Monday, December 30, 2013

LeGarrette Blount Tops Bills, 34-20

The Patriots took out the Bills in sloppy Foxboro yesterday, largely on the strength of LeGarrette Blount's 189 yards rushing and 145 yards on two kickoff returns. The win gave them the #2 seed in the AFC, and a first-round playoff bye. No game next week, but the team will certainly be making plans for their possible playoff foes on January 11 (8:15pm).

The game was messy, with five fumbles (four by the Patriots, all of which they recovered), lots of big plays when runners broke through arm tackles, and some ill-timed penalties that went in the Patriots favor. Division games against opponents with nothing to lose are difficult, and the Bills made a game of it for a while. But without their best QB, they didn't stand much of a chance.

How dominant was running back Blount in this game? He had more rushing yards (189) and more return yards (145) than Tom Brady had passing yards (122). Blount also had more touchdowns than Brady (2 to 1), and fewer turnovers (0 to 1). His two kickoff returns were electric and necessary to stop Buffalo momentum. He hit the holes hard in the running game, and when nothing was there he pushed the pile for a huge 7.9 yards per carry. Running back Stevan Ridley seems to have worked his way out of the doghouse, spelling Blount with 12 carries for 74 yards (6.2 ypc), although both he and Blount had fumbles in the game.

The offensive line did a terrific job, with special mention going to guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Connolly. Those yards didn't come just from great running, and these two specifically were making multiple blocks per play and getting downfield to continue the action and keep the play alive for more yards. It obviously helped a lot to have tackle Nate Solder in the lineup as, in addition to the great running, Brady was sacked only once.

Brady was fine, though not asked to do much but hand off. Receiver Julian Edelman was his main target when he did throw, catching 9 passes for 65 yards. Running back Shane Vereen was next in line, with 5 catches for 42 yards, and a touchdown. But just for the record, 14 completions probably won't get them far in the playoffs, and the Patriots not only need to be able to pass more (and better weather would help), but they need to spread the ball around to more players. Their targets are too predictable at the moment.

The interior of the defensive line played very well, getting consistent pressure on the QB and also stuffing most of the inside runs. Chris Jones had a sack and has had the most consistent year inside, while the rotation among other players worked really well. Joe Vellano came in and made a play immediately when Sealver Siliga hobbled off. Siliga ended up leading the team in tackles (9), while notching a sack and forcing a fumble.

The defensive ends left a lot to be desired, and were the main reason the Bills stayed in the game so long. Buffalo running backs and the Buffalo quarterback got outside of containment far too often, usually for big chunks of yardage. Chandler Jones got burned early and did better, but he wasn't consistent enough. They are usually more disciplined, so this should be viewed as an anomaly; but the D-line has to work better as a unit going forward.

The secondary got burned a few times, and frankly they were the beneficiaries of several dropped passes. Duron Harmon replaced the injured Devin McCourty, and it was a problem. Receivers got open on deep sideline patterns, where Harmon got there late. Also, injuries forced Kyle Arrington to cover on the outside, which is a problem as is he much better in the slot. Not a problem if they have a full compliment of secondary players in the playoffs, but something to watch if they do not.

Special teams were great. Not only did they have the Blount returns, but Stephen Gostkowski went 4-for-4 on field goals in that downpour. He also allowed only one kickoff return, for 28 yards -- the rest were into or through the end zone for touchbacks. And punter Ryan Allen was terrific, killing one punt inside the five yard line and sending another one there (but it was knocked into the end zone by the coverage player).

The coaching was terrific. Seeing the conditions, they obviously decided it was safer to run the ball and it worked perfectly. Buffalo gets the most pressure on the quarterback in the entire league, so the plan also played away from their defensive strength. And in a game this messy, the Patriots had only 4 penalties, which is usually attributed to good coaching.

So where does that leave us? 12-4 and a first-round playoff bye is a great place to be. The team has 12 days to get healthy and plan for their next opponent. The other team has yet to be determined, but the game will be on January 11 at 8:15pm, so don't forget to set your DVR!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Since Bill Belichick arrived in New England, the Patriots are 14-0 when they play Buffalo for the second time in a season, with an average margin of victory of 18 points.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The last two wins look impressive, but they don't tell you anything new about the Patriots. Baltimore's offense is awful, and the Pats always beat the Bills. Bring on the playoffs!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4!

PPS.  I predicted 12-4 before the season started ::patting self on back::

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