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The New England Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills today, but it wasn't the methodical blowout that everyone expected.
New England needed a last-second field goal to win 23-21. The high-flying offense that we're used to looked bogged down, and Tom Brady didn't have an open receiver with more than a few yards of space all day.
The takeaway: the Patriots, and Brady, are a different team without Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
While those two players aren't vertical threats in the classic sense, they worked the seams and stretch the defense to create space for Brady's other options.
Brady had 288 passing yards today, but it took him 52 attempts to get there. That 5.5 yards per attempt average would have been dead last among NFL QBs in 2012.
Hernandez averages 11.5 yards per catch in his career, and Gronkowski average 14.2. Neither of those guys are Randy Moss-style players, they gave the Patriots a necessary element of verticality that was nowhere to be found today.
In the absence of those two, Brady dinked and dunked his way down the field against a mediocre opponent. Only three of his 29 completions went for 20 yards or more.
There was a ton of this:
The Patriots got by without a classic No. 1 wide receiver in years past because they had two elite tight ends who served a similar function — stretching the field to create space underneath for guys like Wes Welker who thrive when they have room to run.
Without Hernandez and Gronk today, the only thing open for Brady was that short dump-off pass.
We all expected things to be different without those two tight ends, but not this different (Vegas still had New England as touchdown favorites today).
We could be seeing a lot of disgusted Tom Brady faces this year (via Timothy Burke):
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