FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots broke for the bye week after a 45-7 thrashing of the Rams in London on Oct. 28, talk of the team’s need for improvement centered around preventing opponents from making big plays. A deadline deal for cornerback Aqib Talib reinforced the point that the New England secondary was the unit in need of the most fine-tuning.
Two weeks later and far removed from Britain’s foggy skies, a clearer picture of the solution for plugging New England’s leaky secondary has yet to emerge. The focus after Sunday’s 37-31 win over the Bills wasn’t so much on the big play but on the methodical, dump-and-run offense of a Buffalo team that gained 481 total yards on the Patriots.
“They didn’t really hit us with a lot of big plays,” said Patriots head coach Belichick. “They moved the ball around, they got a lot of guys involved. … We missed some tackles, we didn’t play some of the runs real well.”
Particularly problematic were Bills running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who combined for 246 total yards both on the ground and in the air. The ground game also opened up enough airspace for Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 337 yards, which is just 10 fewer yards of offense than the Patriots had in total. If not for turnovers, the Patriots could have found themselves on the losing end.
“We know they’re explosive players,” said Patriots cornerback Marquice Cole. “I feel like we just had to go out and finish the game, and make one more play than they did to win it.”
That one big play was an interception by fellow defensive back Devin McCourty with 28 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Fitzpatrick made a read and then threw the ball right to McCourty, who simply had to make the catch and fall to his knees. Call it luck or call it a great read, but the Patriots escaped thanks to McCourty’s last-second heroics.
“You just try to focus on the guys you know they like to throw to, with [Scott] Chandler being a big target in the middle of the field,” said McCourty. “Stevie Johnson and Chandler lined up right in the middle. I knew there was a chance it was going to be some kind of play in the middle of the field. He just threw it and I happened to be right there.”
At his locker after the game, Bills rookie wide receiver T.J. Graham took responsibility for the pick, telling reporters he ran the wrong route.
“That was a rookie mistake,” said Graham. “I was supposed to cross his face in the front, and it was a good pass. Had I crossed the face, I probably would have made the play.”
The Bills made several other costly mistakes, including Jackson’s fumble at the one-yard line with 9:43 remaining in the fourth quarter with the Bills down by 10 points. The Patriots forced three fumbles and took advantage of McCourty’s interception to come out on top. Forcing turnovers is something the Patriots do well, and giving up yardage throughout the game doesn’t seem to phase them. McCourty was the one who forced Jackson’s fumble; Vince Wilfork forced another early in the game. McCourty says Wilfork encourages each New England defensive player to seek out that impact moment.
“He always says, ‘If we could get one big play out of everybody in the game, we’ll be in great shape,'” said McCourty. “We know no matter what happens in the game there’s nothing bigger than turnovers.”
That’s a motto the Patriots are living by, but it’s also one they may die by during a week in which they fail to come out on the right side of the turnover battle. In addition to turnovers, 14 Buffalo penalties for 148 yards also negated many of the good things the Bills did on the afternoon. The ball won’t always roll, and the flags won’t always fly, in favor of the home team.
Boston.com’s Zuri Berry contributed to this report.