As we get back into the countdown of the 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2014, we're going to leave the preseason, where our Number 20 Moment occurred:
20. Jimmy Garoppolo wins a job - and our hearts - with a spectacular preseason.
and dive right into the season itself. The Number 19 Moment represents not just some great plays in a great game, but the coming out party for a player that would go on to become one of New England's most reliable receivers.
19. Brandon LaFell officially arrives in a Week 6 contest against the Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots headed up to Buffalo on October 12th for their first matchup with Buffalo coming off of a huge win against the Cincinnati Bengals the week before. And while they certainly looked like the Patriots of old in that game, there were still plenty of questions for the 3-2 franchise regarding exactly which team was going to show up week-to-week. The Bills, also 3-2, seemed to be a team on the rise, having just pulled off a huge win in Detroit in which Kyle Orton made some great plays and Buffalo's stifling defense kept the Detroit passing attack in check. For several experts who thought that the Bengals game was a win generated by emotion more than anything else, the Week 6 contest was to represent a potential changing of the guard and the beginning of Buffalo's rise back to postseason relevance.
And one of the major reasons for that contention was the Bills D seemed poised to shut down the Patriots offense with a dominant front four and a secondary that wouldn't have much of a problem containing New England's receivers. Julian Edelman remained a threat, but Gronk still wasn't 100%, Danny Amendola continued to not live up to expectations, and the Patriots latest acquisition, Brandon LaFell, didn't seem to be clicking with Tommy B, leaving fans and analysts alike wondering if he was going to go the way of Chad Ochocinco, Joey Galloway, Doug Gabriel, and all the other receivers that just couldn't figure things out once they got to New England. Coming into the Bills game, LaFell had 11 catches for 185 yards and one score on the year, and the bulk of those yards came on a single play in the blowout at Kansas City a few weeks prior. Needless to say, the Patriots passing attack wasn't scaring anyone just yet.
The first quarter of the game did little to change anyone's opinion, as neither team was able to put any points on the board. Buffalo and New England traded touchdowns in the second, and a pair of Stephen Gostkowki field goals gave the Patriots a 13-7 lead heading into the half, with New England set to receive the ball to start the third quarter.
At this point, nothing the Patriots had done gave anyone reason to believe that the Cincy game was the rule as opposed to the exception. Stevan Ridley was running well, but this game would end up being his last as he tore his ACL in the 2nd half. The Patriots defense was holding, but it was unclear as to whether or not the lack of production was a good job by the Pats or a lousy job by the Bills. New England's lone score so far had been set up by a Jamie Collins interception followed by what might legitimately be the most blatant Pass Interference call in the history of the NFL when Duke Williams straight up shoved Edelman out of the end zone before the ball was anywhere near him, setting New England up on the 1. Still missing was that long, sustained drive that represented a solid mix of offensive playcalling and ended in six points. Given that we were six weeks into the season and a full half into an AFC East matchup, there was plenty of reason to think that maybe the 2014 Patriots weren't going to be the team we were all hoping they would be in August.
However, New England's first drive of the second half was exactly what they needed. After a Pat Chung touchback, Tommy B hit Aaron Dobson (remember that guy?) for a quick nine yards. Ridley powered up the middle for 10 on the very next play. Edelman took a quick screen five yards, and then Ridley tacked on another one. A Dobson false start pushed the Patriots back five yards, setting them up with a 3rd and 9 at their own 40. Brady came out in shotgun, motioned LaFell over to his left, and called for the snap. LaFell ran an option route which allowed him to run the Go, break to the sideline, or cut back across the middle, depending on the look the safeties gave him. Seeing that the safety was funneling the coverage to the sideline and guarding against the big play, LaFell cut right and came open across the middle. Not the biggest deal in the world under normal circumstances, but this play represented the first time that he and Brady were fully on the same page, as Tommy B saw the exact same thing, read the coverage, and began his throw just before LaFell started his break. He hit him in stride, and the Patriots picked up 17 yards and a first down. On the very next play, Tommy B would hit Brian Tyms for a 43 yard touchdown to give New England a 20-7 lead. It was exactly the kind of statement drive the Patriots needed.
However, not to be outdone, Buffalo responded right back on their next drive, stringing together a 13 play, 7 minute drive that ended with a Fred Jackson touchdown run (how many times have I written that in my life). The Patriots were able to get a field goal out of their next drive, and took a 23-14 lead into the final quarter of play.
The first play of the fourth quarter was a Bills punt, giving the Patriots the ball on their own 20 and the chance to take a commanding lead. Tommy B was able to engineer a 12 play, six minute drive that ended in a touchdown, a beautiful quick slant to LaFell for 19 yards and the score. Like his first big catch of the day, it was an option route in which LaFell and Tommy B were again on the same page and gave the team a fantastic cushion. With a 30-14 lead and less than 10 minutes to play, the Patriots were in great shape.
Of course, this is the Bills, and as they always seem to do when playing the Pats at home, they simply refused to go away. Gaining yards in chunks - Fred Jackson for 12, Robert Woods for 35, Chris Hogan for 17 - the Bills were able to score a touchdown and convert the two point try in under three minutes to make it a one score game. The Bills were motivated, the crowd was frenzied, the momentum seemed to be on Buffalo's side, and a defensive stop would give the Bills plenty of time to march back down the field and tie the game.
To make matters worse, an illegal block on the ensuing kickoff meant that the Patriots had to start from their own 7 yard line. A defensive holding call on a pass to Gronk bailed them out and allowed them to get to their own 20, but then a LaFell false start pushed them back to the 15. Brady hit Edelman on the first play for 20 yards, and then another false start backed them up. Two more negative plays put the Patriots in a 3rd and 16 from their own 29, with the Bills pass rush pinning their ears back and the crowd screaming at angry-Masshole-in-the-drunk-tank levels. However, Tommy B was able to step up in the pocket, find the hole in the coverage, and hit Gronk for 17 yards and the first down. A negative Brandon Bolden run gave the Patriots a 2nd and 12 at their own 44 with three minutes to play. Buffalo called their first timeout.
On the ensuing play, the Patriots stacked the right side of the line with three bunch receivers: Amendola close to the line, Edelman in the slot, and LaFell as the Z receiver playing about eight yards from the sideline. Gronk was close along the left side as an extra lineman. Brady opened in shotgun, Shane Vereen to his right. LaFell drew Leodis McKelvin in coverage, who tried to bump him at the line and redirect him across the middle. LaFell was able to shake off the press, got a step on McKelvin, and ran a slant post towards the right sideline. Brady hit LaFell just as he came out of his cut and far enough away from the sideline so he was able to turn upfield. McKelvin tried to catch up with him, but LaFell was able to stiffarm him and sprint into the end zone for the 56 yard TD that would ice the game. Patriots 37, Bills 22.
LaFell finished the game with four receptions for 97 yards and two scores, which are respectable numbers. However, more than that stat line was that this was the game where the offense finally clicked for him and he transformed himself from questionable addition to legitimate offensive weapon. LaFell finished his 2014 campaign with 74 receptions, 953 yards, and 7 touchdowns, by far his most productive year as a receiver. He would also morph into one of the guys who absolutely had Tom Brady's trust, guys he looks to when he needs a play.
Given that LaFell would go on to score the first points of the most important game of Tommy B's life and caught what may be the single greatest pass that Brady has ever thrown, I have no problem putting his breakout game in the Top 20. In fact, I probably would have ranked this higher in a different time and place, but this was just such a crazy season, other plays and moments simply have to take precedent.
Check out game highlights here.