Sunday, December 28, 2014

Patriots Drop Season Finale to Bills, 17-9

In case you missed it, the Patriots lost their fifth pre-season game at Foxboro, 17-9 to the Bills. The loss left the team with a 12-4 record, good enough for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC, a week off, and it puts them two victories away from the Super Bowl. Next week is... a respite from the grind -- Pats have the weekend off!

Not much to learn from this game, given the number of starters who missed significant time or skipped the game entirely. But here are a few nuggets:

1. Nate Solder left the game with a knee injury, and did not return. If he isn't healthy for the playoffs, it is a big blow to an offensive line that has been under fire most of the year. He hasn't had a good year, but last week against the Jets, he was replaced by Marcus Cannon -- and Cannon was even worse.

2. When the Patriots play vanilla defense, they are pretty easy to play against. The Pats blitzed rarely and stunted on the line even less often. But when they did use extra pressure, it was pretty effective: Akeem Ayers and Jamie Collins got sacks of the Buffalo QB on a stunt and a blitz, respectively.

3. The biggest Pro Bowl snub from the Patriots is Collins. He is their Mister Everything, rushing the passer (3 sacks on the season), stuffing the run (led the team in tackles this year with 111), is their best pass-coverage linebacker (tied for the team lead in interceptions in 2014), and in only his second year with the team, he handled sideline-to-defense communication in parts or all of four games.

4. Backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looks like a rookie, but a decent one. He never made it past his second read, and held the ball way too long -- much like most rookie QBs in their second games. But he showed good escapability and made plays with his legs, although he was pretty inaccurate throwing on the run.

Played okay, but his day showed how ridiculous it was for the media to talk about how he'll replace Brady "sooner rather than later." (I'm looking at you, Chris Mortensen of ESPN.)

5. When the starters rest, special teams aren't affected very much. The obvious reason is that there are no backup kickers, so the place kicker and punter both played. But the Pats still got very good returns from Danny Amendola, and for the most part had excellent coverage. There was one long Bills return, but it happens when the other team is also good in the kicking game.

6. No matter who they play, corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan get picked on. There's a reason for that, and it would be helpful if last year's starter Alfonzo Dennard could find his way back to the field for the playoffs. Not to mention Kyle Arrington, to cover slot receivers.

7. Two of the three AFC North playoff teams represent the biggest AFC threats to the Patriots this post-season. Baltimore has beaten the Pats twice in Foxboro in the playoffs recently. And even though the Patriots seem to own the Steelers in the playoffs, their offense is dramatically more dynamic than it has been in the past. So hope those two teams are hitting the links, instead of hitting the Patriots, the weekend of January 10-11.

So where does that leave us? Yet another playoff bye, with any AFC playoff games in Foxboro -- that sounds pretty sweet. Here's hoping Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Browner, and Dont'a Hightower benefitted from the extra week of rest.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Bills beat the Patriots in Foxboro for the first time in 15 seasons.

Bonus Statistical Oddity: The Bills finished with a winning record (9-7) for the first time in 10 seasons.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "If Solder is okay, then it was mission accomplished on Sunday -- no major injuries."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4!

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