Usually, 37 points at home against a 3-5 team should be enough for a comfortable win and few laughs along the way.
Those 37 points were enough for the Patriots beat Buffalo 37-31 Sunday but they weren't enough to answer any questions about this team's long-term prognosis when it comes to the postseason or even the rest of the irregular season.
The Bills and Ryan Fitzpatrick looked as good as any other offense has against the Patriots this season - rolling up 481 total yards and 35 first downs before Devin McCourty found some redemption (if not reclamation) for himself and the secondary with a game-clinching interception in the end zone with 23 seconds to play.
Put down the heart medication, Adderall and Pepto-Bismol. Fire the guns, blast the horn and celebrate, the Patriots are 6-3 and are in firm command of the AFC East.
It is better to be lucky than good. And good luck was definitely on the side of the Patriots Sunday. Next week, Andrew Luck and the resurgent Colts will rip them apart if the defense continues to miss tackles, fails to apply any pressure and blows coverage on mid-range routes across the middle. Troublesome and no-longer suspended cornerback Aqib Talib to the rescue. He might be the biggest in-season acquisition since Chris Christie joined the Obama campaign a week before the election.
Bill Belichick's assessment was simple: "Turnovers were the difference." Indeed - the Bills fumbled twice - including Fred Jackson's drop at the 1 during Buffalo's first possession of the fourth quarter, in addition to having that pick in the end zone during Buffalo's final possession of the fourth quarter. The Patriots' defense was horrible in many facets of the game. "Bend but don't break" somehow defied the laws of physics Sunday. The Bills committed 14 penalties - more than a couple were questionable - for 148 yards. Those two factors, plus New England's offense, were enough to overcome any defensive shortcomings. The Patriots led the NFL in points and yards gained heading into this game - never mind being 11-point favorites - while and the Bills were next to last in points and yards allowed.
The bewildering Patriots defense managed to hold together last season all the way until the final Giants' possession in the Super Bowl. The Patriots face a much tougher stretch schedule this December (at Miami, home vs. Houston and San Francisco) than they did last season. A first-round bye and homefield throughout the playoffs is probably a pipe dream. New England's potential road to New Orleans will be much more demanding and fraught with peril than the road to Indianapolis. Thanks to the current NFL collective bargaining agreement - as Troy Brown pointed out on the Comcast New England post game show - the Patriots have only two padded practices left this season. So the tackling issues demonstrated Sunday probably won't be going away anytime soon, or until they get to blitz Mark Sanchez on Thanksgiving.
Forced turnovers aside, the Patriots brought a whole new meaning to the term "tackling dummies" Sunday. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was getting second-guessed more than the Romney campaign after the game and he carried New England, so to speak. Of course, Patricia is not buying the groceries nor is he even cooking the meal while coaching in Belichick's shadow. Jerod Mayo, Chandler Jones, Brandon Spikes (who continues to hit hard if nothing else), Rob Ninkovich and even Vince Wilfork (who forced a fumble) missed tackles all afternoon. Some of that could be desire of the Patriots to so often go for the ball/strip instead of the sure tackle. And some of that was the ability of the Bills skill players to bounce off half-hearted hits and keep going. The Bills two-pronged rushing attack, led by C.J. Spiller and Jackson, chewed up 162 yards and did it by running at and through the defense, pounding away throughout the day. Arian Foster, Reggie Bush and Frank Gore will enjoy watching that film. And the Texans and 49ers have defenses, too.
Offensively, the Patriots left themselves open to some criticism by their epic 19-second drive mid-way through the fourth quarter that led to the Bills final touchdown. Tom Brady mixed things up again, finding six different receivers, including Danny Woodhead, who scored two touchdowns. Their best moment came when the Patriots were up 10-3 and they connected on two straight completions of 15 and 7 yards starting on a 3rd and 7 at the Bills' 37. Frodo closed that scoring drive out with a run up the middle for 15 yards. Sweet stuff. Brady lost the Fantasy League showdown to Ryan Fitzpatrick 337-237 yards passing and hit on just 23 of 38 attempts. Each threw for 2 TDs, but Brady was without an interception despite two perilous tipped passes. Stevan Ridley crashed through the 800-yard barrier for the season (814) with 98 yards rushing on 22 carries and a touchdown. The Patriots' running game appears to be in good hands as long as Ridley avoids mayhem and continues not to fumble.
Still, the Patriots face the same issues as the Red Sox when it comes having a closer - namely they don't have one - highlighted by the bungled quick-snap on the first and goal during New England's final offensive possession. Another was the disappearance of Brandon Lloyd, who finished with five catches for 45 yards. Lloyd was targeted four times in the second half, catching all four passes, but just totaled 34 yards in the final 30 minutes. Again, Deion Branch and Wes Welker were the go-to clutch guys down the stretch. Welker reversed field and ran a couple of miles to pick up 23 yards on 2nd and 10 from the Buffalo 40 late in the fourth quarter that set up New England's final points. Now why didn't they sign this guy to a long-term deal?
"We had more opportunities to score more points and we didn't. It's frustrating when we don't play as well as we're capable of," said Brady during a very short (it ran all of 176 seconds) post-game presser. "The defense really saved the day."
Karl Rove had more to say Wednesday while he was still looking for votes in Ohio.
Thinking Brady probably wanted to say: "I'm 35. I have a supermodel wife, another kid on the way and a mansion in California bigger than Mitt Romney's. I'd like to win one more Super Bowl so I can retire in one piece and it ain't gonna happen if this crap keeps up." Brady was the same unhappy Tom we saw down the stretch last season. He was furious at times - especially with Julian Edelman who blew blocking coverage when Brady was flattened on a third-quarter sack that knocked Logan Mankins out of action. Love it.
The Patriots are 11-0 at Gillette against the Bills and Brady no doubt found further redemption since Harvard beat Michigan 4-0 the first time they met back on Halloween in 1881. Much more exciting than Brady after the game was Fitzpatrick. The Harvard grad ran out of eloquence in calling Spikes "a punk" twice. Spikes got penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Fitzpatrick during which Fitzpatrick's helmet went flying. This is the NFL. There was clear contact - hence the penalty - but no diving or spearing. Clearly another by-product of his days in Gainesville and in the SEC. Had the Crimson ever found themselves in the Swamp during Fitzpatrick's days in college - Fitzpatrick graduated from Harvard in 2005 while Spikes arrived at UF in 2006 - he would have been lucky to leave the field with his head attached, never mind his helmet. Spikes also reportedly "flexed" while Jackson was hurt, indeed a "punk" move if that was indeed the case.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski continued his run of recent perfection and has been money since Week 1. Another thing the Patriots got right today was the debut of their permanent POW-MIA seat in the end zone seating section. "Thank you veterans," Rob Gronkowski said after the game. Indeed. That is a trend that should catch on and be a permanent staple at every NFL, NBA and major-league baseball venue - along with the NHL if they ever play again.
That was a perfect way for the Patriots to celebrate Veterans Day. But there's no doubt their defense has to spend some more time in the war room if this team hopes to be playing in February.
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