What we learned: Patriots lean on defense in victory

The Patriots are used to dramatic endings by now. This time, it was the team's beleaguered defense that stepped up late in a 19-14 victory in Tampa.

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston's pass from the 19-yard line fell incomplete as time expired, a fitting ending on a night where the NFL's last-ranked defense held Tampa to seven points and under 200 yards entering the fourth quarter. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has likely seen enough wild comebacks and high-scoring shootouts lately to last a lifetime, so this old-school affair might have felt like a thing of beauty to the veteran coach.

Now 3-2, the return to form for the Patriots' secondary was the best news for Belichick on a night that included other familiar, troubling elements of this inconsistent Patriots season. Tom Brady was hit too much. The running game struggled to salt the game away. But one week after the Patriots' defense only forced one punt, the team didn't allow a second touchdown until there was just over two minutes left. When Brady turned the ball over Thursday night -- twice for the first time since the 2015 season -- the Patriots' defense picked him up with stops.

That's an example of the complementary football which has helped to define the Belichick era in New England. For a team that didn't look capable of winning ugly early this season, it's a start.

Here's what else we learned from the Patriots' victory:

  1. Brady has easily been the best quarterback in football this season. Despite an interception on an early overthrow, he showed why on Thursday night. Playing without Rob Gronkowski, Brady had a number of beautiful touch throws into tight windows and completed 13 straight passes at one point as New England dominated yardage and time of possession through three quarters. Brady surely will bemoan the team's inability to put the game away late, only gaining 42 yards on three fourth-quarter drives. Still, it was enough to move into a tie with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre for the most career regular-season wins (186) by a quarterback.
  1. Bucs general manager Jason Licht must feel like he's cursed at the kicker position. Nick Folk, the team's hand-picked replacement for draft bust Roberto Aguayo, missed three field goals in what could be his last game in a Bucs uniform. Folk has missed five kicks in the last two weeks.
  1. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston has been too erratic with his accuracy this season to take the next step in his development. The Bucs' offense got off to a slow start, punting on four of its first five possessions. Winston flat-out missed a number of open throws that short-circuited drives. His final numbers (334 yards on 46 attempts) don't reflect the struggles he had for much of the night. He and his receivers often weren't on the same page, including on the final throw to rookie tight end O.J. Howard.

The Patriots took the deep ball away from Winston and made the Bucs patiently execute their offense. Now 2-2 on the season, the Bucs couldn't pull it off until their final desperation drives.

  1. Brady focused almost exclusively on four receivers. Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and running back James White all saw at least eight targets and caught at least five passes. Amendola's return to the lineup last week has especially helped Brady on third downs, running some of the option routes that Julian Edelman used to make his own.
  1. Bucs running back Doug Martin said he was going to look like the "2015 Doug Martin this season." Strange use of the third person aside, he should be right. Martin ran through tackles with an incredible burst, just like he did back in 2015 when he finished second in league rushing. No NFL player -- at any position -- impressed me more this preseason. Martin clearly came into this season looking to make amends. Finally off suspension, he gave a preview to what could be a monster season with 74 yards and a touchdown on only 13 carries. His workload should only increase from here.
  1. This Bucs defense will improve as the season wears on. They were missing four key defensive starters in the back-seven, and the team's pass rush finally came alive Thursday with Brady getting knocked down at least nine times. Brady can't continue to take a pounding like this all season, with left tackle Nate Solder being the biggest issue at the line.
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