Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 24-17 win over the Bills, as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick win their 11th straight AFC East championship with a vintage performance…
THEY’RE PLAYOFF-READY NOW
After these past couple decades, we in these parts have come to associate cold, dark, only-show-in-town Saturday night football with playoff games — and this one had that sort of feel for all those reasons. But it wasn’t just that. It was also because there was truly something at stake, and because the Patriots came out playing like a team that was approaching it with that level of urgency.
A week after letting the Bengals linger throughout the first half, and after a few other examples that raised questions about whether they were ready to go, the Pats came out and asserted themselves on both sides of the ball. Rex Burkhead’s first-series fumble was the sole exception, and it spotted the Buffalo a quick three-point lead, but New England answered that mistake with arguably its best drive of the season, and crisply controlled the ball for most of the first two quarters.
As the process gives way to the product, and we approached the portion of the year when results are all that matter, it was a reassuring response to what has been a trying couple of months for the Pats. Since their unbeaten start they’d gone 3-3, but all three of those losses came to the winners of the AFC’s three other divisions, and having the threat to their own divisional supremacy staring back at them Saturday evening signified their best chance to build some confidence in the wake of that stretch before the playoffs begin.
At least until the final 40 seconds, the first half told us that they not only recognized as much, but that they’re still talented enough to translate their mental toughness to a strong performance in the face of a challenge from a quality opponent. And that message only became louder as the evening wore late into the second half.
Prior to Saturday, this was the only season of Tom Brady’s career as a starter in which he hadn’t orchestrated a fourth-quarter comeback. The Pats had lost every game they’d been losing with 15 minutes left — until the 42-year-old and his cast engineered a couple of scoring drives to turn a four-point deficit into a seven-point lead. In the meanwhile, the defense did its part with a pair of three-and-out punts, then a goal-line stand to clinch things.
In the postseason, games can come down to being ready, and then seizing the chance to make one or two clutch plays in tight circumstances. After Saturday night, the Pats — for the first time this season — look like they might be playoff-ready.
SIGNS OF LIFE OFFENSIVELY
The Patriots produced their 10 first-half points by pairing two excellent possessions that totaled 28 plays, gained 156 yards, and endured for more than 16 minutes of game action.
Brady looked locked in throughout those series, and the running game was effective. But what stood out the most is the way the Pats were able to execute creatively and go off-script a bit without needing to turn to all out trickery.
For example, on the first series of the sequence the Pats played one snap from what appeared to be their version of the pistol formation. They used Elandon Roberts as a regular feature at fullback, not only on short-yardage running spots. They motioned N’Keal Harry across the formation a couple of different ways. On third-and-short they split Sony Michel out of the backfield and into the slot. Then Brady threw to a blanket-covered Matt LaCosse in the red zone, and the tandem was rewarded with his first touchdown connection.
Then the Pats followed that by working the ball out from their own 1 yard line, and assembling the longest drive their offense — or the Bills’ defense — has been on the field for all season. After 17 plays and 81 yards it netted Nick Folk’s 36-yard field goal.
The offense was a bit stop-and-start for a while from there, failing to seize a short field just before the half, and settling for just a couple of field goals over the middle two quarters. But the Pats proceeded to finish almost as strong as they started. They marched 77 yards in 11 plays for Folk’s third three-pointer. Then they got the ball back, and went 59 yards in seven snaps, the clincher coming on Burkhead’s bullish run. They even had a play left in the tank to get a two-point conversion from Julian Edelman.
And in the end, the numbers looked, well, Patriot-like: 414 yards of offense; 7-for-14 on third down; 8.2 yards per pass; 4.1 yards per rush; two scores in the red zone. All against a defense that entered having surrendered the second-fewest yards, and third-fewest points.
The offense may be alive. Finally.
ANSWERS ALL AROUND
Despite the win at Cincinnati, the narrative coming into the week was partially centered on speculation about the health of Brady and Edelman. Sony Michel’s worth to the offense has been questioned all year, as has the collective capability of the offensive line he runs behind. And when Burkhead fumbled on the fourth play of the game, he had some atoning to do.
But this week, in this atmosphere, the Patriots offense got their redemption. They provided answers. They made statements. Brady responded to five straight weeks with a sub-56 completion percentage by hitting on 26 of 33 throws for 271 yards, and looking every bit like a quarterback worth committing to for years to come.
Edelman came off the field after a couple of early third-down catches, almost as if the Pats were picking their spots, then he was sent to be evaluated for a head injury — but returned to make an enormous, field-turning grab on the game-winning drive. He finished with five catches on six targets for 72 yards.
Michel toted it 21 times for 96 yards, but the burst and toughness with which he ran were better than even those numbers say, and it aided Brady to have a legitimate threat in the backfield. The offensive line did its job in that facet, and in keeping Brady from being sacked.
Meanwhile, Burkhead turned out to be New England’s leading receiver, with 77 yards, a 31-yard pickup highlighting both his stats and a successful day for the Pats’ screen game. He also slammed home the game-winner by shedding tackles at the line before bouncing into the end zone with 5:06 to play.
He put his fumble behind him — as Brady, Edelman, Michel, and others put their problems in the past, as well. The questions still persist, and one week doesn’t solve everything. But given that it’s been since September that the unit looked so collectively capable, one week might at least have been enough to start resolving three months of building concerns.
THE BILLS PROVE THEY’RE LEGIT
It’s surprising, but true: Entering this week, the Patriots had as many passing plays of 20-plus yards as the Chiefs this season, with their 56 tied for fifth in the NFL and for the most in the AFC. By comparison, the Bills had 10 fewer, placing them 16th in the 32-team league.
Defensively, the Pats have also been better at making the big play. New England began Week 16 approaching historic levels with a plus-24 margin of takeaways to giveaways, while the Bills were, again, in the middle of the pack at plus-5.
But based on Saturday, and the second half of this season, a similarly surprising reality for Patriots fans might be the realization that entering the playoffs it may be Buffalo that’s more capable of making a big play when it needs one.
It’s a reality that smacked the Gillette Stadium crowd in the face Saturday as the Bills surged to the lead over the second and third quarters. The entire complexion of the contest changed just before halftime with a 33-yard lob to tight end Dawson Knox, then the Bills had believability breathed into their quest when John Brown ran by the secondary for a 53-yard scoring catch.
It nearly stung the Patriots again in the Bills’ final push, when Allen made a pretty on-the-move throw to Cole Beasley for a 25-yard pickup that brought the ball down to the eight. Allen wasn’t able to complete his sixth fourth-quarter comeback win of the season, and his overall numbers weren’t impressive (13 of 26 for 176 yards), but neither of those can diminish what the QB and his team proved once and for all on Saturday.
They’re legitimate threats in the AFC. They may not be full-on contenders, but they’ve now pushed both Baltimore and New England to the limit. They won at Pittsburgh, and earlier at Tennessee. They probably didn’t believe they needed validation, but now there should be no doubt. The Bills are good. And Josh Allen is good enough.
THEY’RE RIGHT WHERE THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO BE
From the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, to the signing of Antonio Brown, to the uncertainty at receiver, to the trouble along the offensive line, to the possibility that Brady is down to his final days in Foxborough, it’s been an eventful season. The Patriots’ 8-0 starts seems like eons ago, and as fans have begun to fret over whether this team can even win a playoff game, it’s laughable to think there were bets being taken in Las Vegas a couple months ago about whether this team would go 19-0.
A long, strange, trip it has been, indeed — yet with a game to go, the Pats are right where they’re supposed to be. They’re the AFC East champs, and with a win over the lowly Dolphins in the regular-season finale next week they’ll get to bypass wild-card weekend as the conference’s No. 2 seed. They’ll skip to the divisional round, which they’ll play at home, and which has been the route they’ve taken to the big game all nine times they’ve reached the Super Bowl under Belichick.
They might even wrap up the No. 2 seed Sunday night, if the Bears can beat the Chiefs in Chicago. That’d be a nice early Christmas gift, considering it would give the likes of Brady, Edelman, and Jason McCourty, in particular, the opportunity to potentially take two weeks off before the postseason begins. Other ailing bodies could use the rest, too.
But, regardless, their status is a testament to the strength underlying the structure that the organization has in place. It’s also a reminder that when we evaluate the Pats from so close to the situation, we have a tendency to assess them in comparison to their Patriot predecessors. We compare them to the clubs of yesteryear, when really what’s more important is how they stack up against the rest of the conference in this particular season.
At this point only an absolute stunner can prevent them from finishing 13-3, and from finishing with no worse than the second-best record in the NFL for 2019.
Around here our approach tends to stray toward bah humbug, but even the Scrooges among us would have to begrudgingly rate it a bottom-line success.