The Pats hosted their division rivals from Buffalo on Sunday. What looked to be a rout was another near disaster.
We're a spoiled lot here in New England. The Patriots are 6-3 and you are what you're record says you are and a win is a win and winning is everything and the only thing, or whatever the cliches say, etc. Yet it's tough to not feel that it's all a bit hollow on the heels of the Pats 37-31 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Surely, any number of crappy teams would happily change places withe the Pats this morning. But the local football entry strives for something more than just being merely satisfied with barely eking out a victory over an also-ran that hasn't won in Foxboro in its last 13 trips, especially coming out of a bye. And that's exactly what happened in this game.
The Pats, who played well in spurts on offense and were able to force turnovers at crucial points, would have been beaten by multiple scores by a team not as self-destructive and stupid as the Bills or without the benefit of a slew of calls by the officials ranging from curious to abysmal given the way they looked overall.
But the Bills are the Bills and that's one of the biggest reasons the Pats are now riding a three-game winning streak and have a two-game advantage in the AFC East. The Pats capitalized on most of Buffalo's slew of mistakes and overcame a regression on defense in doing so.
It's pretty difficult to play a team that commits 14 penalties for 148 yards and has three turnovers and still be inches away from losing but that's just what the Pats did. By the same token, it's also difficult to give up 31 points, 481 total yards 35 first downs and a 64 percent success rate on third down and win. But that's just what the Pats did.
They still can't cover anyone and now seemingly can't tackle either, And they needed a number of breaks to be in position to score points. But they still won and no matter how ugly it may have been, no matter how much criticism get levied by the local know-it-alls and no matter what the expectations are, again, that's all that matters. So with that, let's get into this week's report card.
Tom Brady didn't play his best game but still played well, at times very well. He was a tidy 23-of-38 for 237 yards and a couple of TDs and while there were a couple of throws he'd surely like to have back, it was a solid game for No. 12. His second quarter scoring toss to Rob Gronkowski was a perfectly placed lob put where only Gronk could make a play on it. And when the Pats suffered some losses on the offensive line in the second half, he reacted well to the slight uptick in pressure, the best example being his stepping up in a collapsing pocket and seeing Danny Woodhead flashing back across the formation with a step on his man. Brady flipped it to the streaking Woodhead and 18 yards later, the Pats had a two-score lead. Anyone who thinks Brady has lost even a sliver of his competitive edge should watch the video from Sunday of him airing out Julian Edelman after a sack when Edelman failed to break off his route in time or sitting on the bench with his head in his hands following the Pats' final possession on which they could only manage a field goal despite a first-and-goal from the Bills 2. He's doing everything he can and for the most part, that's enough.
Running Backs: 4.5
Another 22 carries and 98 more yards for Stevan Ridley, the undisputed, No. 1 running back for this team. His false start penalty at the tail end of that last possession was ugly but it didn't overshadow his tough, slithery running up to that point. He's still running hard and violently, particularly up the middle, and he looked like the bye week did him a lot of good in the energy department. His TD run, on which he was sent off right tackle from the goal line (and while we're here, why do the Pats call that run on the goal line so much? Why not punch it up the middle or take it left behind Logan Mankins and Nate Solder?) was defended perfectly by the Bills, who overloaded on that side. But Ridley still managed to find a small crease and power through for the score. Ridley, who also broke a 24-yard run in the second half, is the best back the Pats have had in years and if they stay with him, he should only get better. As for Woodhead, he proved his worth in his best game of the season, adding a 15-yard TD run to his stat line. The play was perfectly blocked and Woodhead couldn't have followed his linemen any better, scampering into the end zone untouched. When Woodhead is used judiciously, as he was on Sunday (16 snaps, one carry, four receptions), he's fresh and potentially explosive. No more single back runs in power, short yardage sets. That's not his game. His game is precisely what he did against the Bills, and he came away as one of the team's most valuable players for the game.
Wide Receivers: 3
There are few receivers in the NFL better or more suited for their teams than Wes Welker, but Sunday wasn't his best day. His 23-yard gain on a busted screen play where he reversed direction and ran all the way across the field for a huge first down in the fourth quarter was signature Welker. But he had two massive drops, both of which could have cost the Pats a lot worse than they eventually did. The first, a perfect seam throw on which he had his man beaten by a step and a half would have resulted in an easy stroll into the end zone but the ball clanged off his hands. The second, with the Pats operating from their own 1, was an in cut over the middle that hit him in the numbers a yard past the chains and bounced to the turf. Brady still threw to him 11 times and he managed six catches and 74 yards. But it was somewhat of an off day for Welker, who will undoubtedly bounce back. Brandon Lloyd has perfected the art of catching the ball and immediately falling to the ground and this game was no different. That guy needs to toughen up. And Deion Branch burst back onto the scene, playing 56 snaps as the Pats spent more time in three receiver sets than usual and responded with four catches on eight targets, second on the team behind Welker. Is Branch more dependable and trustworthy than Lloyd? Maybe. Will be interesting to see how that scenario unfolds going forward.
Tight Ends: 4
Gronk deserves a gold star for his TD catch, another of his patented, diving, outstretched, fingertip grabs where no one else can make a play on the ball. While the lack of another demented genius celebration afterward was somewhat of a letdown, Gronk clearly made the most of his limited role in the game plan as a receiver (three catches on only four targets) and was in perfect position to make a big play on a fourth quarter pass that Brady airmailed. It's possible that Gronk is still a little banged up; he looked a little slow at times. But he did what he needed to do both catching the ball and blocking in the running game. Visanthe Shiancoe made his Pats debut and played seven short yardage snaps. Whether he still does that once Aaron Hernandez is healthy remains to be seen. He did play a bit more than Daniel Fells, though, which was a bit of a surprise.
Offensive Line: 4.5
No matter who plays, who gets hurt or who fills in, the Pats O-Line continues to be a huge strength. Things were humming along nicely before both Mankins and Dan Connolly went down in the third quarter and neither of them would return. After that, the pocket got a little bit smaller a little bit faster for Brady but it rarely mattered, Brady was sacked just once and only hit four more times with most of the pressure coming from up the middle. Both Connolly and Ryan Wendell were beaten once but if anyone had any more trouble dealing with pressure up front, it wasn't memorable. Big ups to Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald, both of whom have played more this season than Bill Belichick would probably like, particularly Thomas. But each of them have acquitted themselves very well and Sunday was no exception. The Bills' $100 million bust of a pass rusher, Mario Williams, was again completely invisible as Sebastian Vollmer completely dominated him. And the run blocking was stellar as well, especially on Woodhead's TD run. Both Mankins and Connolly have been in and out of the lineup and their injuries bear watching, particularly Mankins' who was reportedly in a boot following the game after getting his ankle rolled up. Still, their replacements have proven trustworthy.
Defensive Line: 2
With the exception of a couple nice plays by Jermaine Cunningham and Vince Wilfork and a couple of nice run stops up the middle by Kyle Love, it was a bummer of a day for the front four. This group wasn't as egregiously bad as the linebackers or the defensive backs. But the tackling and other fundamental issues that plagued those other two groups were present here too. Credit Rob Ninkovich with a decent showing as far as the Pats' limited pass rush (sack, two hits on Bills' QB Ryan Fitzpatrick). But he was dominated in the running game, constantly sealed off on the edge as Buffalo's two star backs Fred Jackson and (especially) C.J. Spiller easily got outside all day. The Pats came in holding opponents to under 87 yards per game on the ground but the Bills nearly doubled that, gaining 162 yards at a whopping 5.8 yards per attempt. If Bills' coach Chan Gailey weren't so dumb, Spiller, one of the quickest, shiftiest, most dynamic players in the league, would have had more than the 13 touches he had on the day, which accounted for 131 yards. And the Pats would have been helpless to stop it. Finally, let's give Chandler Jones a mulligan on this game. He had just one tackle and was lost for long stretches of the game, especially when the Bills ran the ball. Jones is a great young player destined for big things. It's not a good thing that he was so out of it but days like Sunday should be few and far between for him.
Same as above regarding Jones for Dont'a Hightower, who had about as much impact on this game as he did on the ones he missed due to injury earlier in the season. There will be much better days for Hightower and he'd be well served in watching the film of himself getting wiped out and faked out of his jock all over the field quickly and then forgetting about it. As for the other two backers, um... yeah. Jerod Mayo is not as good as he gets credit for being but he usually isn't as bad as he was in this game. He missed tackles and was routinely faked out by the Bills backs, and even once was deked to the ground by none other than Fitzpatrick. He fits right in with the secondary however, in that he absolutely cannot cover to save his life. There must have been three or four plays on which Fitzpatrick had all day to throw, waited, found one of his backs or tight end Scott Chandler wide open in the middle of the field and made an easy completion while Mayo was chasing the play, nowhere near the receiver, with his arms flailing in the air. When he was flagged for unnecessary roughness for hitting Spiller late out of bounds, giving the Bills 15 more yards at the end of yet another outside run for double digit yardage, it was the icing on a pretty bad day for the defensive captain. Then there's Brandon Spikes, who did force another fumble and was able to knock down a pass in the end zone. But he also cost the Pats 15 yards on a needless helmet to helmet hit that would have been an intentional grounding on Fitzpatrick had Spikes simply wrapped him up instead of going high. And his flexing while Jackson was practically unconscious after he hit the Bills' back late in the game was at best silly and at worst borderline grotesque, especially given the fact that he and his teammates were getting completely shredded at the time. Spikes isn't the punk Fitzpatrick called him after the game. But he needs to get over himself and just play smart, tough, disciplined football. If the Bills had won, Spikes would be one of the many Pats wearing goat horns.
Defensive Backs: 1.5
An extra half point for Devin McCourty catching the pass Fitzpatrick threw right to him in the end zone to seal the game and for forcing Jackson to fumble at the goal line while trying to squeeze in for a score earlier in the fourth. Other than that, it was still another putrid game for the Pats' never improving secondary. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard, who has been passable since earning a starting spit a few weeks ago, joined the long list of Pats' corners over the past four years who haven't had the slightest chance in coverage. He was lost pretty much all day and the Bills knew it, bombarding him routinely. Dennard looks like he has a chance to be a serviceable corner somewhere down the road. He's better at this early stage than guys like Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite and so many other failed corners who've famously stunk up the joint over the past few seasons. But Sunday wasn't his day, as it wasn't for so many of the Pats' defensive players. Steve Gregory came back at safety and made zero impact. Marquise Cole got a lot more run and didn't embarrass himself which is something of an accomplishment under the circumstances. Kyle Arrington continued to plug away, getting another week to start in the NFL even though he'd probably be the fourth or fifth DB on most other teams. And Tavon Wilson was buried in Ras-I Dowling territory as the dime back thanks to Gregory's return. Again, give this group some credit for the clinching pick by McCourty. But after it looked like they were a little bit better against the Rams two weeks ago, they were as bad, if not worse, than they've been at any point all year.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 2.5
Good game for the special teams. Stephen Gostkowski drilled three field goals, two from 40-plus yards and the kick coverage team didn't allow the Bills, the league's best return team, next to nothing. Our man Zoltan Mesko had two good punts, neither of which were returned. And Edelman actually had a semi-real looking kick return for the Pats. Small victories.
There's much to discuss as far as the coaching, however, and it's mostly not good. It's obvious that Belichick and his over matched defensive staff know that they are completely screwed if anyone in the secondary has to cover man-to-man, which is why there is barely ever additional pressure from anyone but the front four. But the question is, since a quarterback who isn't even one of the top 20 in the league at his position can still shred you up and down the field to the tune of 337 yards, 8.4 yards per pass attempt and a 99.7 passer rating, can it really hurt to take a few more chances? Dropping seven and eight men in coverage doesn't mean the Pats have a better chance to stop the pass, it means there are more guys running around back there without the foggiest idea what to do than if they blitzed more or sent more pressure.
Offensively, some of the curious/bizarre play calling was back, starting with three straight passes from their own 1-yard line after forcing a goal line fumble in the fourth quarter. None of those throws were completed and the Pats went three-and-out while taking nine seconds off the clock after forcing a huge turnover. All you need is three or four yards to get out of that deep hole and you have a really good back in Ridley to do it. Why not give him the ball there?
Then there was the toss out of the shotgun and the fake double reverse play action calls on the final drive of the game. Why? What's the point? When you are an offense that can't move the ball with any real consistency ever, like say the Chiefs or the Jaguars, you run that kind of deception, tricky style stuff. Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels must forget he's not coaching the Rams sometimes. Those plays have their place. On the final drive of a close game you are trying to finish off is not one of them.
It's not easy to win in the NFL and the Pats shouldn't apologize for beating the Bills, as ugly as it was. They got very lucky on Sunday thanks to the Bills inability to get out of their own way and some lousy officiating (neither of the pass interference calls on the Bills in the end zone were good; one of them was god awful). The fact that there's still seven more games to improve on both sides of the ball and that there are reinforcements for the secondary on the way is comforting. But the performance on Sunday, especially off a bye (when the Pats are always refreshed and clicking on all cylinders seemingly every year), is not. It's alarming.
Luckily for the Pats, winning is all that matters.