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As the Patriots concluded their first three-game winning streak of the season, should fans feel better or worse about the state of the defense? Sure that “bend but don’t break” muscle was flexed extremely hard (similar to Brandon Spikes following his knockout of Fred Jackson late in the fourth quarter), but there were a few good things to walk away from that game with. The defense did not give up a pass play of over twenty five yards on the day, something that had beleaguered them all season. They came up with opportunistic big plays including two by Devin McCourty that changed the outcome of the game. The offense looked solid all game, including the first two-touchdown game of Danny Woodhead’s career.
Even so, the one thing I walk away thinking is how did the New England Patriots let a Buffalo Bills team, that committed almost 120 yards in penalties the first half alone, hang around until the final whistle. There was one point on a third-and-9 in the fourth quarter where the Patriots had an opportunity to get off the field, and I remember saying “the Patriots have been bad all year on third-and-long; there’s no way they’ll stop this play”. Sure enough, one 14-yard out pass later, the Bills were driving again.
And it was certainly not all on the secondary either; it has been a long time since the last game where the Patriots tackled as poorly as they did on Sunday, and the linebackers were very much to blame for that. Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller are excellent backs, but this defense made them look elite as they blew through arm tackles while getting to the next level of the defense. Steve Gregory also made his return to action this weekend, and it was far from good. He took some very poor angles on the ball and gave up a lot of yards he could have stopped. We do not yet know if Aquib Talib will be the savior this defense needs, but if this team is going to win games, it looks like it will have to be on the shoulders of Tom Brady and that high-octane offense to keep the engines going for the entire sixty minutes.
Now, on to the recap:
The first drive for the Bills really set the stage for their first half, as they gained 41 total yards, many of which were offset by three separate penalties (two false starts and an offensive holding: 20 yards total on the game), and led to a punt. The Patriots took that opportunity to drive down to the Buffalo 25-yard line and score the first points of the game on a 43-yard kick by Stephen Gostkowski. Two plays into the Bills’ next drive, Vince Wilfork shoved his way through a double team to strip sack Ryan Fitzpatrick. The ball was recovered by Jermaine Cunningham, who had originally forced Fitzpatrick into the rush with good burst from the right side of the offensive line. Five plays and two pass interference calls in the endzone later (Wilson and Gilmore for ten yards: 30 yards total), Stevan Ridley rushed behind Sebastian Vollmer and a host of blockers for a 1-yard score to put the Patriots up 10-0. At this point, all the momentum was in favor of the Patriots.
The Bills started their next drive on the 20-yard line following another Gostkowski touchback. This is a very underrated part of his game, and in a game of field position, consistently forcing teams to 80-yard drives following a kickoff is huge. On the first play, the Bills center was flagged for an offensive holding call (40 yards total). The quarter ended on a 22-yard pass to Donald Jones that set the Bills up at the New England 36-yard line.
On the very first play of the second quarter, Vince Wilfork was flagged for a 15-yard facemask of Fred Jackson that pushed Buffalo inside the redzone. Two plays later, yet another offensive holding call (50 yards total) and a sack by Rob Ninkovich stalled out the Bills’ drive forcing them to settle for three points and a 10-3 deficit.
On the following drive, Tom Brady led an effortless hurry-up, shotgun offense going 5-6 for 72 yards, including strikes for 19, 24, and 15 yards. The drive capped off with a Danny Woodhead touchdown run of 15 yards in which Nate Solder and Logan Mankins hit for huge blocks and allowed Woodhead to scamper untouched into the endzone. This put the Patriots up 17-3, but the Bills fought right back. On three passes and three rushes, Fitzpatrick led Buffalo for a touchdown. While the Patriots secondary kept the ball in front of them, that didn’t stop the Bills from picking up big chunks of yardage, as they went for runs of 12, 12, and 14 yards as well as passes for 23 and 17 yards. The drive took a little over three minutes, and those kinds of quick scores can keep a team in the game. The Patriots defense needs to close earlier in the game instead of relying on late fourth quarter stops to hold onto wins.
Two minutes later Brady had the offense knocking on the door in the redzone. This drive was a gift from the Bills as the offense only recorded 13 total offensive yards. Jairus Byrd blew an excellent opportunity for his team when, on 3rd-and-10, he committed pass interference on Julian Edelman for 17 yards (67 yards total). After a one-yard run by Ridley, Shane Vereen busted outside for an 11-yard gain. Stephen Gilmore was flagged for a face-masking penalty on the play (82 yards total). On the very next play, Gilmore was flagged in the endzone for pass interference on Brandon Lloyd to put the Patriots on the 1-yard line (119 yards total). Two plays later, Rob Gronkowski reeled in a two-yard pass from Tom Brady (his 41st consecutive game with a TD pass) and put the Patriots up 24-10.
Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ offense refused to let their defensive struggles keep them out of the game, as they picked the patriots defense apart, going for another eighty yard touchdown in under four minutes to cut the deficit to seven again. The Patriots showed off their weakness in the red zone again as their safeties could not match up with Scott Chandler, yielding his third touchdown against them in their two matchups this season. Alfonso Dennard was flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for tackling Fitzpatrick out of bounds late. The Patriots ended the half with a couple meaningless plays and hit the locker room to make some much needed adjustments on the defensive side of the ball.
The Patriots first drive of the second half stalled on the Buffalo 38-yard line after Brady was sacked on third down. Important of note on this drive was that Ridley picked up some nice yardage on the ground in the no huddle offense including a 15-yard scamper, but Logan Mankins was injured on the Brady sack and was seen in a walking boot following the game. The loss of their All-Pro Left Guard could hurt a Patriots offensive line that has remained in flux all season long.
The Bills’ first drive did not fair well either, as Jermaine Cunningham sacked Fitzpatrick on second down. In the confusion following, Buffalo was flagged for a delay of game (124 yards total) and was forced to punt after failing to convert on third down. On the punt, a Bills’ rookie gunner was called for unsportsmanlike conduct as he raced almost all the way down field out of bounds towards Julian Edelman. This 15-yard penalty (139 total) set the Patriots up in excellent field position, and Brady hit Woodhead for an 18-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The play was challenged, but Woodhead just did manage to get the nose of the ball over the goalline before going down.
Buffalo responded with another long touchdown drive, this time for eighty four yards, capped off by a 1-yard Fred Jackson run with 1:40 left in the quarter. For the third time, the Bills had cut a 14-point Patriots lead in half by exploiting the soft spots in their defense, of which there were multiple all afternoon. The drive was not perfect though, as rookie Cordy Glenn was flagged with a false start penalty (144 yards total) while tryign to get a jump on fellow rookie Chandler Jones.
Before the end of the quarter, Ridley helped flip the Patriots field position by taking the ball 24 yards on a strong run from the NE 38-yard line to the BUF 38-yard line.
After gaining a few yards, the Patriots settled for a Gostkowski 48-yard field goal. One thing that is important here is that Gostkowski has been drilling long field goals through the middle of the uprights for the last few games and seems to have dispelled any notions of worry in his ability from the beginning of the season.
The Bills took the following possession down-field quickly, aided by a Brandon Spikes roughing-the-passer call that radio color personality Scott Zolak was none to happy about. Devin McCourty produced his first game changing play of the afternoon, as he punched the ball out of Fred Jackson’s hand on the 1-yard line. The call on the field was down by contact, but a fired up Bill Belichick chucked his challenge flag ten yards onto the field and the call was overturned. This led to a Patriots three-and-out but stalled the Bills offense for what would be an important amount of time.
This time, the Patriots helped the Bills out, as Jerod Mayo was flagged for unnecessary roughness after riding Spiller out of bounds and slamming him down a little hard for the referees’ liking. Ryan Fitzpatrick tossed a two-yard strike to Donald Jones for a touchdown that cut the Patriots lead to 34-31. At this point, you could hear the exhales from Patriots fans all over New England; here we go again, a Patriots team that can’t close out a double digit lead in the fourth quarter.
The following drive was probably one of the most important on the afternoon. Although the offense stalled at the Buffalo 9-yard line and they had to settle for a field goal, they managed to eat over five minutes of clock and grab a six point lead. A touchdown would have put the game out of reach, and Patriots fans were on the edge of their seat as Fitzpatrick and the Bills picked up big chunks of yards on their final drive. The biggest problem the Bills had was that both Donald Jones and Fred Jackson were injured on separate plays on the drive, forcing them to use their remaining timeouts and hurry up the pace of their offense. Credit to Brandon Spikes for another clean and vicious On the NE 15-yard line with a half minute left, Fitzpatrick tried to hit rookie Graham in the endzone but was intercepted by Devin McCourty to end the game. After the game, Fitzpatrick admitted that Graham ran the wrong route and he was expected to run underneath the safety, but that one was all on the quarterback. After a stressful fourth quarter, the Patriots came away with a win and a commanding lead in the AFC East.
Statistics courtesy of NFL.com