The New England Patriots for years have been synonymous with finding new ways to win every week. It appears that they'll have to continue doing so.
Facing their first game after the release of Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker walking in free agency and with Rob Gronkowski sidelined with arm and back injuries, the Patriots' identity remains in flux following a 23-21, last-second victory at Buffalo.
The Bills tightened defensively during the game when it became clear that the Patriots had no semblance of a deep passing game. They also missed a game-changing presence at tight end, and when Danny Amendola missed a chunk of the game with (we assume) a strained groin, Tom Brady looked completely unsure where to go with the ball.
Kenbrell Thompkins? The preseason star, who looked like the second coming of Victor Cruz before the games mattered, sputtered out of the blocks in this one. Brady threw his way 14 times, completing only four passes, and that included a dropped touchdown.
Brady also threw Amendola's way 14 times, for 10 completions, when it was clear that few others besides he, Shane Vereen (153 yards from scrimmage) and Julian Edelman (two touchdown catches) could be trusted. Vereen saw a massive role increase following the second-quarter fumble by Stevan Ridley that was run back for a score by the Bills. Ridley never once saw the field after coughing it up.
Amendola is a keeper, it appears, but he had better be. After Welker's mostly terrific debut in Denver, the Patriots must get their money's worth with their new slot receiver. Thompkins has a long way to go. Second-round receiver Aaron Dobson was a healthy DNP. Brady threw one pass to tight end Zach Sudfeld, and it was picked on a play the rookie should have had. And what happens now with Ridley, a 1,300-yard rusher a year ago but a guy with fumbling problems?
In recent years, the early-season Patriots tend to look far less developed than the late-season versions. But this year, there might be more questions about their identity than in recent memory.