and hit him much more than that. Brady even threw a shockingly bad pass, well behind intended receiver Chris Hogan, that resulted in an interception on the first drive. There were moments when Brady seemed slow to get to his feet, but when asked about it after the game, he responded, "Just football. I'll be there next Sunday."
The Bucs did nothing with that interception or a third-quarter fumble by Brady, but the sputtering of the Patriots' offense, which played minus an injured Rob Gronkowski, continued. The Patriots, Brady said, were tweaking their game plans -- there were two of them, one with Gronkowski, one without -- until Thursday morning. Gronkowski's expected return in time for the Jets' game next Sunday is sure to improve the offensive flow.
"I hope we can score more points than we did tonight," Brady said. "The offense isn't always going to have a great day. The defense isn't always going to have a great day."
Brady has been around so long that he has been part of championship teams that relied primarily on defense and others that were mostly offensively-driven. Last year's was of a more balanced vintage, and there is still plenty of season remaining for the Patriots to get there.
Belichick is fond of saying that coaches don't know what they have in a team until about a month into the season. The first month is gone from this season, and Belichick has a few extra days to decipher what he just saw before the Patriots finally play their first division game of the campaign: an enigma of a team still waiting for its identity.