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6 observations from the Patriots’ 24-12 win over the Bills

Instant analysis from week 16!

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are your 2018 AFC East champions! The team defeated the visiting Buffalo Bills 24-12 to snap its two-game losing streak and add their tenth victory of the regular season to the win column. Here’s what we learned from the contest.

The Patriots’ running game will have to carry this team

The last time the Patriots played the Bills, they were without Sony Michel. Today, the rookie showed the Bills why he was drafted in the first round this spring: he showed tremendous power attacking the gaps, patience waiting for his blocks to develop and vision to recognize and steer through his running lanes. Michel was the Patriots’ best offensive player — he shouldn’t return kickoffs, though — and it is not up for debate.

On the day, the Georgia product carried the football 18 times for a combined 116 yards (the fourth 100-yard rushing performance of his young career) and a touchdown. With the Patriots’ passing offense struggling against the Bills and no clear outlook for improvement in sight when looking at the skill position personnel, it will be up for the running game to carry the offense moving forward. And if the group performs like today, it will do just that and be hard to beat.

Michel, of course, is only one cog in the machine: Cordarrelle Patterson, who left the game with a knee injury in the second half, Rex Burkhead, James White, and Phillip Dorsett also played big parts in the Patriots gaining 275 yards on 45 non-kneel down carries. And the offensive line needs to be pointed out as well: the unit — together with fullback James Develin and the tight ends — did an excellent job controlling the line of scrimmage when blocking for the run.

New England’s run defense came back to life

The Patriots controlling the trenches extended to the defensive side of the football as well: after three terrible performances when it came to stopping opponents on the ground, New England’s run defense looked much improved against Buffalo. All in all, the group allowed the Bills to gain just 72 yards on 18 carries as it kept starting running back LeSean McCoy and mobile quarterback Josh Allen in check all day long.

One reason for that was the discipline displayed by the defensive line — one that saw some changes when compared to weeks past. On the defensive edge, recent practice squad call-up Ufomba Kamalu replaced pass rushing specialist Adrian Clayborn and looked solid when it came to setting the edge and funneling play to the interior. Speaking of which, Danny Shelton was back in the lineup at defensive tackle.

The first-year Patriot who was acquired via trade this offseason, was a healthy scratch the last three weeks but back on the field today. And his presence together with Kamalu’s made quite a difference as the Bills were unable to establish a presence on the ground. While not all was perfect, the run defense looked like an entirely different unit today.

Part of it was the game plan, of course, but the performance and usage of the individual players still contributed to shutting down Buffalo’s rushing attack.

The Gilmore-Jackson-McCourty trio continues being one of the best in football

Yes, the Bills’ passing offense is atrocious. Yes, Josh Allen is an interception or a sack waiting to happen. But that all being said, New England’s secondary did its jobs and performed very well against Buffalo. The cornerbacks in particular stood out as they once again proved to be the strength of the Patriots’ entire defensive group — especially the top three options: Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jason McCourty.

Gilmore shut down Robert Foster for much of the day and was inexplicably targeted on a fourth down pass (it fell incomplete). Jackson and McCourty, meanwhile, both registered interceptions. McCourty in particular stood out as he was targeted five times and did not allow even one completion. Instead, he registered a pick and even forced a fumble in the third quarter that was recovered by a rejuvenated Malcom Brown.

All in all, Gilmore, Jackson and McCourty continue looking like one of the NFL’s best cornerback trios — not just because they shut down the Bills but because they displayed flashes of dominance every game since the Patriots’ week eleven bye.

Tom Brady and the entire passing offense looked off

To get it out of the way: Tom Brady is still a very good quarterback and certainly capable of leading this team to a championship. That being said, he was pretty much a non-factor against the Bills. Yes, he is the heart and soul of the offense but he also had to take backseat today (not just late in the fourth quarter, when he was pulled from the game in favor of backup quarterback Brian Hoyer).

All in all, Brady threw just 24 passes and hit only 13 of them for a combined 126 yards. One of the completions went for a touchdown — an acrobatic play by wide receiver Julian Edelman — while two of the incompletions were picked off. It is hard to blame the quarterback for any one of them, however: the first was a miscommunication on a play Rex Burkhead probably should have cut to the inside instead of out. The second pick was pass that went through the hands of tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Gronkowski in general had another quiet day. While he was excellent as a run blocker, he was a no-show in the passing game (at least as a receiver, he did appear to work as a decoy of sorts on some plays). The 29-year old was targeted three times but none of the passes except the interception had a realistic chance of being completed: one was thrown way over his head, the other short of him after Brady was pressured.

All in all, though, Gronkowski continues to look like a player who is just not right physically. And maybe the Patriots agree as they pulled him on some blocking plays in favor of Dwayne Allen. Maybe getting a first-round bye in the postseason will help a bit but counting on Gronkowski to be a difference maker in the passing game at this point in time seems unrealistic.

Josh Gordon’s replacements were nonexistent

Also unrealistic is the outlook that the Patriots will replace Josh Gordon one-for-one. They can’t, and today’s game showed it. Brady targeted just five players all day long: wide receivers Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson saw 10 and 2 balls thrown their way, respectively, while Rob Gronkowski — as noted above — was the target on three incompletions. The other nine passes were to running backs James White and Rex Burkhead.

The rest of the Patriots’ skill position players was pretty much invisible. Phillip Dorsett at least touched the football twice on jet sweep runs and gained 13 yards in the process. Chris Hogan, on the other hand, can probably wear his jersey again next week without having to wash it: he was a total no-show and at one point sat all alone on the defense’s bench. Of course, this doesn’t have to mean anything but it illustrates just how little of a factor the veteran was today.

The Patriots are in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye

Not only did the Patriots’ win secure their 10th straight division title, it also catapulted them back into the AFC’s number two seed thanks to Houston Texans loss against the Philadelphia Eagles. With a game versus the New York Jets coming up in one week, all that New England needs to do is win its eighth home game of the year in order to lock up a first-round bye.

And considering that a) New England plays way better at home than on the road and b) the entire team would likely benefit from a bye, this would be a tremendous accomplishment for the club.

Welcome to the Pats Pulpit Live Postgame Show! The Patriots clinched their 10th straight AFC East title today with a win over the Bills. Send us your questions and comments!

Posted by Pats Pulpit: For New England Patriots News on Sunday, December 23, 2018