- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The New England Patriots had a chance to answer one of the big questions that doubters have about them this season, but failed to do so.
Can they win when quarterback Tom Brady doesn't have his best day?
Brady was intercepted a career-high four times in the Patriots' 34-31 loss to the undefeated Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It was his first four-interception game since 2006. Two of the picks were batted balls, the other two a case of the Bills simply executing better.
With Brady unable to bail them out, it was a chance to see how the Patriots would respond. The results, particularly on defense, were uninspiring.
Patriots followers were promised a more aggressive defense in 2011, but can anyone really say it looks any different from recent years? Pressure is hard to come by and coverage in the revamped secondary, where a major investment has been made in the draft over the last five years (two first-round picks and four second-round picks), is inconsistent.
Defense is supposed to be a Bill Belichick specialty, so this is on him to fix. Watching the Bills easily drive 79 yards to set up the game-winning field goal at the end of Sunday's game, and beat them at the "situational football" that he preaches to his own team, should make him sick.
But let's start with Brady, and the question of what happens to the pass-first, run-second Patriots when he's not playing like the 2010 Most Valuable Player, which was the case Sunday even as he threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns.
Brady wasn't all bad, hanging in to make some bold throws like the 6-yard, game-tying touchdown pass to incomparable receiver Wes Welker (team-record 217 receiving yards) on fourth-and-goal late in the fourth quarter. But he had more mistakes than the norm (some fluky), which is obvious considering he had four interceptions over the course of the entire 2010 regular season.
When that happens, a complete team that plays complementary football finds a way to respond. The Patriots still haven't proven to be one.
"We made too many mistakes. It's tough to overcome as many mistakes as we did," said Brady, who also threw four interceptions the last time the Bills had beaten the Patriots, in 2003. "[Buffalo] made some good plays on the ball. Some days the ball gets batted up in the air and it goes your way, and some days it doesn't. That's football."
That's true to a degree, but this game was still right there for the Patriots to take. They had a chance to match the Bills turnover for turnover, but were victimized by their own miscues, which included eight penalties.
Arguably no penalty had a greater effect on the outcome than safety Sergio Brown's costly pass interference penalty in the end zone with 10:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Patriots led 24-17 and Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick gift-wrapped a floating interception in the end zone to safety Josh Barrett.
It was the type of play that one expects to see in Pop Warner, not the NFL -- throw it up there and pray -- but Brown was flagged in the back of the end zone for impeding the path of receiver David Nelson. Instead of the Patriots getting the ball at their own 20, the Bills kept it ... and had it advanced to the goal line no less. They scored on the next play to tie it at 24, before going ahead on the on a tipped-ball interception returned for a touchdown on the Patriots' next offensive play.
This was a case where the Patriots' inexperience at safety showed up big, just like when Barrett whiffed on running back Fred Jackson on the game-winning drive, springing Jackson for a 38-yard gain to the half-yard line.
That's just overall bad defensive football, and Brown and Barrett -- who went wire to wire while attempting to fill the void created by Patrick Chung's injury -- weren't alone. That was 2010 Pro Bowler Devin McCourty getting beat for 29 yards down the right side on the first play of the Bills' game-winning final march. Meanwhile, the front six in the nickel package did little to help out the five defensive backs behind them.
It's a bit of a tired story by now.
"We knew we were going to be able to drop back and have time to throw the football," explained Nelson, the Bills receiver who was part of an attack that totaled 369 passing yards. "They pride themselves on dropping back, making you make errors as far as penalties, dropping balls [and]making bad decisions on routes. They make you beat yourself, so they're not going to sit there and blitz you."
Meanwhile, when it comes to the pass-heavy offense, we're getting to the point where calling veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco a disappointment is close to being in-bounds. His fourth-quarter drop of a would-be touchdown was one of the lowlights of the day (costing the Patriots valuable time). He was also the intended receiver for one of Brady's interceptions, with cornerback Leodis McKelvin undercutting him on a route across the middle. It's only been three games, but this Brady-Ochocinco connection is taking longer than expected to come to life.
Still, if there is a silver lining for the Patriots, it's that this is only one game, and it's early in the season. Players hardly seemed panicked.
"It's a long football season and we're not going anywhere," Brady said. "We'll be back and we'll be fighting next week. Hopefully we'll learn from it, move on, make a few less mistakes next week, and try to go win a game in Oakland."
It wouldn't be surprising if they do.
But until they prove they are more than a Brady-led machine, and come up with some answers on defense, questions will remain about this Patriots team.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Penalties, spotty play just as costly for Patriots as Brady's four picks.