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September 22. 2013 10:00PM

Patriots win

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Coming along nicely


New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins celebrate after Thompkins scored a touchdown on a pass from Brady in the first half of their NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Foxborough Sunday. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- AFTER catching all seven passes thrown his way, Julian Edelman dressed himself in a cardigan sweater and stood at his stall answering questions from reporters.
In total he spent 3 minutes and 35 questions speaking into a cluster of microphones — and when it was over there was little mistaking what the wideout believed to be a deciding factor in the Patriots' performance Sunday.

In the span of those 215 seconds, Edelman used the words "prepare," "work," "practice," or the phrase "get better," a whopping 21 times, each instance making clearer the point that had also been driven home over the previous three hours: When given the chance to prepare, and work, and practice, and get better, the Patriots have a chance be a pretty good team.

They certainly looked pretty good Sunday, when they beat the Buccaneers, 23-3, on the strength of two Kenbrell Thompkins touchdown catches and solid complementary, situational football.

Afforded the luxury of 10 days to ready themselves for Tampa, the result was crisper, cleaner, and more confidence-inspiring than their previous win over the Jets, which came only four days after the Pats had beaten the Bills. Between those first two games there was barely time for walkthroughs, let alone full practices, which gave a young team little time to implement improvements and make corrections.

That made Sunday an important opportunity to prove their potential for growth — to prove they know how to prepare, practice, and work efficiently enough to get better — and by doing so they improved New England to 3-0 for the first time since the unbeaten regular season of 2007.

"I think we get better every time we practice; if we don't, I don't know why we're going out there," said Bill Belichick, who is unbeaten after three games for the fourth time as the Patriots' head coach. "We had an opportunity to have an extra day this week with the Thursday game … (and) I think it helped our entire football team. Our execution, our communication and our timing on everything was a little better."

So an offense that punted 11 times against the Jets didn't punt once after the first quarter on Sunday, only once going three-and-out.

A defense that's early success had been doubted because its opponents were helmed by a couple of rookie quarterbacks over the first two weeks stopped Tampa Bay four times on fourth down in becoming the first Pats team since 1979 to allow 34 points or fewer over its first three contests (with seven of those surrendered on a returned fumble against Buffalo).

And a special teams collection missing Pro Bowl cover man Matthew Slater still allowed a total of just 12 return yards while converting on all three of its field goal tries — including Stephen Gostkowski's 53-yard bomb before the half.

It wasn't perfect, and at 0-3 the Bucs obviously have some issues right now. But ultimately the Pats emerged from Sunday with as much reason for optimism as they've had at any point since the regular season began.

"It was great," said safety Devin McCourty. "The offense played great, and then with Steve kicking that long field goal before the half, that's clutch. To start each drive on the 20 defensively is great too. That's how you want to play football. It was a total team effort today, and we've just got to continue to build on it."

Build is the operative word there, and that's what the Pats did even within Sunday afternoon — which didn't quite start all that spectacularly, as the Pats' three first-quarter possessions all ended in punts, stretching their slump to 18 straight drives without a touchdown.

But that began to change after the New England defense gave their offense the ball with some momentum by stopping Tampa on fourth and five, and Brady finally started to show some synchronicity with his rookie receivers. On third and four, he hit Aaron Dobson for 15 yards. Then he went back to Dobson when the next set of downs left the Pats facing fourth and 2, and the pair connected for another conversion.

And after they worked the ball into the red zone — where they'd converted just two of eight chances into touchdowns to start the year — Brady went to Thompkins. The throw was fairly short, and found Thompkins crossing right to left, but with the ball in his hands the rookie juked star safety Dashon Goldson out of his shoes, then showed a nice burst in scooting to the end zone. It was his first career score, it gave the Patriots the lead — and sparked a confidence that the unit carried forward.

They followed that 66-yard series with a 62-yard march capped by Thompkins' 5-yard scoring grab late in the second quarter, then later put together two more 65-yard drives while turning an Aqib Talib interception and a turnover on downs into two of their three field goals.

So now they're two games better than they were at this point last season, when they finished 12-4, and, at 3-0, NFL history says there's a better than 75 percent chance they will make the playoffs.

It's too early for that talk yet, particularly with the Dolphins looking like a formidable factor in the AFC East, and with the schedule about to get significantly tougher. Next Sunday, the Pats travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons in prime time, then they go to Cincinnati before returning home to face New Orleans the week after that.

It'll be a telling stretch for the Patriots, because all three of those teams are good.

That said, with a full week between each challenge to prepare, work, practice and get better, the Patriots should be, too.

"The week of practice definitely helped," said Dobson, who finished with seven catches for 52 yards. "I feel like we definitely got on the same page with each other, and it showed."

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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