Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Patriots Outlast Bills for 20-13 Win

The Patriots outlasted the Bills in a 20-13 slugfest in Foxboro. The win earned New England a five-game lead in the division with just six games to go. They also have a two-game lead for the #1 playoff seed. This Sunday it's the Broncos in Denver for a 8:30pm tilt. A victory there could win the division before November comes to a close, but only if the Jets lose, too.

When you're filling out your holiday cards this year, make sure to thank the Pats defense for this win. While the offensive line sleepwalked through the game, the defense put the clamps on in the second half to secure the victory. With the game in the balance, they forced three 3-and-outs, one 4-and-out, and only gave up 32 yards on 9 plays to end the game.

This was significant because in the first half, the Patriots best plays were Bills penalties and dropped passes. They could easily have trailed at the half, but Buffalo mistakes open the door to a 10-3 halftime lead. And when kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 54-yarder to open the third quarter, the Bills marched right down the field to tie the game.

That is when defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's adjustments took hold, clamping down on the running game and closing the pocket, while pressing the receivers and contesting every ball thrown.

The defensive line did a great job against inside runs. Unfortunately, it took them a half to figure out that the Bills could run to the outside, after they'd been beaten repeatedly, especially to the defensive right. Rob Ninkovich couldn't hold the edge, and without linebacker Jamie Collins to fly to the ball, the Bills got 36 of their 50 rushing yards to Ninkovich's side -- and not a single run that direction went for a loss. (Note: Ninkovich did have 1.5 sacks and a QB hit, so it wasn't all bad.)

In the second half it was a different story. The Pats reemphasized holding the edge, forcing runs to their huge interior linemen and linebackers. Jabaal Sheard had an excellent game, with 5 tackles, a forced fumble, and a QB hit. And the two young guys inside, rookie Malcom Brown (3 tackles) and second-year player Dominique Easley (2 tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 2 QB hits) cleaned up runs and managed a controlled push of the pocket that pressured the quarterback without letting him escape. And Chandler Jones made a huge tackle for a six-yard loss that forced a Bills punt when the game was still tied.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower recovered nicely from a first half where he was a tick late to most plays. And Jerod Mayo played by far his most snaps this season, ending the game with five tackles (one for a loss). He made some nice plays early on, even knocking down a pass in coverage. And Jonathan Freeney is actually rounding into form well. He's making more plays, and actually had the most tackles of any linebacker (6).

The secondary had two leaders this week: Malcolm Butler against the pass and Logan Ryan was a tackling matching. Butler shut down the Bills best receiver, holding Sammy Watkins to 3 catches for 39 yards and zero touchdowns. Ryan topped the entire defense with nine tackles, and even threw in a pass knockdown. Also, safety Patrick Chung filled in as a third cornerback, which tells you the secondary is much shakier than we thought.

The offensive line had a horrific game. Buffalo used the "amoeba defense," where the front line players don't indicate whether they'll rush the passer or drop into coverage. And it was one free rusher after another that knocked quarterback Tom Brady to the ground play after play. Marcus Cannon not only missed blocks but was responsible for three penalties. Center David Andrews was benched in favor of last year's center, Bryan Stork. And even the return of Sebastian Vollmer couldn't help the Patriots running game, which had just 55 yards through three quarters.

Two of the running backs had a big play or two in the game. James White ran for a touchdown and caught another just before the half. And LeGarrette Blount got enough tough yards in the fourth quarter to help seal the game. But mostly, it was like watching guys in pads run into brick walls -- there just wasn't anywhere to go.

The receivers performed a lot worse with Julian Edelman out, although each contributed at least one big play (sort of like the running backs). Danny Amendola had clutch catches on both touchdown drives, and he caught 9 passes for 117 yards. Rob Gronkowski had a 27-yarder, as did Brandon LaFell. It's going to be tough without Edelman, but time for the newbies to step up.

Finally, quarterback Tom Brady had a rough go of it -- literally. He was clearly confused by some of the defenses, and it didn't help that the O-line let so many free rushers through. I've never seen Brady throw so many balls into the turf because they just weren't in the right play to attack the defense that showed up after the snap.

However, in the end the Patriots won this game with second-half defense and the guts of their quarterback. Brady was hit 10 times and sacked once, but he hung in there for important passes to Amendola, Gronkowski, and White. Brady's pedestrian numbers don't tell the whole story. 20 of 39 for 277 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 INT sounds pretty bad for him. But those numbers look decent when you consider the patchwork O-line and constant pressure.

On special teams, Amendola had two big punt returns, and oddly punter Ryan Allen kicked the ball further into the wind than with it. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 54-yard field goal, but that's hardly a gimme. Sorry his perfect season is over, but kicking with the wind he probably should have hit even that one.

So where does that leave us? 10-for-10 sounds about as good as it could be. The Pats had more injuries yesterday, but they should get Collins back soon, and the O-line is at least getting healthy. A win this Sunday would give the Pats a four-game lead with five weeks to go in the chase for a playoff bye. So this game is huge. (Note: I'll have more on this later this week at FootballNation, so watch out for that.)

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Bill Belichick's dominance over the Bills seems to be independent of venue. The average score in Foxboro: Patriots 25.7, Bills 15.2. Average score in Orchard Park: Patriots 28.8, Bills 15.4.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who's in-game adjustments put the clamps on the Bills more and more as the game progressed.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Look, division games are tough, but they are close to winning the AFC East again; that's all that matters."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-0!

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