The road to the Super Bowl now goes through Foxboro, as yesterday, the Patriots racked up seven turnovers in a 34-3 rout over the Buffalo Bills to secure the AFC East title, a first round bye, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Of course, earning all those accolades is a big thing for this football team. It's tremendous. We know how good the Patriots are at home, and we know that the four times Bill Belichick has gotten a first round bye, he's turned it into a Super Bowl appearance. However, just like Belichick runs things over at Patriot Place, it will be business as usual for us at Pats Pulpit. The real season won't begin for the Patriots for another three weeks. While I'm happy the players got the hat and t-shirt, the real end goal is starting to come into a slightly clearer focus.
Game notes after the jump!
But for now, lets get into what happened on the field today, with my game notes:
- Things didn't start out terrifically for the Patriots. The Bills came out of the gates with a strong running attack led by Fred Jackson. With much of their interior defense missing, the Patriots turned to rookie nose tackle Kyle Love to plug the middle, with Vince Wilfork sliding in at end. For the third straight week, Gary Guyton started in place of SILB Brandon Spikes. While the Patriots eventually turned things around as we willl discuss below, they never were able to consistently slow down Fred Jackson on the ground (benefited from the fact that the Bills ran the ball just 18 times). Hopefully, with nearly three full weeks to heal up, guys like Myron Pryor, Brandon Deaderick, and Mike Wright can all get healthy for the playoffs. Couple that with the fact that Brandon Spikes will be returning from his suspension following Sunday's game against the Dolphins, and the Patriots should see a big improvement in run defense come playoff time. Still, the Patriots better hope some of those defensive linemen can get healthy. While Eric Moore has played admirably the last few weeks, he is not a natural 5-technique.
- While the run defense was shaky, there were certainly a lot of positives for the Patriots on defense. All year, we've said that the Patriots had a bend-but-don't-break opportunistic defense, and that "blueprint" was never as evident as it was yesterday, as the team allowed just three points to the Bills forced seven turnovers. Of course, the first was the biggest. With the Bills down 7-3 late in the first quarter, Ryan Fitzpatrick had the Bills driving deep in Patriots territory. However, on a first and ten from the 17, Fitzpatrick dropped back off of a play-action, only to see Rob Ninkovich right in his face. He stepped up and was met by Gary Guyton, who diagnosed the play beautifully, bringing down Fitzpatrick and forcing the fumble, which was recovered promptly by Jerod Mayo. The Patriots took over on offense, and Tom Brady went to work, finding Deion Branch for 15 yards to open the drive. After a little ground work by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Brady found Rob Gronkowski on a beautiful throw placed behind Gronkowski's shoulder. The drive was capped off by an eight yard Brady to Gronkowski score, putting the Patriots up 14-3. Needless to say, the strip-sack on the Bills' previous possession ended up being the turning point of the game.
- Up 14-3, the Patriots' defense began to play some of it's best stuff of the year, especially against the pass. Jerod Mayo was a force to be reckoned with over the middle of the field, delivering bone-crushing hits to receivers over the middle of the field, and forcing them to drop the ball. While he actually had a season low in tackles (5), his impact was felt all over the field yesterday, as he really showed how far he's come as a player this season.
- In addition to Jerod Mayo, Darius Butler also had a fine game yesterday for the Patriots. We all know how much he struggled in the early parts of the season, but he has truly found a way to turn it around as of late. He even replaced Kyle Arrington as the team's #2 corner much of the second half yesterday, coming up with 2 pass deflections in the process. Hopefully, he can keep his confidence up and just continue to improve game-by-game.
- The Patriots also had a few interceptions on the day. One came from Pat Chung, who was up and down in coverage during the course of the game. Another came from Jarrad Page on the Bills' opening drive of the second half, as he replaced the injured James Sanders at safety. The third and final came from Dane Fletcher in the end zone, as he prevented a late Bills' scoring push to help the Patriots defense hold their opponents under 10 points for the third time in four games. It seemed that whenever the Bills tried to get something going, the Pats defense would come up with a big play to take the ball away and give the team's offense short fields to work with.
- Working with short fields, the Patriots offense took advantage for the most part, coming up with 21 points off the first four turnovers forced (the last two shouldn't have really counted as offensive possessions, as the Patriots were running out the clock).
- While Tom Brady's numbers didn't really suggest it (15/27), he was actually pretty sharp yesterday. He was plagued by several drops throughout the game, three of which came at the expense of Wes Welker. It's easy to say that Welker didn't have a good game yesterday, and all of his drops were on target, and two of them specifically led to the end of drives and left points on the board. Despite Welker's drops, Brady was still able to rack up three touchdowns as well as break the all-time record for pass attempts without an interception. Two of the touchdowns came from Rob Gronkowski, who had a huge game with Aaron Hernandez out for the game. The other came from Alge Crumpler. It was nice to see Crumpler get involved considering all of the dirty work he's done from a blocking standpoint and as a leader in the locker room.
- I thought that Ryan Wendell, starting in the place of the concussed Dan Connolly, held his own as the team's right guard. Interestingly, the Patriots weren't really afraid to run to the right side with Wendell in there, as he had some key blocks that led (more specifically) to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' success.
- The story of the day was the Patriots' success on the ground. BenJarvus Green-Ellis cracked 100 for the second time in his short career, and Danny Woodhead added a career high 93 for good measure. I felt that Green-Ellis looked particularly impressive in his cuts and decision making, while Woodhead was nearly untouchable, even netting himself a 29 yard touchdown run that closely resembled the one he had in week three against the Bills. For those wondering, Green-Ellis is now just 72 yards away from being the Patriots' first 1,000 yard back since Corey Dillon in 2004.
- Pointing out a negative, it's easy to tell that the Patriots are missing Stephen Gostkowski's leg on the kick-off unit. There were several kickoffs in the game that fell a little short of what you would expect from Shayne Graham, and it hurt the Patriots in the field position battle. On the bright side, Graham did go 2/2 on his field goals and is now up to 10/10 for the year.