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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady saw receiver Danny Amendola limp off the field at the end of the second quarter, he was thinking the same thing as most everyone else. He figured that was it.
"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," Brady admitted.
|In his Patriots debut, Danny Amendola had 10 catches for 104 yards and nine first downs.|
If it hadn't unfolded that way, the Patriots probably wouldn't have escaped with a 23-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills in the season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium. In what can only be considered the highest compliment based on what we saw from 2007 through 2012, Amendola's 10-catch, 104-yard performance was Wes Welker-like.
We know what that means: clutch, one in which he took some crunching hits, rung up first downs (nine of them) at a rapid-fire pace and was inspirational to his teammates.
"Amendola is one tough player," third-year running back Shane Vereen marveled. "He took some shots, he was a little banged up, [but] he came through when we needed him to."
The shining example came when the game was on the line late in the fourth quarter, which, quite frankly, was a position that few figured the Patriots would be in. But they were. And when the "got-to-have-them" plays arose, Brady looked in Amendola's direction just like he used to do with Welker.
Trailing 21-20 with 4:31 remaining, the Patriots took over on their 34-yard line. On third-and-3 from their own 41, Amendola initially lined up wide to the left and came in motion into the slot. Bills top cornerback Leodis McKelvin followed him, but Amendola was too shifty as he created separation to the inside and hauled in a 6-yard strike from Brady as two other Bills defenders also converged.
Sweet route, on-the-money throw, sure-handed catch.
Then, on third-and-8 from the Bills' 39, Amendola lined up to Brady's right with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and receiver Julian Edelman bunched with him to his right. Amendola initially took his route to the outside -- the traffic made it challenging for the Bills defensive backs -- before rounding it in and snaring a laser from Brady as he was crunched by safety Aaron Williams.
Patient "angle" route, big-time throw, gutsy catch in traffic.
"I thought Danny stepped up and made some big catches in some tough situations," coach Bill Belichick said. "Tom, as always, competed like he always does. He made some great throws in critical times."
Indeed, on a day when the Patriots weren't at their best -- the revamped offense endured some growing pains, running back Stevan Ridley was benched after a second-quarter fumble and kicker Stephen Gostkowski converted a game-winning 35-yard field goal with five seconds remaining -- the Brady-to-Amendola connection trumped it all.
No one is saying that there aren't concerns for the Patriots with what unfolded. It was ugly, at times, for a team that prides itself on taking care of the football to be sloppy. Some of the team's young players didn't rise up.But at the same time, if we haven't learned by now that the opening game of the season isn't always reflective of what is to come and that teams evolve over the course of a season, then we haven't been watching closely enough. To be able to win with a clutch final drive, overcoming their mistake-filled ways, is something that Belichick, Brady and others believe has significance.
"I'll take it," Brady said. "Opening day and we didn't execute great, but the boys made some clutch plays when they needed to."
No one more so than Amendola, who had New England atop his free-agent wish list this offseason but was unsure how it would unfold because Welker's return was still in question. That's one reason the link between Amendola and Welker isn't going away any time soon. But if Amendola had watched Welker's impressive Denver debut on Thursday, and felt like he had to match it Sunday, he didn't let on.
"I was a senior in high school when he was going to Texas Tech and Wes was catching 15 balls per game," Amendola said. "I've been watching Wes play at a very high level for a very long time, and I'm just excited to be here and I'm excited to make plays with these guys.
"Wes is a great player. He's one of the best receivers, the most productive receivers ever to play the game. He's really innovated the slot position, and I've learned a lot from him."
Amendola's teammates -- and the team's followers -- are learning more about him. In Sunday's opener, he said he didn't have his legs under him in the first half, when he had three catches for 40 yards before departing with the groin injury. Amendola was limited in practice this week because of the groin, and he credited the Patriots athletic trainers for getting him back on the field.
"I didn't know," he admitted. "I was going to come out and see how I felt. You've just got to keep fighting. That's what it is all about. It's a long game. It's a physical game, and it's honestly a fight out there every play."
Amendola's fight stood out on a day when the Patriots weren't at their best.
"He really toughed it out, which was pretty impressive," Brady said. "He battled all day, and we got held to the fire."