You have to credit the Bills for an excellent game plan for this game. Their offense was designed to possess the ball with a slow-moving attack to keep Brady off the field and their defense was designed to confuse the Patriots offensive line to get a free rusher with only 3-4 rushers actually going for the QB. The Bills were able to successfully slow down and nearly completely stop the Patriots offense save for a few busted coverages. Rex Ryan has been relatively successful dealing with the Patriots offense, even though his teams don't fare well in the W-L column due to his team not capitalizing on opportunities. Part of that is due to how fantastic the Patriots defense played, particularly on situational downs were Buffalo was 3-15 on 3rd down, 1-1 on 4th down, and 0-1 in the Red Zone. In addition to how well the Patriots played on defense, this game was also the story of missed opportunities for the Bills to take control of the game with the last minute of the first half being the most obvious example.
The Bills had a 1st and 10 from the Patriots 34 yard line with 1:49 on the clock. That's an eternity for Tom Brady to score a touchdown. The Bills went with two short passes, one to Robert Woods that missed the mark and one to Chris Hogan which only gained 4 yards because of a terrific Tavon Wilson tackle in the open field. That set up a 3rd down and 6 at the Patriots 30 yard line when the Bills dialed up a wheel route to LeSean McCoy out of the slot.
The initial design is to pick the coverage on McCoy and get the covering linebacker off him as he runs up the sideline. Robert Woods is able to clip Jonathan Freeny and essentially take him out of the play. The Patriots rushed four on the play and the edge pressure forces Tyrod Taylor to step up in the pocket to buy time for the play. At that point, Jabaal Sheard is able to work inside and get in the face of the QB as he's releasing the ball. During the play, it looked like Taylor had locked in on McCoy on the wheel route, which allowed Devin McCourty to read the eyes of the QB and converge on the route. The pressure forces Taylor to throw on the move and float into the end zone, which gives McCourty enough time to play the catch-point. McCourty is able to chop down McCoy's hands on the catch and the ball squirts out as both players hit the turf. It was a well-designed play, but the Patriots were able to pressure the QB and McCourty made a great play to prevent the catch.
The Bills went for the touchdown on that play and it was executed to near-perfection. The Bills were able to isolate McCoy on Jonathan Freeny, which is a matchup nightmare in space. McCoy is wide open in the end zone as the pass is coming down and would have gone for 6 had McCourty not made arguably his best play of the year to range from his centerfield role to the far sideline and force an incompletion. The Bills set up for a FG and had to burn a timeout in the process, which means the door swung open for bad omens to strike the Bills. Carpenter winds up banging the right upright and the miss put the Patriots at their own 38 yard line with 46 seconds in the half and all 3 timeouts.
As we all know by now, that's more than enough time for Brady to orchestrate a game-changing touchdown drive. First play, or this case the second, of the drive was going to be crucial if the Patriots were going to pick up any points.
On this play, the Bills were in a 3-2-6 dime package and the Patriots were in an empty set with 11 personnel. Both Bills inside linebackers blitz, which opens up the shallow cross behind them. Amendola is able to use the umpire to set a pick on his man, Stephon Gilmore, which creates the separation needed to make the catch. Amendola does a good job of setting up Gilmore to run to the outside then cuts inside of him. The difference in lateral agility causes Gilmore to make a hilarious tackle whiff and with no defenders in the intermediate area of the field allows for a big run after the catch. Amendola is able to get past midfield before Jerry Hughes catches him from behind.
Even though the play moved the Patriots to the Buffalo 44 yard line (61 yard try from there), they needed to pick up more about 5 yards in order to get in Stephen Gostkowski's chip-shot field goal range. The Patriots still had 2 timeouts, which meant the middle of the field was open for business.
*This picture is temporary until the All-22 angle comes out.
The Bills were threatening to blitz in the A-gaps again, so the Patriots brought Rob Gronkowski in to block the 6th rusher. Instead, the Bills wind up rushing 4 with the 4th player coming on a delayed blitz when Gronk stayed in to block. That allowed the Patriots to initially double team every rusher coming at Brady and the delayed blitz took 4 seconds to get there, which is more than enough time for Brady to scan the field. The Patriots utilize different route combinations to isolate LaFell on Gilmore on a deep in-cut. Chris Harper runs a shallow cross to occupy the underneath coverage and Amendola runs a deep cross to keep the deep safety from helping on LaFell. James White releases into the flat to get a linebacker out of the middle of the field. LaFell winds up getting a step on Gilmore as he breaks inside and gains inside leverage on him. Brady sees this and the throw leads him upfield and away from the underneath safety. LaFell catches the ball at the 24 and falls forward to the 20 before he's touched down by Corey Graham.
With the LaFell grab putting the Patriots at the Buffalo 20, that was three points in the bank with a 37-yard attempt. The Patriots still had 27 seconds and a timeout, which meant that they needed one more big play to get a touchdown on the drive. With a 3rd and 10 situation coming up, someone needed to make a play to get the ball into the end zone.
The Bills call for another blitz, which their nickel Nickell Robey as the extra rusher. At the same time, the Bills dropped Jerry Hughes into coverage and was matched up against Danny Amendola. With the nickel blitzing, there was no one in the flat to cover James White, who Brady quickly dumped the ball off to. I'm not sure if that was a bust by Mario Williams and whether he was supposed to peel off the blitz if the RB releases into the flat. James White might not be Dion Lewis, but he's very deadly in the open field and is a tough 1-on-1 tackle as Corey Graham found out. White is able to slip the tackle and turn a 3rd down conversion into a touchdown. On a side note, as a member of the James White fan club, I want the guy getting more touches in the future. At worst, he's a good pass blocker and receiver, so maybe 10 touches a game.
Rex Ryan knew his team screwed up the final minute of the half and provided us a GIF-worthy moment for it. Instead of the Bills going into the half up 10-3, it was the Patriots who went into the half up 10-3. The worst part of it for the Bills/best part for the Patriots is that swing only took 44 seconds of game clock to happen. That 14-point swing gave the Patriots a lead and turned out to be critical with the Patriots winning the game by 7. When you have the Patriots down, you can't afford to leave points on the field against them then compound the mistake by letting them score on you to end the half when they receive the 2nd half kickoff too.