Just when it seems the lights might be flickering on this two-decade Patriots run, just when it seems like the party might be ending and the greatest dynasty in NFL history is fading to blue, they go out and do something like that. And the music starts up again, and everything seems possible once more.
I’m sure there’s a better-case scenario than what transpired in the Patriots’ thrilling 24-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills Saturday afternoon. I’m just not sure what that would be, beyond Matt LaCosse ripping off his helmet to reveal he’s Rob Gronkowski or something impossible like that.
The Patriots beat an excellent football team, and they did it in a reaffirming way that is familiar from so many key plot-points in championship DVDs of the past. They did it in a way that we weren’t certain was possible this year.
Oh, we should note that the defense was excellent. We can’t take that unit, the best in the NFL this season even if not quite up to the early-season hype as a potential all-timer, for granted. That excellence Saturday — save for two big pass plays by the Bills — was nothing new.
Unsung Lawrence Guy (six tackles, one sack) delivered a Richard Seymour type of game. Dont’a Hightower delivered a huge sack late when the Bills were attempting to drive for a tying touchdown, which is just the type of thing Dont’a Hightower does, of course. J.C. Jackson busted up Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s desperation heave on fourth-and-15 to secure the win, one more of countless instances this season of the Patriots secondary coming through when it mattered.
The defense was pretty great, again. The difference Saturday was the offense was great, too. And who was sure we’d be able to say that again this season?
They came in with Problems, capital P. Attrition, the cruel subtext to most frustrating seasons, had taken its toll, with center David Andrews and fullback James Develin missed dearly. The young receivers were slow to figure out what Tom Brady expects, let alone how to execute it.
And most troubling of all, Brady, dealing with an elbow injury and a core of receivers that hadn’t earned his faith, was suddenly playing like . . . well, like the 42-year-old quarterback that he is.
One of the most precise passers in history came into Saturday’s game with a streak of five straight games with a completion percentage at 55 percent or lower, a statistic unheard of for him and apparently damning. Three times in those five weeks he’d failed to pass for 200 yards. Last week against the wretched Bengals, he threw for just 128. In most seasons, he would have dropped 128 in a quarter against those striped perennial chumps.
So what happens Saturday? Brady goes out and plays his best game in weeks, against the best defense he’s faced in weeks. He finished 26 of 33 — that’s a 79 percent completion percentage — for 271 yards and a touchdown.
He wasn’t old. He was his old self.
He completed passes to nine different receivers, with six catching at least three passes, and N’Keal Harry again intrigued in the Cordarelle Patterson role, with two catches and two carries for a total of 39 yards. Brady was not sacked, absorbing just four official QB hits, and the running game had life, too, with Elandon Roberts, moonlighting at fullback, clearing holes for a hard-running Sony Michel (96 yards).
There were occasional lamentable endings to drives — they had to settle for a Nick Folk 20-yard-field goal early in the fourth quarter after having first-and-goal at the 5 — but that’s going to happen even to the most prolific offenses. They finished with 414 total yards, their fourth-highest total of the season, and they did it in that old familiar way, with inspired playcalling and Brady using everyone at his disposal to expose holes in a defense that hasn’t revealed many this season.
After the victory, which clinched an 11th straight division title, some Patriots were wearing t-shirts with the slogan “The East Is Not Enough.’’ It never is for a franchise that has hoarded six Lombardi trophies and aspires for more. But based on recent performances and the downward trend of this team over the last month and half, it was fair to wonder whether the East would be all they got this year.
What they did Saturday — solving offensive problems in a creative and effective way against an excellent opponent — was reminiscent of last year, when Belichick and McDaniels decided they should emphasize the run and rely on the defense, a plan that culminated with a methodical 13-3 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. Perhaps something like that is happening now, though the degree of difficulty is greater — Gronk, Develin, and Andrews were all on the field in Atlanta when the confetti fell.
Did the Patriots solve everything that had ailed them Saturday against a Bills team that they might just meet again? Have they figured it out? The regular-season finale against the Dolphins won’t confirm much. We’re not going to know for sure until the playoffs, when they collide with the Chiefs, Texans and/or Ravens again.
But we have seen them solve their problems in a remarkable way before in a regular season’s final weeks. And we saw the offense come to life Saturday, just when we were starting to believe the problems were irreparable and the end of an era may be near.
We’ll find out later whether this stirring win over the Bills was the turning point, confirmation that the offense was back. For now, we know this: The lights are on. The music is playing. And every other team in the NFL has to be wondering at least a little whether the postseason is going to end up being a Patriots party again.