Sunday, December 3, 2017

Patriots Dominate 2nd Half, Win Going Away, 23-3

The Patriots annual pseudo-bye in Buffalo ended as it always does, with a Patriots win, this time 23-3 over the .500 Bills. The win opens up a four-game lead in the division with four games to go, though they haven't quite clinched the AFC East yet, due to tiebreakers. And pending the Pittsburgh Monday Night game, it will at least keep them tied with the Steelers for the AFC #1 playoff seed.

If there are horses for courses, the Patriots under Bill Belichick were built to dominate the Bills. Since the head coach arrived, the Pats are 35-5 against Buffalo, including 16-2 in Orchard Park! In fact, Tom Brady 14 wins in Buffalo ties him for the most by any QB in that stadium since 2001. And yes, that includes Bills QBs, even though they play there eight times a year and Brady only gets one shot at it a season. (Trivia question: Can you name the only Bills quarterback with 14 home wins since 2001? Answer below.)

As for yesterday's game, the Bills played tough for a half, limiting the number of possessions and holding the Patriots to nine points. But they had a very badly thrown (and badly timed) red zone interception on their opening drive, and their QB also overthrew a bunch of open receivers, while some receivers dropped passes right in their hands.

Then came the second half; which the Patriots won 14-0. In fact, for how close the game was early on, Belichick's charges scored on five of their first six possessions in the game. And even though the passing game was stalled, they ran for 130 yards in the first 30 minutes, not half bad.

The star of the game was tight end Rob Gronkowski. He had a couple of monster blocks in the running game, and also had nine catches for 147 yards. His performance proved once and for all what I've said for years: the Pats should run with Gronk blocking because it makes him soooo much more effective in the passing game. When defenders don't know if he fires off the line to block or to run a route, that moment of hesitation is all he and Brady need to gash them with either the run or pass. It's more unstoppable than flanking him out wide on a corner, and they should use it, frankly until he retires.

The other receivers were nondescript, with running backs totaling seven receptions and the rest of the team notching just five. Speaking of backs, Dion Lewis is just electric with the ball, forcing misses on first contact about 75% of the time. He had 92 yards on 15 carries, while fellow back Rex Burkhead got 78 yards on 12 carries. (Before you do the math, that is a very, very healthy 6.1 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively.)

And the 191 yards on the ground illustrated the great performance of the offensive line. When they weren't committing penalties (three on the O-line, four total false-start penalties -- unacceptable!), Shaq Mason and David Andrews made great pull blocks and created gaps right up the middle or inside the tackles. Mason played his best game of the year, and even struggling Nate Solder did some nice work (though not consistent enough).

Brady was saved his usual pummeling because the run game was so effective. Buffalo had three sacks and five QB hits, and that total of eight hits is much lower than any of the last few games. His pedestrian 82.4 QB rating owes mostly to his one interception (which should have been nullified by three penalties on the Bills). But to complete 70% of his passes for the game after only 57% in the first half is testament to his improvement after the break.

The defense played very well, led by former Bills corner Stephon Gilmore and former Bills practice squad linebacker Eric Lee. Gilmore knocked down two passes and provided tight coverage. Lee dominate his former team: 4 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3 QB hits, 2 passes defended, and 1 huge interception.

He might be what the linebacking corps needed, as they continue to be short on talent and energy. David Harris just can't make enough plays in the running game (and can't cover running backs), and Elandon Roberts seems to be repeating the same pattern from last year: start strong and fade later in the year. 

On the line, the return of Malcom Brown made a big difference in the run; he is a lineman who regularly totals 3+ tackles a game, which really is a lot for a Belichick defense. If only the front seven contained Tyrod Taylor in the pocket, this would have been a truly dominant performance. He scrambled three times, and each time he converted a third-down to extend the drive.

But overall it's tough to find fault when you only give up three points.

So where does that leave us? 10-2 and waiting to see if we open up a lead over Pittsburgh tomorrow night. The rest of the AFC seems to have ceded the #1 and #2 seeds to the two teams, so it's a matter of jockeying for the poll position. On the injury front, the Patriots really need to get linebacker Kyle Van Noy and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon back at full strength. The linebackers struggle without Van Noy, and you could see the difference in O-line play with the return of David Andrews at center.

Biggest On-Going Issue (a new weekly item): Earlier in the year the offensive pass distribution was great, with multiple receivers/backs getting three or more receptions in many of the games. However, injuries have, of late, set the team back there. The Pats had just three such receivers yesterday and two the week before against Miami.

Maybe it's just that the division rivals who know the Pats tendencies well enough to combat the diverse passing attack. But they've had this pattern before, and it can come back to haunt them in the playoffs, when teams are more adept at shutting down your favorite targets.

Non-Brady MVP: Rob Gronkowski, a monster game.

Statistical Oddity: In honor of Gronkowski, note that he has only fumbled three times in his career, and the last time he lost a fumble was five years (and 69 games) ago in 2012. He might not be durable, but when he plays, he is amazingly dependable.

Water-Cooler Wisdom: "Same old story in Buffalo, just a few new faces to pound into the dirt."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-2!

PPS. Trivia Answer:
Believe it or not, the only Bills QB with as many wins as Brady in Buffalo since 2001 is Drew Bledsoe, who won 14 homes games in three seasons after being traded there in 2002.