5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 23-3 win over the Bills

Orchard Park, NY - 12/03/2017 - (3rd quarter) Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) is swarmed by the New England Patriots defensive tackle Deatrich Wise (91) and New England Patriots outside linebacker David Harris (45) for a sack during the third quarter.  The Buffalo Bills host the New England Patriots at New Era Stadium, Orchard Park, NY.  -  (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section:  Sports, Reporter:  Jim McBride, Topic:  04Patriots-Bills, LOID:  8.4.226261402.
Tyrod Taylor is swarmed by Deatrich Wise and David Harris for a sack during the third quarter. –Barry Chin/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 23-3 win over the Bills, which featured a big game from Rob Gronkowski and another strong performance from a defense that didn’t allow a touchdown for the first time this season…

Getting it done on the ground

Bill Belichick will take them however they come.

“We try to go out there and score points when we’re on offense, and win games,” the coach said, turning to a familiar trope. “If we run it, we run it. If we throw it, we throw it. If we drop-kick it, we drop-kick it. Whatever we can do to move the ball and score points, that’s good.”

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To the chagrin of Doug Flutie, there were no drop-kicks executed Sunday. And on a windy day when he didn’t appear to be his most accurate, Tom Brady finished with more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time this season (and second in the regular season since the loss at Kansas City in September 2014).

But fortunately for the Patriots they have developed a running game that continues to prove itself capable of carrying the attack, following up last week’s 196-yard output with 191 yards on the ground Sunday. Again it was led by Dion Lewis, whose 44-yard scamper was the biggest chunk in an afternoon that saw him rack up 92 yards on 15 carries. And again Rex Burkhead was a big contributor, as well, gaining 78 yards on 12 hauls, including a 31-yard highlight and two third-quarter touchdown jaunts.

All told, the team averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and Brady pointed out that the effectiveness of the running game opened things up for a few big gains off of play-action against the Bills. The quarterback will always be the driving force behind the Patriots success, but the more opponents need to respect the run, the easier it’ll be for Brady. And for everybody.

Gronk gone wild

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Rob Gronkowski is always hyped for his return to his hometown – even without partaking in the usual Buffalo party starter of throwing oneself through a table – and Sunday was no exception.

There are times when it seems as though the Patriots’ tight end may be more subdued in his eighth season than he might’ve been in his younger days, though this season’s first meeting with the Bills appeared to have Gronkowski as wired as he’s been all year. He looked like was playing on edge, especially after halftime, and at times that manifested itself in a lack of discipline.

He was called for three penalties, the most egregious of which was a senseless personal foul that appeared to be the result of some frustration of being held on a pass that resulted in a Tom Brady interception. A few seconds after the play was over, he seemed to lose his mind momentarily and intentionally splashed his 265 pounds on to the head and neck of Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White, driving his elbow through his foe as if executing a wrestling move.

Earlier, Gronkowski had appeared to flip the ball at a Buffalo coach while running along the sideline after a nice catch, and rolled the ball toward the Bills’ bench while squatted with his back to the sideline after another grab. Those were far more subtle than the penalty; but it’s not as though he flipped the ball to the official and went back to the huddle.

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If that unpredictability is the price for what the Patriots got from Gronkowski in the course of the contest, however, New England will certainly take it. After the Patriots settled for three field goals in the first half they came out featuring their big tight end to start the third quarter, and with three catches he helped the club march down the field for its first touchdown. He didn’t score himself, but he nevertheless finished with nine catches for 147 yards on 11 targets – all season-highs, and the first time he’s eclipsed either six catches or 83 yards since September.

The rest of the Patriots combined for 12 catches and 111 yards, so without Gronkowski’s production, and his sixth career 100-yard performance against the team he cheered for as a kid, this trip to Buffalo might’ve proven much more difficult for New England.

Eric Lee and the D-line step up

With Trey Flowers inactive because of a hip injury, the Patriots were missing their biggest weapon up front, and with that absence the challenge of facing a mobile quarterback, a multi-threat running back, and an offense that was surprisingly liberal with its use of the wildcat formation became all the more daunting. But several others among New England’s corps of defensive linemen and linebackers elevated their play to ensure Flowers’ absence didn’t disrupt the club’s recent run of defensive dominance.

The biggest impact came from Eric Lee, the former Bills’ practice squad member who thwarted his old team’s opening drive with an interception, then later added a sack and knocked down another pass. Alan Branch helped cause Lee’s interception by pushing his blocker back into Tyrod Taylor as the quarterback threw, and Malcom Brown did a good job of penetrating over the middle, too, plus five solo tackles.

David Harris was in on two sacks, including one where he chased down Taylor using better speed than he’s shown most of the year. Kyle Van Noy had at least half a sack for a third straight week, and Deatrich Wise didn’t produce anything quantifiable but was in the backfield most of the afternoon.

The Bills still managed decent rushing numbers, especially in terms of total rushing yards (183) and yards per carry (7.0), though that was basically all Buffalo could manage until it finally began moving the ball in the early part of the fourth quarter. With Nathan Peterman in for Taylor the Bills put together their best drive of the day, but even that came up empty – thanks in large part to cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who got his hands on three passes during the series, including one in the end zone on fourth and goal.

An eighth straight week of holding the opponent to 17 points or less was the result is a credit to the Patriots’ entire defensive unit. Sunday, however, it was a Flowers-less front that kept things under control while the offense found its way early.

Too many penalties

Maybe it’s the result of playing back-to-back weeks against divisional foes, and against teams with which things tend to get physical. But with nine penalties for 66 yards on Sunday, the Patriots have now been flagged 16 times in the past two games, and it has cost them 136 yards.

It’s troubling because when the Pats were paying the price for what appeared to be a lack of discipline early in the year, the number and nature of penalties were tell-tale signs of trouble. As New England appeared to figure things out the number of flags started to fall, and in Weeks 10 and 11 they were penalized a total of three times for 15 yards.

Particularly concerning with the past two weeks is that 12 of the 16 penalties were called on the Patriots’ offense. That includes a season-high seven on Sunday, and that total doesn’t even include three offsetting penalties (personal fouls on Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, plus a Jacob Hollister facemask) that weren’t enforced. Four of those flags were false starts, even though noise didn’t appear to be overwhelming enough to be a factor, and that’s another indicator that things weren’t as sharp as they need to be moving forward.

Road warriors

Now 10-2, the Patriots still appear to be on a collision course leading to the Dec. 17 matchup with the Steelers that most expect to settle the issue of supremacy in the AFC, and, thus, home-field advantage in the conference playoffs. Given that New England’s last postseason road win came in January 2007, it would seemingly behoove the Pats to ensure that the AFC tournament runs through Gillette Stadium.

Except that these Patriots are as good on the road as any squad in team history – and are on a run that’s almost unprecedented in the annals of the entire NFL. Sunday’s victory marked the Pats’ 14th straight win on the road, extending their club record, and moving closer to the all-time mark of 18 straight set by the 49ers from 1988-90.

Since the start of the 2014 season, the Patriots are now 24-6 away from home – with three losses in each of the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. In the latter of those seasons, two of the losses came in overtime (to the Jets and Broncos), and the third was in the final game of the season, when the Patriots had Brady throw just three times in their first three possessions and seemed hellbent on establishing the running of Stephen Jackson and Brandon Bolden.

Thus, a case could be made that it’s been more than three years since the Patriots lost a road game in regulation when they entered with a gameplan that prioritized winning over all else. This season alone they’re outscoring opponents 174-78 outside of Foxborough. So as much as folks around here are looking forward to that Pittsburgh game, and playing it up, its ramifications may not be as important as most want to make it – given how mentally strong these Patriots appear to be.