ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Danny Amendola knows what you think about him.
Brittle. Always injured. Will never be as good -- or as durable -- as Wes Welker.
But he’s OK with that. The receiver, who made several big catches down the stretch in the Patriots' 23-21 win over the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium, knows that after what happened on Sunday, he has the support of the guys in his locker room. And that’s all that matters.
In crunch time against the Bills, the 27-year-old Amendola -- in his first game with New England -- stepped up and made a series of big catches, going over the middle and absorbing some nasty hits from Buffalo defenders while holding onto the ball and consistently moving the chains. He had seven catches for 64 yards in the second half, and on the final drive, he accounted for 26 of the 49 yards, with three of his catches in that series going for first downs.
He finished with a team-high 10 catches (on 14 targets) for 104 yards, all while dealing with a groin injury he suffered in the first half that caused him to head for the locker room shortly before halftime.
“I really didn’t have my legs under me in the first half. I came in, made some adjustments and just tried to make as many plays as I could there in the second half and [help] get the ball moving,” said Amendola, who got dressed very gingerly after the game.
“You just have to keep fighting. That’s what it’s about. It’s a long game -- it’s a physical game. Honestly, it’s a fight out there, every play. We did a good job today fighting until the very end. It was awesome.”
While his second-half return wasn’t exactly Larry Bird jogging back to the floor of the Garden against the Pacers (When asked what happened to him at halftime, Amendola responded with a smile, “We have good trainers here. They do a good job of getting us on the field.”), the return and second-half performance in the face of pain earned him praise from all corners of the New England locker room.
“Amendola is one tough player,” marveled running back Shane Vereen. “He took some shots today.”
“He gave it everything he had, and that’s all you can ask,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “I didn’t really expect anything to happen in the second half. I thought he was going to be out for the rest of the game. He showed a lot of toughness, mental and physical, and made some really great plays for us.”
Of course, the Welker comparisons are deja vu all over again for Amendola, so maybe we shouldn’t be all that shocked when he acknowledges and confronts Welker’s legacy so directly. He’s followed an eerily similar career arc to Welker -- he followed in Welker’s footsteps at Texas Tech. Both were undrafted free agents, and now, with Welker gone to Denver, he stepped into his shoes once again in New England, signing with the Patriots in the offseason. So when the Welker questions came his way in the wake of Sunday’s game, he was ready for them.
“I was a senior in high school when I was going to Texas Tech and Wes was catching 15 balls a game,” Amendola said. “I’ve been watching Wes play at a very high level for a very long time. I’m just excited to be here, and I’m just excited to make plays with these guys.
“I just try and think about my job. I love playing with these guys -- it’s a great team. I’ve only been here for a short amount of time, but I can already tell the guys really rally together. It starts at the top. I’m really excited to be here.”
The truth of the matter is that no matter what he does, there will still be some people out there who will believe he’ll never be as good as Welker. He’ll never be as fast, as shifty, as durable, as good with the foot puns. Truthfully, it’s a near-impossible standard to live up to the legacy put forth by one of the most durable players the league has seen in the last decade. If Amendola takes one snap off this year, his critics will savage him: Wes never missed a snap! (To that point, the eye-rolling that took place across New England in the wake of Amendola’s appearance on the injury report this week was palpable.)
But while his New England career is still in its embryonic stages, he took a big step in the right direction with his performance Sunday.
“He really toughed it out, which was pretty impressive,” said Brady, who leaned on Amendola and Vereen repeatedly on the final drive in the fourth quarter to pull out his 27th come-from-behind win when his team was trailing in the fourth quarter. “He battled all day.”
And at the end of the day, for Amendola and the Patriots, that’s all that matters. While the performance might not be enough to overturn public perception (just wait until he shows up on the injury report again), he certainly did enough to win over his teammates. And that’s enough in his eyes.
“Wes is a great player -- one of the best, most productive receivers ever to play the game. He’s really innovated the slot position. I’ve learned a lot from him,” said Amendola. “I just feel good about the win -- that’s all that really matters to me.
“We’ll figure out all the rest later.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
JULIAN EDELMAN IS STILL VERY RELEVANT IN THIS OFFENSE
The receiver had fallen out of favor the last few seasons for various reasons, including the fact that he had been surpassed by other flashier acquisitions, as well as some struggles with injury. But the former college quarterback -- the only receiver left on the roster who caught a pass from Brady last year -- had a terrific season opener. He caught both of Brady’s touchdown passes (one from nine yards out and the other from eight) and displayed a nice chemistry with the quarterback, one that wasn’t necessarily there with some of the younger receivers. While the final drive was the exclusive domain of Vereen and Amendola, Edelman was the most consistent receiver for New England all afternoon, finishing with seven catches for 79 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
KYLE ARRINGTON HAD A GOOD START TO THE 2013 SEASON
The cornerback made two big plays early on, coming away with a pair of forced fumbles, four tackles, a pass defensed and a tackle for loss. The first turnover came on Buffalo’s first drive of the afternoon, and happened when Arrington punched at the ball, knocking it loose from Bills running back C.J. Spiller. Tommy Kelly picked it up, giving the Patriots possession at the Buffalo 16. Three plays later, Brady found Edelman for a 9-yard scoring strike to make it 7-0. The second one came with 3:53 left in the second quarter, with Arrington knocking the ball away from receiver Marquise Goodwin. On that play, Rob Ninkovich came away with the ball, and again, the Patriots turned that into points when Brady and Edelman connected on their second touchdown to make it 17-7 near the end of the first half.
SPECIAL TEAMS HAD 59 SHAKY MINUTES, FOLLOWED BY A CLUTCH PERFORMANCE
Before Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yarder, there was more bad than good for the New England special teamers. LeGarrette Blount’s career as an NFL kick returner got off to an auspicious start when he carried the opening kickoff to the New England 14. He ended up with a pair of kick returns, averaging 17.5 yards. (By way of comparison, the Patriots averaged 21.2 yards per return last year, 25th in the league) Gostkowski had a pair of made field goals, but his 48-yarder came despite what looked to be a rough hold from rookie punter Ryan Allen. As for Allen, he gacked a 19-yard punt in the second quarter. (To be fair, he redeemed himself with a 65-yard punt that rolled to the Buffalo 8-yard line.) And there was a 57-yard punt from Buffalo in the third quarter that Edelman let bounce ... that was downed on the New England 3-yard line. Gostkowski ultimately hit the game-winner with five seconds left, but it was a shaky afternoon for the New England special teamers.
TOM BRADY CAN GET A LITTLE STEAMED
There were moments where the veteran quarterback was more than a little upset at his young receiving corps. It never reached Joey Galloway, DEFCON-1 status, but there were plenty of moments of frustration for the quarterback, who had issues with some of his receivers not named Edelman, Vereen or Amendola. In the end, the quarterback was 29-for-52 for 288 yards with a pair of touchdowns and one pick, as well as one botched snap for a fumble. (The turnover wasn’t his finest hour -- it came with the Patriots poised at the Buffalo 1-yard line with just over four minutes left in the third quarter.) As the quarterback suggested several times over the summer, the passing game remains a work in progress, particularly without his old BFF in Welker. To that end, Sunday marked the first time Brady had suited up without Welker since Jan. 2, 2011 (Welker was a healthy scratch in a meaningless regular-season finale), a stretch of 38 consecutive games. It’ll take time to adjust to the new reality, for the quarterback and his younger pass-catchers.
STEVAN RIDLEY HAS TO TIGHTEN THINGS UP
The lead back put the ball on the ground twice on the afternoon and was benched for much of the last two-plus quarters. After a fumble on the game's opening series that was negated when it was ruled he was down by contact (the Patriots had recovered the ball anyhow), Ridley coughed it up in the second quarter and it proved to be costly. On the play, the Patriots were holding a 10-0 lead and sitting at the Buffalo 24. That’s when Ridley took the handoff and simply slipped and fell, losing control of the ball. The Bills Da’Norris Searcy scooped it up and ran 74 yards to the end zone for Buffalo’s first score of the day to make it 10-7 with just over eight minutes left in the half. (The enduring image from that play was the sight of Brady and Ridley on their knees on the turf while the Bills danced into the end zone. After it was clear the play wasn’t going to be overturned, Brady shot Ridley a death stare as the two walked off the field.) It was the last play of the day for Ridley, who spent the rest of the afternoon looking on forlornly on the sidelines while Shane Vereen and Blount handled the carries the rest of the way. For a running back who has had issues with ball security over the course of his two-plus years in Foxboro, it was a bad start to the season.
SO DOES THE OFFENSIVE LINE WHEN IT COMES TO PASS PROTECTION
The Bills were able to generate good, consistent pressure on Brady for the duration of the game when it came to pass protection, as new Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and the Bills kept the heat on throughout the contest. The quarterback was hit seven times and sacked twice as he spent a lot of the first three quarters on the run. While there are other elements of newness in other parts of the New England offense -- where struggles can be blamed on growing pains -- there’s no such excuse with the offensive line, as all five starters (left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Marcus Cannon and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer) have extensive experience within the system. This is one of the areas that will ultimately demand another look at the tape to see where some of the breakdowns took place, but at first glance, it was a rough start to the season for the New England offensive line.
SHANE VEREEN IS CAPABLE OF PICKING UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF LAST SEASON
The third-year back out of Cal, who ended last season on a terrific note with some impressive performances down the stretch and into the playoffs, started the 2013 season on an excellent note. He picked up most of the carries after Ridley was benched and added to his total yardage with seven catches (on 10 targets) for 58 yards while lining up at multiple spots on offense. In all, he ended up with 14 carries for 101 yards to go along with seven catches for 58 yards -- 21 touches for 159 yards from scrimmage, an average of 7.57 yards per play. On the game-winning drive, it was all Vereen and Amendola, as the two were the only skill position players who touched the ball on the 12-play, 49-yard drive. While the Patriots have had several multiidimensional offensive threats over the years, Vereen has the potential to be one of the best.
THE ROOKIES CAN PLAY LIKE ROOKIES
It was likely inevitable, but the New England rookies struggled at times over the course of the opener. The only two first-year players who saw substantial time were wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld. Thompkins was a serious target for much of the afternoon, and he tied Amendola for most targets (14). He only came away with four catches for 42 yards and struggled to get separation -- his highlight coming on a 20-yard connection down the Buffalo sideline in the first half. As for Sudfeld, he was held without a catch and fumbled away his only opportunity when he couldn’t hold on to the ball late in the second quarter after he lost his footing. The Bills took advantage for their first offensive touchdown of the afternoon when EJ Manuel hit Robert Woods on an 18-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-14 with 34 seconds left in the first half. Not the best start to the season for the 2013 rookie class.
THERE ARE SOME COMMUNICATION ISSUES IN THE SECONDARY
On Manuel’s two touchdown throws -- one at the end of the first half and one at the start of the second half -- it looked like there were breakdowns in communication in the New England secondary. On the first one, the pass to Woods, it appeared cornerback Aqib Talib intended to “pass” the receiver to safety Steve Gregory. (Either that, or he was expecting Gregory come over the top to assist, and he never showed.) And on the third-quarter pass, there was a similar breakdown between Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty that left Stevie Johnson open in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. (To be fair, the second touchdown pass was contested better than the first one.) Like the issues that encountered the offensive line, these issues will demand another look when it comes to checking out the game tape.