After one quarter and a slow start for the second straight week, it looked like it was going to be a long day for the New England Patriots. For any ordinary team, a 21-0 first quarter deficit would probably be insurmountable. But if the 2011 New England Patriots have taught us anything, it's that they are no ordinary team.
Through two drives, the Patriots had -1 total yards in the game. The Bills had nothing to lose and were 2/2 on fourth downs. But with under a minute to go in the first quarter, the Patriots turned to the no huddle offense and once again so immediate success. At one point in the first half, quarterback Tom Brady completed 11 straight passes.
The Patriots saw success through both the ground and air from the second quarter on. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for three touchdowns and one interception. After the first quarter, he was nearly unstoppable, throwing for over 300 yards (338 in the game). Brady's performance capped off a historic season, as he finished with the second most passing yards of all time in a season, behind only Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who broke Dan Marino's old record last week.
Brady's favorite targets on the day were tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski caught two touchdowns while Hernandez carried the ball twice for 26 yards, and caught the ball seven times for 136 yards and also added a 39 yard second quarter touchdown reception.
The Patriots also saw some success in the running game. Rookie Stevan Ridley saw his most extensive playing time of the year, carrying the ball 15 times for 81 yards. BenJarvus Green-Ellis also added 22 yards on seven carries with two goal line touchdowns of his own.
Trailing 21-14 at the half, the Patriots played their most dominant football of the season in the second half against Buffalo.
On offense, the Patriots converted all five of their possessions into points. They were nearly unstoppable. Defensively, the Patriots forced four turnovers and pitched a second half shutout.
The Patriots mixed things up in their secondary with the return of safety Pat Chung. In the base defense, the Patriots kept James Ihedigbo in at safety. However, when the Patriots moved to sub-packages (which they were in the majority of the games), cornerback Devin McCourty moved over to safety while the team stayed in mostly man coverage.
There was a significant adjustment period, but fortunately, the Patriots ultimately found some success with this scheme change. One of the best adjustments that Patriots coach Bill Belichick made was inserting rookie free agent Sterling Moore.
Moore, released on December 10th before returning to the active roster just over a week ago, had a tremendous game for New England. Moore had excellent coverage on two interceptions. His first, with four minutes to go in the third quarter with the Patriots down 21-20, was a turning point in the game, as the Patriots took advantage of the turnover by getting a touchdown and two point conversion and taking their first lead of the game. Moore's second interception added to the rout, stepping in front of a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass for a pick six.
New England held Bills running back C.J. Spiller to just 60 yards, and also were boosted by interceptions by defensive backs Devin McCourty and Antwaun Molden (although Molden struggled significantly throughout the game).
For three quarters, the Patriots completely dominated this game. It was exciting football and probably marked the best overall team effort the Patriots had all year. But spotting your opponents a 21 point lead isn't the way to win football games, especially in the playoffs. The Patriots are going to need to get off two a better start in the divisional playoffs, or they will be watching the AFC Championship and Super Bowl from home.
Nonetheless, today's win was a critical one for New England. With the 49-21 victory, the Patriots have clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Once we figure out who is going to the playoffs in the AFC, we'll update you on possible Patriots playoff opponents as well.
Happy New Year!