Five takeaways from a 37-16 Patriots win that wasn’t as easy as the score would indicate…
BILLS DON’T GET REVENGE ON GRONK
A major storyline of Sunday’s game – and perhaps a major provocateur of anxiety for Patriots fans ahead of said contest – was whether the Bills might target Rob Gronkowski in the teams’ first meeting since the Patriots tight end drilled Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White with a cheap shot to the head on Dec. 3.
It turned out, though, to be no story at all.
If the Bills had slipped up in a snowy game against the Colts, or if the Dolphins had followed up their excellent effort against the Patriots with another against Buffalo, things might’ve been different. But because the Bills won both of those games, they arrived in Foxborough with something to play for – namely the franchise’s first playoff berth since the turn of the century.
Because of that, Buffalo’s mindset had to be on how to stop the tight end that toasted them for 147 yards last time, not on how to debilitate the big man. The Bills players were saying as much before the game, even White himself, and while there’s a chance it was public-facing lip service it also stood in stark contrast to the way Buffalo was talking in the immediate aftermath of the incident. At that time, White and others, through their words and through the media, made it seem as though revenge would be a motivator.
In the end, the Bills didn’t take any apparent cheap shots. They played the game straight-up, so much so that Gronkowski was still on the field with six minutes to go and the Pats up by two scores, suggesting Bill Belichick was confident Buffalo wouldn’t try anything. Gronkowski left the field when Brady did as the lead ballooned to three scores, his day done at five catches, 67 yards, a touchdown, and cooler heads having prevailed.
BRADY BATTLES THROUGH
Though his numbers wound up looking good, there were times Tom Brady looked less-than-sharp on Sunday. He missed a number of throws that appeared to be open, especially in the first half. And when he failed to see Jordan Poyer lurking behind Kenny Britt, the Bills’ safety surged in front of the Patriots’ receiver, picked the pass, and took it to the end zone for a touchdown.
It had been a bit of a struggle since the calendar flipped to December, with Brady now having been intercepted in five straight contests, and entering Sunday on the heels of his worst three-game stretch, by measure of passer rating, since October 2014. Those games included two touchdowns, four picks, and an average gain of 7.3 yards per pass attempt, left his rating at 75.0 – whereas, over the first 11 games of the season, Brady’s ratio of TDs to interceptions was 26 to 3, he was getting almost a full yard more out of every throw, and his passer rating sat at a robust 111.7.
The recent numbers might have been worse, too, if it hadn’t been for the beastly performance of Rob Gronkowski in Pittsburgh, where over the second half Brady was just 5-of-12 for 33 yards throwing to everybody else, and where the tight end helped his quarterback on the game-winning drive by plucking an underthrown pass just inches from the turf.
Slumps happen, of course. Even for the greatest of all-time. There’s still no quarterback a rational Patriots fan would have rather have behind center for the upcoming playoffs, regardless of what the last three weeks have looked like (or what Jimmy Garoppolo is doing in San Francisco). But Brady’s struggles did come in the three weeks after he took a physical beating against the Dolphins. He has missed practices for maintenance on a sore Achilles. And he is 40 years old. That all makes the slumps seem a bit more alarming, especially with January looming.
PATS SURVIVE THE INJURIES
Of course, when evaluating Brady’s recent play it’s only fair to acknowledge the weapons that he’s been missing. And that he continued missing Sunday – when rookie tight end Jacob Hollister was not only targeted on the team’s first down, but later was handed the ball on a jet sweep from inside the Buffalo 10.
Rex Burkhead (knee sprain), James White (ankle), and Chris Hogan (shoulder) were all sidelined by injuries against the Bills, leaving the Pats attack with three key cogs who are significant, trusted contributors when New England is operating on all cylinders.
Hogan briefly returned for one game, but has otherwise been out since Oct. 29 – so the Patriots have mostly proven an ability to adjust for his absence and still have success in the passing game. It’s also expected that Hogan will be healthy enough to get on the field for the postseason.
The injuries to Burkhead and White aren’t reported to be playoff-prohibitive, either, though with both of those pass-catchers going down in the same week it brings sudden depth concerns to a running back position where the Patriots appeared to be loaded. Dion Lewis has emerged as the No. 1 on the ground, and Sunday they dusted off Mike Gillislee for a red-zone scoring run amid his first action in a couple of months, though neither of them has been asked this season to do what Burkhead and White do in the passing game.
Lewis had five catches for 50 yards against the Dolphins, but entering Sunday that was one of only two instances this season in which he had more than three catches or more than 13 receiving yards. The Patriots coaches have also appeared leery of overusing Lewis, who also returns kicks, and whose workload this season had not included more than 17 offensive touches in a game until Sunday.
It was good enough against the Bills, thanks in large part to Lewis’s two TDs and career-high rushing yards, but in a best-case scenario there’s now just one more week until Burkhead, White and Hogan are ready to go again. And on third down and in the red zone, especially, the Patriots will be a much better team – and Brady a more lethal weapon – if that is the case.
MALCOM BROWN’S BEST GAME AS A PRO
The subtleties of his position can make typically it tough to truly appreciate everything Malcom Brown might contribute from the middle of the defensive line – but Sunday the effects were obvious. And game-changing.
Sunday might’ve been the former first-round pick’s best game as a pro, highlighted by a tilt-tilting 15-yard sack of Tyrod Taylor early in the third quarter. The Patriots had just tied the game at 16-16, but a promising drive had been stunted in the red zone, and the Bills had to that point been moving the game effectively. The Pats appeared in trouble.
But on first down, Brown chased down Taylor as the quarterback tried to escape deep in his pocket. The Bills tried to get some of that yardage back on the next play, calling for a run to Mike Tolbert, but Brown teamed with Eric Lee to blow up that run, too. That set the Bills at third and 25 from their own 10, and a play later punted from their own territory. New England took over in good field position, two plays later was in Buffalo territory, and within six plays had a 23-16 lead they’d never relinquish.
Brown had two other tackles for loss on the day, aiding a defense that limited the Bills’ ground game to 3.5 yards per carry and didn’t allow an offensive touchdown. The Patriots allowed three scores to the Steelers after surrendering four to the Dolphins offense a week earlier – but Sunday was more in line with the stretch in which they yielded no more than two offensive scores in any game between Weeks 5 and 13.
THE REFS HELP, AGAIN
Patriots fans sometimes think the league is out to get them. But this season, with replay decisions being dictated from the NFL offices in New York, the officials have repeatedly come down on the side of New England in some pretty significant spots.
There was the Austin Sefarian-Jenkins fumble at the goal line that turned the Jets game in October. There was last week’s overturn of Jesse James’ would-be go-ahead score in the final seconds. Then yesterday the officials determined – without a preponderance of evidence – that Kelvin Benjamin didn’t get his second foot down on what was initially called a touchdown in the final ticks of the first half.
It was certainly questionable whether Benjamin tapped his toe, or if he had control of the ball when he tried to touch down. But the officials overturned it anyway, shortly after Charles Clay failed to complete a would-be scoring grab by not “surviving the ground” after initially hauling in a throw at the goal line.
In the third quarter Sunday, Bill Belichick won a challenge, too, with the officials saying Mike Gillislee’s outstretched hands extended the ball past the line to gain. The original call would have given the ball the Bills, as it was fourth down, but instead the Pats kept possession. They later got a field goal out of that drive, tying the score and never looking back.
Either that or the Benjamin call could’ve altered Sunday’s game dramatically. So could have the call against the Jets if it had been ruled differently. And the James ruling against the Steelers could’ve changed the complexion of the entire AFC. If any of those goes differently, the Patriots might be fighting for a bye.
Instead, with a week to play, they’re in control of the conference’s No. 1 seed.