And so, after a little more than 10 quarters, the Patriots are winners again. No doubt about it.
What looked for a stretch like it might be another lost weekend turned quickly into a patented New England rout with the Pats scoring 45 second half points en route to a 52-28 division win over the Bills up in Buffalo.
After a textbook opening drive, the Pats lost themselves in a sea of fumbles, missed field goals and missed opportunities before riding some momentum from a huge, late second quarter play on defense and the recognition that they could run at will on the Bills' nickel and dime defenses. The result was the most points scored in a second half in 40 years and a coast to the top of the AFC East.
The Pats ran eight drives in the second half. Nos. 2-7 ended in TDs and the eighth a field goal. They alternated running the ball right down the Bills collective throat with Tom Brady shredding Buffalo's worn down defense. The six TD drives amounted to 330 of the Pats' 580 total yards and the Pats became just the second team in NFL history to have two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers in the same game.
Along with the stunning display put on by the offense in the second half, the defense tightened up and wound up making play after play again, much the way it did in Weeks 1 and 2 against Tennessee and Arizona. The D forced six, count 'em, six turnovers. It all added up to one of the more convincing wins seen in these parts in some time, one in which the Pats went from trailing by two touchdowns to pulling a handful of starters in a little more than a quarter.
It wasn't perfect. There are still a few aspects of the team's overall performance that need work, especially with old nemesis Peyton Manning and the Broncos coming to town this Sunday.
But the satisfaction gained from this win is the main story line. So with that, let's get into this week's report card.
Brady's slight lull in the second quarter keeps this from being a perfect score. He started the game strong then dipped a bit, to the tune of 11-of-21 for 167 yards and no scores over the course of the first half and into the second. But from there, he was the elite, championship QB we all know so well, finishing the game 11-of-15 for 173 yards and three TDs. He ended up with 340 yards and posting a passer rating of 120.1 and once the Pats started running to set up the pass, Brady was pretty much unstoppable. The Bills played pass all day, eschewing their base defense in favor of five and six DBs from the opening kickoff. The Pats started out 1-for-7 on third down and had a hard time getting any rhythm after their opening drive. But Brady persevered, making chicken salad out of chicken bleep on several occasions, and even looking nimble in doing so. His ability to elude pressure on his first TD pass, a scramble drill run perfectly by him and Danny Woodhead, and his five-yard TD run (which may have been the slowest moving scoring play in NFL history) represented perfect examples. This was Brady's second consecutive gem of a game. He's still got it, and then some.
Running Backs: 5
We all knew about Stevan Ridley, but Brandon Bolden? Again, Brandon Bolden? The Pats sure do have a pipeline to undrafted, free agent backs out of Ole Miss. Bolden, who is a core special teams player, got himself 26 snaps and 16 carries on offense and exploded, gaining 137 yards (8.6 per attempt), scoring a TD for the second straight week and doing it with power. Along with Ridley, who added 106 yards on 22 attempts and two more scores, the Pats reached heights with their running game not seen in years. The last time they had two 100-yard rushers in the same game was in 1980, when Don Calhoun and Vagas Ferguson (!!!) did it. Brady said after the game that the Bills personnel groupings were basically a dare for the Pats to run the ball, so they obliged their hosts. Buffalo had their base D-line, one linebacker and six little DBs out there for so long, it was only a matter of time before the Pats would have their way. Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams confessed afterward, "the most discouraging thing about it is they literally ran three running plays. They ran the same thing over and over and over." If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Wide Receivers: 4
Again, a couple of first half miscues cost this group. Wes Welker had an ill-timed fumble deep in Pats territory and Brandon Lloyd let a pretty well thrown pass go right through his hands. But other than that, it was a nice day for those two, the only Pats receivers to catch a pass. There was a stretch in which Brady threw to Welker on the same option route on first-and 10 on four straight possessions and each netted the Pats at least nine yards. Welker is so consistent, so reliable and so good that it was astonishing when he lost that first half fumble. As for Lloyd, it was a relatively quiet day for him until late, when Brady feathered a perfect pass down the sideline and into the end zone and he laid out for it in full stride to make a tremendous catch. The way Brady and Lloyd reacted to/celebrated that play together was proof that their chemistry is coming right along. Now that the Pats have proven they can be such a force running the ball, Lloyd will likely see several more chances to make plays against man coverage. And that will help the chemistry a great deal as well.
Tight Ends: 3.5
Rob Gronkowski played a hometown game on Sunday and it looked like he was in some part affected by it for a time. He had a couple of drops and also fumbled in Pats territory; one play later the Bills scored their first TD of the game. Gronk only caught three of the first eight passes thrown in his direction, but like the rest of the team, the second half was like an entirely different game for him. For some reason, the Bills let him run free down the seam on the first play of the fourth quarter and he was back in the end zone with one of the easiest scores he'll ever get. He also contributed mightily to the huge ground attack with his always excellent blocking skills. Gronk has looked like he's been feeling his way through not having fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez out there with him to some extent. If the second half on Sunday is any indication, he's figuring it out. Also, credit goes to newcomer Daniel Fells, who saw his most extensive action of the year thus far, made one very nice catch and aided the line's run blocking efforts in a major way.
Offensive Line: 5
If you were nervous about how the Pats would look on offense without Logan Mankins anchoring their line heading into this game, you are not even close to alone. But not only did the O-line survive without Mankins, it thrived, paving the way for the Pats 247 rushing yards and keeping Brady almost entirely out of the grasp of the Bills supposedly vaunted defensive line. The Pats absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage. Sebastian Vollmer was so good on Bills high profile free agent Mario Williams, his name was not mentioned once all afternoon by Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf. Donald Thomas, so over matched two weeks ago against the Cardinals, filled in for Mankins admirably, pulling, holding his ground and sliding to the second level to wipe out some undersized safety. Nate Solder had his second straight completely clean game as well, and looks like he's settled nicely into the left tackle spot. It would be pretty tough to imagine the Pats O-line playing much better than it did in this game. What a performance.
Defensive Line: 5
As with the O-line, this group was exceptional on Sunday. The Bills came into the game with one of the top ground games in the NFL and they left with 98 yards rushing, 36 of which came on either QB scrambles or in garbage time. Chandler Jones proved that he's not just a pass rusher, he's an every down force, playing every snap of the game until it was out of reach and registering five tackles, two for a loss, a sack and another two hits on BIlls QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Alongside Jones are Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love and both were typically immense (literally and figuratively) in holding Buffalo's star backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to a combined 62 yards on 21 attempts. Wiflork recovered a huge fumble at the end of the first half and also made a jarring hit on Bills receiver Donald Jones, separating Jones (who is less than half of Big Vince's size) from the ball as he was attempting to catch a quick in throw. Add Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham (another nice game in limited action) to the equation, particularly Ninkovich, and it was a banner day for this group.
After a particularly active opening series which featured a couple of blitzes, a sack and a nice pursuit and play in coverage, Dont'a Hightower suffered a hamstring injury and didn't return. And while venerable veteran Tracy White was very solid in his place, it looked like Hightower was set for a really big day. The big story of this one, though, is Brandon Spikes, who is the biggest hitter the Pats have had in a long time. He forced two more fumbles, both on mammoth, loud hits that were big enough to rattle some bones as far away as the living room of a Boston suburb. The first one, on Spiller, was at the 2-yard line as the Bills were going in for a 21-7 lead right before halftime and it completely changed the tenor of the game. The Pats punted in their first possession of the second half then gave up a long catch and run for a TD, but Spikes set a tone for both the rest of the defense and the offense with that first big hit. When Spikes is healthy and on his game, he is an impact player in a variety of ways. He has a nose for the ball, is a superior run stopper and again, hits like a runaway bus (lest we forget him knocking Bills tight end Scott Chandler out of his shoes on an INT return). Sunday was a huge day for him. And big ups for Jerod Mayo, who had his requisite big tackle game but also came up with an interception on a tipped pass and stood up both Spiller and Jackson on each of their fumbles, allowing Spikes to come in and do his thing.
Defensive Backs: 2.5
First things first. Devin McCourty was excellent in this game. Not only did he have two picks (the second of which was borderline sensational), he stayed with Bills top receiver Steve Johnson for a good part of the afternoon and nearly pitched a shutout. Johnson caught just two of the 10 passes thrown his way and one was when the game was out of hand. It was an impressive comeback for McCourty, who wasted three decent quarters with one horrifying one last week against the Ravens. The Pats need him not just to play well but to be confident too and he looked it in this game. Elsewhere though, the secondary continued to struggle. The Bills had all of their success on offense attacking the middle of the field and Patrick Chung was the victim. Chung has never been a particularly great safety; he's a big hitter but he can't cover anyone and frequently takes Brandon Meriweather-esque angles on middle to deep pass plays. But he was atrocious on Sunday. All three of the Bills TDs were on him (to be fair, two of them were also on Steve Gregory, who may have been playing hurt) and his mistakes on all of them ran the gamut (no ball skills, terrible angles, running himself out of position, etc.). He never seems to be quite in the right position to make a play and over his three-plus year career, has never forced or recovered a fumble. It may be getting time to wonder if Chung is ever going to really figure it out. He hasn't yet and once again, if you're going to find any fault with the Pats, it starts with their secondary.
Coaching/Special Teams/Intangibles: 4
Could the miss against Arizona be in Stephen Gostkowski's head? He hit three field goals last week against the Ravens but missed two against the Bills and missed them both badly. They weren't chip shots, but they were tough misses all the same. It was nice to see him make a 30-yarder at the end of the game. He needed it for his confidence. Our man Zoltan Mesko had a very nice game, placing all three of his punts inside the 20. And again, huge huge ups to Bolden, who played in every special teams group when he wasn't rolling over the Bills' D.
As for the coaching, Bill Belichick and company had themselves a very nice day. It's likely there wasn't much talk of adjustments in the locker room at halftime. If not for the fumbles and the missed kicks in the first half, the complexion of the game would have been quite different. The Pats simply stuck to the script, changed their offensive approach ever so slightly based on the Bills constant nickel and dime looks and completely blew the doors off. No messing around. No trick plays or head scratching substitutions. Nothing goofy. Just talented players in the right position to make plays and then making them. It's pretty simple, really. And few teams are as good at taking that approach and succeeding as the Patriots.