Twenty-four thoughts on the Patriots’ 24-12 win over the Bills . . .
1. There’s plenty to talk about from the Patriots’ victory Sunday — their hard-charging running game, Tom Brady’s strange and subpar passing day, a dominant defensive performance against an inept offense. But I feel like the first thought should be one of appreciation and acknowledgment. A meaningful prize was collected Sunday, one that has been a little harder to come by this year, but one that is a reminder that perceived down years around here are still successes by most any other standard but their own.
2. The Patriots clinched the AFC East for the 10th straight season. That is an achievement we take for granted because it is not the ultimate goal, but it is nonetheless a remarkable feat and one that may go unmatched for the remainder of NFL history. The last time the Patriots did not win the AFC East, Sammy Morris was their leading rusher, Brandon Meriweather led the team in interceptions, and Matt Cassel was the starting quarterback for 15 games. Yeah, it’s been a while.
3. It took the Patriots three tries to get those hats and T-shirts signifying the division title out of the box, but there wasn’t much suspense Sunday. The Patriots rampaged over the Bills on the ground, running for a staggering 273 yards, and Buffalo rookie quarterback Josh Allen, a talented kid who is barely ready for the 1 p.m. time slot, let alone prime time, was overmatched by the veteran Patriots defense.
4. Allen, who was 5 when his idol Brady won his first Super Bowl, completed just 20 of 41 passes for 217 yards and two interceptions. Allen did find Zay Jones for a TD with 1:08 left. Somehow, he had more passing yards than Brady, who threw for just 126 yards, completing 13 of 24 passes for a touchdown and two interceptions, at least one of which was not his fault.
5. I’m not sure what to make of Brady’s performance and what to expect going forward. He said “I’m not injured’’ after the game, but there are clues that one of his knees isn’t right. He was short on a number of throws Sunday, and the only receiver he seems to trust is Julian Edelman (6 catches, 70 yards, 1 TD). The only other receiver that had a catch was Cordarrelle Patterson, and I’m not even sure he’s a wide receiver. The Patriots didn’t need to count on him Sunday. But if they had needed to, would he have come through?
6. I’m not one of those people who is suggesting that Rob Gronkowski’s skills are abandoning him, with no possibility of return. He’s been battling back and ankle injuries virtually all season, and should he decide to play next year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him look like his old self, at least on more occasions than he has this season. But it’s undeniably a bummer to look at the stat sheet and see that he didn’t have a catch on three targets, with one of those missed connections resulting in an interception after a catchable ball ricocheted off his hands.
7. It should be noted that the biggest play of the game came on a Brady pass, though. Leading, 14-6, midway through the third quarter, the Patriots went for it on fourth and 4 from the Buffalo 32. Brady hit Julian Edelman with a dart on a slant, and the receiver took it to the house, bouncing up and finishing the play after he rolled over a Bills defender on an attempted tackle. That made it 21-6 and eliminated any remaining possibilities of drama.
8. In a fine tribute to the 1976 Patriots, who ran for 2,948 yards as a team, these Patriots barreled through the Bills defense for 179 of those 273 rushing yards in the first half alone. Michel did the brunt of the work, with 10 carries for 63 yards, on his way to a 116-yard day. White had a 27-yard touchdown burst. But the real fun came on Cordarrelle Patterson’s four carries, all double-digit yardage gainers for a total of 66 yards.
9. Patterson looks as if he could take it all the way every time he turns the corner on one of those stretch plays, and he fights for every yard. Recently, I asked readers who has been the Patriots most pleasant surprise this year. I voted for J.C. Jackson, but I want to change it to Patterson. Patterson left with a knee injury in the third quarter. Fingers crossed on that one.
10. The Patriots went three and out on their first possession, all passing attempts, including a Julian Edelman drop on a so-so Brady throw on third down. It might as well have been a sequence plucked from the second half of the Steelers game. Not exactly what they were looking for there.
11. They sure got their act together on their second possession, though, and they did it by ground rather than by air. The Patriots needed six plays — all runs, including five by Michel — to march 55 yards to the end zone. Michel did the honors with a tough 4-yard run.
12. I have no issue with taking Michel with a first-round pick. He had a late start to camp, dealt with a scary-looking knee injury during the regular season, and still is probably going to end up fewer than 100 yards from a 1,000-yard season. (He’s at 881 after Sunday.) He’s already pretty good, has improved during the season (he’s more patient at following his blockers), and still has room to grow as a receiver and becoming more elusive in the open field.
13. I’m not sure Michel would have finished the Patriots’ second touchdown drive with the efficiency that James White did. On third and 2, White blew through a hole opened by Trent Brown and Joe Thuney and simply outran the Bills’ Levi Wallace and Micah Hyde to the pylon for a 27-yard touchdown run. White is so good in limited space that it’s easy to forget that he’s pretty fast, too.
14. On Bills kicker Stephen Hauschka’s missed field goal attempt at the end of the first quarter, CBS play-by-play voice Greg Gumbel’s call was the equivalent of a baseball announcer breaking into his home run call, only to have the ball caught on the warning track. “This one looks good . . . but short,’’ Gumbel said. “It hit the crossbar and bounced back.’’
15. Gumbel had an unfortunate bit of timing in the second quarter. “Gotta be a huge boost for a team knowing it can get it done any way they want. You know the Patriots and Tom Brady can throw it. And now look at the running game they’ve put on display.’’ On the next play, Brady, who was 6 for 10 passing for 37 yards at that point, threw a lovely spiral to the Bills’ Lorenzo Alexander for an interception.
16. If the Patriots’ backfield were a sports radio show, James White and Sony Michel should be the main hosts with their name in the title, while Rex Burkhead should be the guy reading the sports update every 20 minutes. Good things don’t seem to happen when Josh McDaniels treats the three of them as interchangeable.
17. Burkhead fumbled in the first quarter after taking a hard hit from the Bills’ Corey Thompson, and on Brady’s interception he appeared to run the wrong way on his cut. He’s a versatile, capable player, but he’s the backup, not an equal partner in a job share.
18. J.C. Jackson is just a rookie (and a good one), but I’ll bet he won’t have an easier interception in his career than the alley-oop Josh Allen threw him in the second quarter.
19. Allen did make one beautiful deep throw, but it fell incomplete when target Robert Foster lost it in the sun. How do we know he lost it in the sun? The ball had barely hit the turf before he began pointing at the sun as if he expected an official to flag it for a blinding-the-receiver penalty or something.
20. Defensive lineman Ufomba Kamalu, added to the 53-man roster from the practice squad on Friday, stopped LeSean McCoy for a 4-yard loss on his first snap as a Patriot. It was the best first impression by a Patriot that you’ve never heard of since Eric Lee last year.
21. What’s going on with Chris Hogan? He spiked his helmet after returning to the sideline after one drive, then sat away from the rest of the offense, and it wasn’t the last time he did that Sunday. Is he not getting open, or is Brady not looking his way? He did have their only touchdown last week, and he’s someone who has come through in the playoffs in the past.
22. It never fails. Ryan Allen is one of the most consistent Patriots, and yet I always forget to mention the work of the punter in this space. So here’s a nod in his direction after another reliable effort in which he put two of his first three punts inside the 20, including a 55-yarder.
23. I hope no Patriots fans like him better than Stephen Gostkowski. But the Eagles’ Jake Elliott is a rather popular kicker in New England after his 35-yard field goal gave the Eagles a 32-30 win over the Texans Sunday, which allowed the Patriots to move into the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff race.
24. Call it an epiphany, call it destiny, call it what you want, but for all the relative ups and downs the Patriots have had these season, but the path is clear now presuming Brady is OK: They’ll lock down the No. 2 seed next Sunday against the Jets, the Chiefs will get bounced in the divisional round, the Patriots will win the AFC title on their own turf and move on to deal with the Nick Foles buzzsaw again in the Super Bowl. I’m only being half-facetious. I’ll believe just about anything this year.