Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 25-6 win, as Tom Brady continued his career-long mastery of Buffalo with a 29th triumph over the Bills …
Take it and move on
It was ugly and unimpressive at times, and even became a bit uneasy for Patriots fans as the team struggled to separate from the Bills until the early stages of the fourth quarter. But in the end the Patriots found a way to leave Buffalo with a victory – notching another win on the road, another win in the division, and another win in a streak that’s now up to five in a row.
The Bills aren’t good. They’re now 2-6, but their two wins have come against teams that won playoff games this past winter (the Vikings and Titans), and they hung in against a Texans team that has played well for the better part of the past month.
However, after trips to Jacksonville and Detroit ended in disaster, there were questions about the Patriots’ ability to play on the road that have now dissipated after victories at Chicago and Buffalo. In both cases the Pats needed to grind through their own deficiencies, but in both cases they managed to do so, both aided by touchdowns on special teams or from the defense.
With that, New England is now 6-2. The Patriots have a two-game lead atop the AFC East, are unbeaten in the division, and now 5-1 in the conference. Only the Rams, Chiefs, and Ravens have a better scoring differential for the season, and halfway through the Pats currently sit in sole possession of the No. 2 seed in the early-yet AFC playoff picture. They also happen to have the tiebreaker advantage on the one team ahead of them.
They also finally stemmed the turnover tide, even against a Buffalo defense that does a good job of taking the ball away. The Patriots didn’t give away a possession for the first time this season – and the timing was fortunate, considering they’d managed just four field goals through three quarters, and an ill-timed turnover could’ve tilted the result.
It’s hard to see Monday night as much of a step in the right direction. But at least it wasn’t a step in the wrong one.
Offense stalls too often
Part of the reason the game was so close for so long was that after posting at least 38 points in four straight games, the Patriots had difficulty getting to the end zone Monday night – struggling to convert in the red zone on a couple of opportunities, and at other times having troubles just getting there.
Twice the Pats were forced to settle for 25-yard field goals, failing in goal-to-go scenarios that never got nearer to paydirt than the Bills’ 8. Between those, though, the lack of progress and production was arguably even more frustrating.
On New England’s final three possessions of the first half, New England three times moved into Buffalo territory with some momentum. On those drive, the Pats tried eight plays from within the Bills’ 35. And on those eight plays the Patriots netted negative-seven yards of offense. As a result, they came away with only two Stephen Gostkowski field goals (as well as a miss), and that was a primary reason why the Pats entered the fourth quarter with a lead of just six points.
New England finally finished a drive in the fourth quarter, initially overcoming an early penalty that dropped them back to their own 9 by converting a couple of third downs, and then using a back-shoulder throw from Brady to Chris Hogan to advance them from the 21 to the 1. James White punched it in from there, putting the Pats up 18-6 and piling the Bills’ hopes onto the right arm of Derek Anderson in a two-score game with less than 10 minutes to go.
Gordon, Gronk play — but Edelman and White star
Monday afternoon, the NFL Network reported (and others subsequently corroborated) that Josh Gordon would sit on the game’s early offensive series after showing up late as the team prepared to depart Foxborough on Sunday – but the receiver was out there by the game’s second snap, and didn’t appear to be subject to any disciplinary measures. Alongside Gordon was tight end Rob Gronkowski, who returned to the field after reported back spasms forced him to sit Week 7.
But even with those two freakish specimens at his disposal, Brady’s go-to and best weapons were a couple of old reliables, in White and Julian Edelman.
White made a team-high 10 catches on 13 targets, gaining 79 yards. Brady went Edelman’s way 10 times and he caught nine of them, picking up a team-leading 104 yards – and looking as good as he has since returning from a four-game suspension that followed a year of rehab from knee reconstruction. Edelman looked like his old self: he found the holes, he made the catches, he turned up and made extra yards in tight spaces.
Gronkowski caught only three of the eight passes thrown to him, picking up 43 yards, with Gordon adding 42 yards on four catches. But again Monday it was White who continued to emerge as not just a playmaker, but a focal point, in the New England attack.
With his 10 catches, he’s now just five shy of his career high (set in 2016), and at the halfway mark of the season he’s on pace to finish with 110 catches for 918 yards. As of Monday night he’s also rushed the ball more than he has in any full season (48 carries), and at this point he projects for 16 total touchdowns.
Gronkowski, meanwhile, remains stuck at one touchdown on the season, and he’s no longer on a 1,000-yard pace. But with White, with Edelman, with Gordon’s continued immersion, and with the potential to make an addition before the upcoming trade deadline the Patriots have yet to pay for the absent production of their star tight end.
Patterson plays running back
After losing rookie Sony Michel to injury last week, the Patriots opted not to fortify their roster at the running back position by making a signing – but that didn’t mean they left themselves with only White and Kenjon Barner to handle all the responsibilities of the tailback role.
In fact, New England’s starter there, and its leading rusher, was receiver Cordarelle Patterson. A speedster who excels in the open field, Patterson entered the game with 51 career rush attempts, but most of those were on reverses, end-arounds, or set up with some misdirection or trickery. Against the Bills, the Pats lined him up in the backfield, behind a fullback, and tried to see what he could do out of a more conventional set.
The results were mixed. Patterson busted a 22-yarder that was key in New England’s fourth-quarter scoring drive, yet even including that he finished the night by gaining 38 yards on 10 jaunts. Patterson got the call on a toss play with the team facing third and short in the third quarter, but when it came time to jam the ball into the end zone, it was White tasked with navigating that traffic.
Statistically, the Bills’ defense appeared more susceptible to the run than the pass, though that didn’t deter the Patriots from dropping back to throw on 28 of their 37 first-half offensive snaps. That lasted into the second half, too, with New England’s pass-to-run ratio at more than 2-to-1 until the visitors kept it on the ground with the goal of killing the clock after the lead ballooned to 19.
Defense does its job
It’s difficult to make much of a judgment about the performance of the Patriots’ defense when they’re opposed by a Bills offense that had scored 81 points through seven weeks, had 35-year-old journeyman Derek Anderson behind center, and declared itself so inept early that it came out of the gates trying to confuse New England with trickery like direct snaps and the Wildcat formation.
But in Week 8 of a season in which they’ve made a few quarterbacks appear better than they are, the Patriots do deserve some credit for keeping Buffalo out of the end zone, for limiting Anderson to a passer rating of 69.4, to holding LeSean McCoy to 13 yards on 12 carries, and ultimately putting the game out of reach with Devin McCourty’s pick-six in the fourth quarter.
That 84-yard backbreaker was the Patriots’ third non-offensive touchdown in two weeks, but its first defensive score in 40 regular-season games, and helped to cover for the underwhelming output of Brady’s bunch. Coupled with Kyle Van Noy’s strip-sack fumble earlier in the second half, McCourty’s interception gave the Pats multiple turnovers for a fifth consecutive contest, and the seventh time in eight games.
That has been a bright spot for a generally beleaguered unit, as was the performance of a few players who stepped up in the absence of Dont’a Hightower. The linebacker spent Monday on the sideline with a knee injury, but the Pats hardly missed him because Trey Flowers turned in his best performance of the season (six solo tackles, two for loss, one pass defensed, two QB hits), and Van Noy continued making plays after a strong performance against the Bears. He had a team-high eight tackles, two sacks, and another takedown in the backfield.
The secondary got its hands on seven passes, Elandon Roberts battled through a groin injury to contribute, and Malcom Brown made an impact in the run game. The Bills went 4-for-14 on third down, and most of their 333 yards of offense came after the game had been decided. Things get tougher with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers due in Foxborough on Sunday night—but on this night, all considered, the defense did what it was supposed to do.