5 takeaways from the Patriots’ division-clinching (if unconvincing) 24-12 win over the Bills

Still too sloppy.

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ division-clinching (if unconvincing) 24-12 win over the Bills, as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady make history yet again…

Not exactly reassuring

The hats and T-shirts that had been lugged to Miami and Pittsburgh were finally unboxed, as the Patriots wrapped up their 10th straight AFC East championship. The Pats also achieved their 16th straight season with at least 10 wins, and not only clinched themselves at least one home playoff game, but kept themselves in contention to see that said playoff game doesn’t happen on wild card weekend.

But Sunday’s victory over the Bills wasn’t exactly a refreshing affirmation in the wake of a couple tough losses. Much like New England’s win at Buffalo back in October, this one never really felt like it was in jeopardy of slipping away. The Bills’ offense simply isn’t dangerous enough to fear such a possibility. But although the Patriots enjoyed leads of 14-0 at halftime, then 21-6 through three quarters, this one should’ve been even easier. This one should’ve been the type of game where by intermission it was 28-0, the minds of the Bills had moved on to Christmas Eve, and Brian Hoyer was on the sideline getting loose before there were just six minutes to go.

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Instead, the Patriots allowed the Bills to stick around into the middle of the third quarter. In and of itself, there’s no shame in that, given Buffalo’s reputation for playing hard and the season-long performance of a defense that began the week as the second stingiest unit by measure of yards allowed, and its most difficult to throw against. But the visitor’s fortune to stick around through most of Sunday wasn’t nearly as much the result of what they were doing as it was the warts of their hosts again appearing on the surface in opportune moments.

A great team, motivated by back-to-back losses, would’ve likely buried the Bills quickly on Sunday. It continues to be apparent that these Patriots aren’t deserving of that categorization. Are they a good team, though? Good enough to win the AFC East, yes. But Sunday didn’t really do much to answer the questions beyond that.

Dominance on the ground

The Bills’ run defense is no slouch, either, entering Week 16 ranked seventh in opponents’ yards per attempt. But New England pounded Buffalo at the line of scrimmage all afternoon, managing to run for more first-half yardage than they had through two quarters in any game since 1991, and not really relenting much in the second half, either.

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All told, they finished the day with 273 rushing yards, dispersed nicely four players who each piled up at least 31 yards on the ground, and who each ran off a gain of at least 10 yards. Sony Michel was the bell cow, collecting his fourth 100-yard game along with a score, while James White made a dash to the corner of the end zone from 27 yards out. Cordarelle Patterson also had a 27-yard scamper, and ran for 16.5 yards a clip on his four carries before leaving with a knee injury.

As a team, the Patriots were averaging seven yards a carry before being stunted near the goal line on a field-goal producing drive early in the fourth quarter. And just as indicative of New England’s effectiveness on the ground was the breakdown of the way the Patriots racked up their 20 first downs. Of those, one came by penalty, four came via passes, and the other 15 all came by way of the Patriots carrying the balls past the sticks.

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The Bills defense has now surrendered more than 380 yards three times this season. Two of those have come against the Patriots – and what’s interesting is that the first time the Pats and Bills faced off, the Patriots passed for 311 and ran for just 76 while emphasizing the aerial attack. That, then, might be the most encouraging thing to come of Sunday for the Patriots; they showed that they can attack a good defense two very different ways, and find success with each.

Still too sloppy

Rex Burkhead fumbled at the end of a run. Then he and Brady had a miscommunication that resulted in an interception. Brady was picked again when his first pass of the second half flew right through the hands of Rob Gronkowski. And on top of those three turnovers, the Patriots committed five penalties for 49 yards, again plagued by the same lack of offensive execution that cost them in a big way at Pittsburgh.

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New England finally converted a red zone try after going touchdown-free on their previous six attempts inside the opponents’ 20 yard line, Michel lunging to the line with tacklers on his back. The offensive line opened up some major holes in the running game, and Julian Edelman alertly continued on to the end zone when the defenders underneath him kept his body from hitting the turf after a big fourth-down catch.

But the Pats couldn’t punch in there other red zone chance, despite an Edelman punt return giving them possession inside the Bills’ 25. They finished 3-for-12 on third down (3-for-10 with Brady on the field) and the passing game picked up just 4.5 yards per attempt, which is a primary reason why New England scored only 24 points despite their success on the ground.

New England’s defense matched Buffalo with two picks and a fumble recovery of their own, and they made Josh Allen look like the underwhelming rookie that he is (20-for-41, 217 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions). After being gashed in three straight weeks, the Patriots defense finally showed an ability to stop the run, holding the Bills to just 72 yards on the ground. On the heels of yielding just 17 points to a talented Steelers group last week, Sunday made the struggles of the Patriots’ defense against the Dolphins look like the aberration of this post-bye stretch.

However, the continued sloppiness of their offense suggests that the 33 points they scored that afternoon might’ve been an aberration on that side of scrimmage, too.

Replacing Gordon? Not sure yet

A big question coming into Sunday was how the Patriots would make up for the late-week loss of Josh Gordon after their leading receiver announced he was stepping away from football amid reports that he was facing another indefinite suspension from the NFL.

And after Sunday, that still appears to be quite a big question.

It’s possible that Belichick and Josh McDaniels have decided to hitch their postseason hopes to the ground game, and Sunday was a preview of what the Patriots will look like in January. But, shy of that, the victory over the Bills offered no clues as to how New England will recoup Gordon’s production, because beyond Julian Edelman the Patriots receiving corps was essentially irrelevant.

Edelman had a typical day for him, making six catches on 10 targets for 70 yards and a score. After that, though, New England’s next two pass catchers were Burkhead (four catches, five targets) and White (two catches, four targets). Patterson caught one of the two passes thrown to him, good for all of three yards – while neither Chris Hogan nor Phillip Dorsett was thrown to. Not once. So much for either of them filling Gordon’s hole on the outside.

So much for the idea that Gronkowski would do more with more opportunities available, too. The Pats picked up a pass interference penalty on one ball tossed his way, but his only official target was the interception that went through his hands, and so he finished the day without a catch.

Altogether, Brady hit on 13 of 24 throws, totaling 126 yards and finishing with a passer rating of 48.3. That’s the fifth-lowest regular-season rating of his career as a starter, and his worst since November of 2006. Gordon wasn’t a critical-enough piece to say his absence was entirely the reason – but it’s probably not entirely a coincidence, either.

A gift from Saint Nick (Foles)

For all the concern and consternation after the defeats to the Dolphins and Steelers, the Patriots still enter the final week of the regular season in exactly the position they were before the miracle finish at Miami. They control their destiny in the fight for the No. 2 seed – and first-round bye – in the AFC tournament.

Minutes after the Patriots wrapped up their win, Nick Foles and the Eagles rallied for a last-second field goal to beat the Texans, and so both New England and Houston sit at 10-5 with one game to go. By virtue of their opening-week triumph, the Pats have the tiebreaker advantage, so their route to skipping wild card weekend could be as simple as beating the Jets at Gillette Stadium next Sunday. (Fail to do that, and they could yet back into that seeding if the Texans lose to the Jaguars.)

So, in that sense, Christmas came a couple days early for the Patriots. When the day began they were looking at a difficult postseason route that could’ve meant hosting the surging and pesky Ravens, then needing to travel to Houston and potentially Kansas City if they survived. Now they’re looking at a bye, then a home game against either a Texans team that’s getting battered by injuries or the winner of the battle between the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds.

That’s such a big difference, the Patriots couldn’t have received a better gift.