ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – It wasn’t just lip service last week when coach Bill Belichick and every Patriots player asked about the Bills said they expected to get all that they could handle from Buffalo.
On Sunday afternoon they did.
But thanks in large part to a monster effort in the middle from linebacker Brandon Spikes, New England left Ralph Wilson Stadium with a come-from-behind 52-28 win, improving its much-talked-about record to 2-2.
Spikes forced two fumbles, a tide-turning one on the goal line late in the first half, and another in the fourth quarter. Both were recovered by teammates.
His effort was part of a hard-hitting performance by the defense. It made some crushing hits – none better than Vince Wilfork’s clean but devastating takedown of receiver Donald Jones over the middle – and had four interceptions.
Devin McCourty, who had received the lion’s share of blame for the unit’s late-game breakdown in Baltimore, had two of the picks.
It wasn’t perfect, with broken coverage on a 33-yard catch-and-run by Jones the most glaring mistake, bringing back memories of last year’s defense. The score gave Buffalo a 21-7 lead with four minutes gone in the third quarter.
But New England’s offense also got rolling, eschewing trick plays for what works: Tom Brady running the no-huddle, heaping doses of Wes Welker, getting the ball to Rob Gronkowski, and a new wrinkle: great running efforts from Stevan Ridley and rookie Brandon Bolden.
Ridley and Bolden each had more than 100 yards rushing, the first time the Patriots have had two running backs accomplish that in the same game since 1980. Welker and Gronkowski also both topped 100 yards receiving, part of a 340-yard passing performance for Brady, who was sacked just once.
It was just the second time in NFL history that a team has had two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers in the same game; Green Bay was the first, against the Lions in the 2008 regular-season finale.
New England got a sterling effort from its offensive line, which played without injured Logan Mankins against one of the top defensive tackle tandems in the NFL in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
“Kyle Williams is a beast in there; so is Dareus,” said Donald Thomas, who stepped into Mankins’s spot at left guard. Of the rushing numbers, he said, “It feels great to do that and get those yards for those guys. It’s satisfying as an offensive line to have a day like that.”
Bills coach Chan Gailey didn’t hold back when asked about his defense’s performance against the run.
“To be honest with you, they whipped us. Bottom line, they whipped us,” Gailey said. “They blocked us, we did not get off blocks and get to the ball. They blocked us and we were making our corners make a bunch of tackles.”
He added that he did not expect the Patriots to run the ball like that “at all”.
Spikes, the third-year University of Florida product, had a solid game in the opener against Tennessee but then looked lackluster against Arizona and Baltimore. Colorful and at times controversial – he was the only Patriots player to really speak out about the replacement officials, sending an R-rated tweet late last Sunday night that the refs were needed back at Foot Locker, where workers wear black-and-white striped jerseys.
“He’s a different character,” Rob Ninkovich said of Spikes, who did not talk after the game. “He has tons of energy. I love playing with the guy. I always know where he is because he’s always screaming at me to make plays.
“He has things you can’t teach – instincts.”
“He had a huge game,” Wilfork said. “He’s coming into his own and becoming an elite player. We need that from everyone.”
For two quarters-plus, the game was weirdly reminiscent of the last time New England traveled to Buffalo, last season when the Patriots lost a 21-0 lead and then the game on a last-second field goal, the first time in 16 meetings that the Patriots fell to the Bills.
New England got on the scoreboard first, aided by a great 41-yard fingertip catch by Gronkowski, who has had some of his best games in his hometown and was playing with a hip problem.
The first Patriots turnover came a short time later, with Wilfork tipping a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass at the line of scrimmage that Jerod Mayo made a nice play to pull in.
Despite getting the ball at midfield, the offense went three-and-out.
The offense also wasn’t able to put points on the board after McCourty’s first interception, early in the second quarter. McCourty grabbed a deep pass intended for T.J. Graham that Fitzpatrick left a bit short.
Taking over at Buffalo’s 42, Bolden gained 12 yards on first down but the possession went no further and Stephen Gostkowski missed a 49-yard field goal wide right.
Gostkowski, who missed the potential game-winning kick against Arizona in Week 2 but bounced back nicely against the Ravens, also missed a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter.
The Bills scored after their own forced fumble, when safety Jairus Byrd drove the ball out of Gronkowski’s hands and fell on the loose ball. Fitzpatrick needed one play to tie the game, finding tight end Scott Chandler in the right third of the end zone at 9:43 of the second.
Buffalo scored again before halftime, after Gostkowski’s second missed field goal, with Fitzpatrick again connecting with Chandler.
Chandler left the game in the fourth quarter after he was leveled by Spikes during McCourty’s interception return.
The Bills had a golden opportunity to start the third quarter up by two touchdowns after a Welker fumble in New England territory. But on second-and-goal from the 4, C.J. Spiller, who was playing in spite of a shoulder he injured just a week earlier, got the ball and had it knocked loose by Spikes. Wilfork got the recovery.
“I think it was huge,” Mayo said of the momentum swing caused by the turnover. “We weren’t really playing our game and we were only down (7) points. We had a lot of confidence and that never wavered in this locker room.”
Buffalo scored on its first possession of the second half, but New England scored on seven straight possessions to ultimately make it a blowout.
“We felt like we missed a lot of good opportunities in the first half,” Belichick said. “We had the ball down [in Buffalo territory] and didn’t take advantage of it; we got some turnovers and weren’t able to put points on the board. Fortunately in the second half, we were able to capitalize on it. I think we just played and executed a little better.”
The potential crisis of a three-game losing streak averted, things don’t get any easier for the Patriots in the coming weeks.
Asked when he’ll start taking a better look at Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense with Denver in Foxborough on Sunday, Belichick smiled and said, “In about 20 minutes.”