Tom Brady throws 500th TD in Patriots win, Julian Edelman’s return
It wasn’t as easy as expected, but the New England Patriots dispatched a banged-up Indianapolis Colts team Thursday night, 38-24, as receiver Julian Edelman returned to the field for the first time in 14 months.
Tom Brady became the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 500 career passing TDs in the regular season, with newcomer Josh Gordon hauling in No. 500 to put the Colts away in the fourth quarter. Brady now needs eight more TD passes to tie Brett Favre for second-most all time.
The now 3-1 Patriots looked to be in cruise control before they allowed the Colts to make it a one-score game early in the fourth quarter. But Brady threw for three touchdowns and 344 yards and ran in another score, his first rushing TD since the 2015 season. His two interceptions were not at all his fault, both caroming off his own receivers’ hands.
There also was a weird subplot in this game. In one of the stranger coaching matchups of the season, the man who was the Colts’ head coach for about five hours (Josh McDaniels) was trying to move the ball against the man he hired (Matt Eberflus) to be his defensive coordinator there. McDaniels, of course, reneged the offer and kept calling plays for New England. Eberflus stayed on with Frank Reich’s staff once Indy moved on.
McDaniels had a deeper box of toys with which to play on this night. That was highlighted by the return of Edelman in his first non-preseason game since Super Bowl LI, which is crazy when you think about it. He suffered a torn ACL about 14 months ago, and his four-game suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs stretched his return out even further.
This Patriots receiving corps has been in almost constant flux since Edelman’s knee injury last August, and Thursday was the first time you could say the Patriots fielded a potentially dangerous group. Add to that TE Rob Gronkowski’s litany of injuries, the latest an ankle that had him questionable for this game, and Tom Brady’s passing targets have been revolving on almost a weekly basis.
So what did the Patriots do? They threw it nine times — all Brady completions — on the opening drive alone. And guess who was involved early …
The Patriots celebrated the return of Edelman by throwing to him on the first play of the game, a 9-yard gain that gave the Gillette Stadium crowd another chance to salute their guy. Edelman caught two more passes on the touchdown drive. On a 13-yard catch, Edelman shook the tackle attempt of the Colts’ Zaire Franklin. (It looked like he fumbled at the end of the grab, but officials didn’t call it.) Then on the penultimate play of the drive, Edelman’s 6-yarder set up New England at the Indianapolis 1-yard line.
Cordarrelle Patterson caught Brady’s 1-yard scoring pass as the Patriots got up early. It was easily the most impressive opening drive for them all season — a real strength in years past that had appeared to fall off in 2018 thus far.
With Cyrus Jones inactive for the game, that put Edelman on punt returns, too. After the Patriots stoned the Colts on their first drive, Edelman ripped off a 15-yard return. The fans ate it up even more.
Even a bad drop of a cupcake of a pass from Brady on a speed out couldn’t ruin the night for Edelman. It got even louder when — after a very promising Colts drive — old friend Adam Vinatieri’s field-goal try clanged off the upright, making it local Schadenfreude Night, as well.
After the refs seemed to job Sony Michel on a touchdown on the ensuing drive, Brady called his own number on a keeper from the Colts’ 1-yard line. Brady took a wallop in sneaking it in but scored, making it 14-0 New England.
The Colts, who fell to 1-3, were down eight players on Thursday, including WR T.Y. Hilton, TE Jack Doyle, LB Darius Leonard, CBs Quincy Wilson and Kenny Moore II. Also sitting were left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who is still hurt, and right tackle Denzelle Good, whose brother was killed on Tuesday. Linebacker Anthony Walker was knocked out of the game in the first quarter, evaluated for a concussion, and DL Denico Autry (hamstring), left in the second. Vinatieri also was dealing with a sore right groin, but he atoned for his earlier miss by cranking a 54-yarder to get the Colts on the board mid-second quarter.
Brady then came back to hit James White, who had a big night, on a 6-yard TD catch to make it 21-3. White caught eight of his nine targets in the first half for 69 yards, as McDaniels went after a soft underbelly of the Colts’ defense with Leonard — the NFL’s leading tackler who also has four sacks — and Walker out of the game.
Andrew Luck was intercepted 38 seconds before the half on a bad throw as he tried to get away from a sack. The Patriots turned that into more points, tacking on a field goal before halftime to make it 24-3. Brady completely 23-of-27 passes in the first half and was mostly great outside one shaky series.
Luck finished the game 38-of-59 passing for 365 yards with three TDs and two picks. He’s now thrown the ball 53, 31, 40, 63 and 59 times in games this season, with 122 of those coming in the past four days following the Colts’ OT loss to the Texans. And Luck’s doing it all while returning from a shoulder injury that cost him his 2017 season and fending off critics who are nitpicking the velocity of his throws on a weekly basis. That’s just too much throwing; he badly needs help.
Luck never really had a chance with a patchwork offense and was under fire early vs. a decent Patriots pass rush, even though he looked terrific throwing the ball in the second half. The Colts didn’t look helpless on offense at times, but countless dropped passes (many of them wide open), mental mistakes and shoddy pass blocking — down their top two tackles — did them in. By game’s end, these might have been the worst 10 offensive players he’s ever lined up with in a non-preseason game.
Edelman caught the Patriots’ first pass of the second half for a 4-yard gain, and he finished the game with seven confident catches and 57 yards. But the Patriots’ offense stalled too often in the second half because of sloppy play. This is not yet a well-oiled machine.
The Colts made it a two-score game after a Chester Rogers 33-yard punt return set up a nice strike from Luck to Eric Ebron for a 14-yard touchdown. Brady started really getting in a groove on the next drive, with two terrific throws to Rob Gronkowski, but the drive was undone when Chris Hogan dropped an easy catch that deflected right into the arms of Colts safety Matthias Farley for a pick.
It was shocking that this was still a two-score game at this point considering the way the Patriots completely dominated. Safety Devin McCourty, who played his best game of the season, ripped the ball away from Colts rookie RB Jordan Wilkins, but another perfect Brady pass — this one to Gronkowski — was picked. The Patriots were about to go in for a hammer-blow touchdown, but Gronk couldn’t haul it in at the Indy 6-yard line, and the ball ended up right in the mitts of LB Najee Goode for his first career INT. It was a true gift.
Luck kept them in it with a gorgeous drive that featured several impressive throws, including a corner route by Rogers, who flat out dropped a perfect ball. But Luck hit Eric Ebron (who had a career-high 105 yards and his first two-TD game) for 28- and 18-yard catches and capped the drive with a great strike to backup TE Erik Swoope, who was just added to the active roster (and who almost added a second TD in garbage time). Shockingly, the Colts had cut the lead to 24-17.
The Patriots are not all the way back yet. Edelman had an impressive debut considering his long layoff, and White was terrific. But Hogan’s nightmare season continued with the bad drop, and the run game was limited — until Michel’s impressive 34-yard TD run to cap the game — after last week’s impressive breakout. The New England offensive line had a so-so game overall. Least impressive was right tackle Marcus Cannon, who was called for a hold and tripping.
But overall, the Patriots have to feel like the offense is on the upswing, mistakes and all. Michel has now strung two solid games together. White does his thing better than most. Gordon has shown a few flashes. The hope is that Gronkowski’s ankle will get better with the mini-bye coming up. And, yeah, Edelman is back — and will be better.