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FOXBOROUGH — For an NFL record tenth-straight season, the New England Patriots (10-5) are AFC East champions as they secured their spot in the playoffs with a 24-12 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
In the team’s first game without wide receiver Josh Gordon, Tom Brady and the passing game struggled to move the ball against a stingy Bills defense.
But Brady was bailed out by the running game that tallied its second-most yards of the Belichick era and the most in a game with Brady under center (273).
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots fixed their leaky run defense and overwhelmed Bills quarterback Josh Allen as New England improved to 8-0 against rookie signal callers at home under the hoodie.
Although there was plenty of room improvement, the Patriots will take the win after losing two straight on the road, and can now secure a first-round bye with a win over the Jets next week.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from the Patriots’ tenth victory of the season:
1. Patriots’ Running Game Paves Way to Victory
For the tenth time in franchise history, and the second time of the Belichick era, the Patriots ran for over 270 yards in game tallying 273 against the Bills on Sunday, the teams most since 2008. The Patriots dominated on the ground with a mixture of gap (man) and zone blocking schemes with contributions from every position group minus the quarterback.
“That’s a team effort,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “Certainly Josh [McDaniels] and the offensive coaches – Dante [Scarnecchia], Ivan [Fears] – I thought the receivers really blocked well today. Chad [O’Shea], Nick Caley – all of those guys do a great job and our offensive line, tight ends, fullbacks working together with the back and their reads.”
To get the scoring started, running back Sony Michel, who led the way with 116 rushing yards, plunged in from four yards out thanks to some great blocking up front.
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On the touchdown, the Patriots ran one of their go-to power plays with right guard Shaq Mason pulling into the gap to lead the way for Michel. The Pats got a great push from left guard Joe Thuney on the down block and Mason as the puller, and Michel finished it off with some physicality of his own to break the plane. Most importantly, and probably the area where Michel has improved the most this season, the rookie showed great patience through the hole hesitating for an extra beat to allow Mason to get out in front of him.
Speaking to Michel after the game, he told me that patience is something that he works on every day and is a crucial aspect of running the football. Michel’s feel for the pro game and his blocking has improved leaps and bounds since September.
2. Patriots Offense Goes Heavy Without Josh Gordon
In their first game without Josh Gordon, the Patriots offense morphed into an old-school unit as many expected. At one point in the second quarter, the Patriots called ten-straight running plays as they relied on fullback James Develin and tight end Dwayne Allen as featured players in the game plan, playing large portions of this game in two wide receiver formations. If you were expecting a significant uptick in snaps for Phillip Dorsett, you didn’t get that. Dorsett only played 27 snaps, mostly coming after an injury to Cordarrelle Patterson, and Tom Brady only targeted two wide receivers the entire game as Chris Hogan played 62 snaps without seeing a target (Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson). We’ll see moving forward if this is a complete overhaul or just a game-plan specific approach from the Patriots, but it looks like they could be turning back the clocks offensively for the stretch run.
3. Tom Brady Struggles Despite Victory
I’ve been reluctant to jump on the “Brady is injured” bandwagon, but it’s difficult to think there isn’t something physically wrong with the Patriots quarterback after Sunday’s performance. After the game, Brady told reporters that he feels 100 percent, but he looked skittish in the pocket and was pulling out of throws at an even higher rate than what we’ve seen in the Patriots’ first 14 games. On initial viewing, I had Brady with six negative plays (neither were his interceptions), and that number is likely to rise with film review. The main issue that we saw with Brady on Sunday and this is something that has existed all season, was an unwillingness to stand in the face of pressure and set his lower half to drive throws downfield. There were a handful of throws on Sunday where Brady didn’t set his feet in the pocket and was either coming up short or throwing inaccurately as a result. On the bright side, there were moments in the second half where Brady did look like himself.
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Here, Brady eluded multiple rushers in the pocket dancing around Bills defenders while keeping his eyes downfield to find Julian Edelman over the middle. In the past, we’ve seen Brady make plays like that on a regular basis; extending plays by staying alive in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield to find an open receiver.
Brady’s current status, whether he’s injured or dealing with the bumps and bruises of a long football season, makes getting that first-round bye essential so the 41-year-old can rest up for a playoff run.
4. Rob Gronkowski Used Sparingly in Win
Along with Brady, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had a down day at the office on Sunday. Gronk only played 81 percent of the snaps as backup Dwayne Allen was the lone tight end in the game at times against the Bills. Gronk had some good and bad when he was out there, the good being a nice block on a Cordarrelle Patterson jet sweep and the bad on one of Brady’s two interceptions.
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On the play, Brady threw quickly to Gronk on a “stick” route over the middle of the field, and Gronk let the ball go through his hands leading to an interception. On Brady’s 11 interceptions this season, only five of those were considered turnover worthy plays by the Pats quarterback. In other words, the other seven were the fault of the receiver as was the case here.
On the one hand, you’d like to see Gronk hit his stride before the playoffs, but if the idea is to get him healthy by limiting his workload than that isn’t a bad idea either.
5. Patriots OL Shines in Run Game, But Struggles in Pass Protection
The Patriots’ offensive line did a terrific job in the running game, but part of the reason why Brady was uncomfortable in the pocket was that the pass protection could’ve been better. The Patriots had a tough time picking up the few blitzes that Buffalo sent their way, and struggled to protect Brady off of play-action. With a run-heavy game plan, you’d expect to see a lot of play-action passes by New England, but they couldn’t block it well enough to give Brady a chance to find open receivers downfield.
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On the lone sack of the game for Buffalo, Bills pass rusher Jerry Hughes beat left tackle Trent Brown cleanly off the edge forcing Brady to protect the ball in the pocket. Brady avoided Hughes initially, but safety Jordan Poyer closed the deal, and as you can see, if Brady had more time he had Julian Edelman uncovering in the middle of the field for a completion.
The offensive line deserves all the credit it gets for what it did in the running game, but once again, the Buffalo pass rush gave them problems.
6. Patriots Defense Shuts Down Bills QB Josh Allen
Another positive from this game for the Patriots was the defenses’ ability to contain Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Allen entered the game averaging over 50 yards per game on the ground, but a coordinated pass rush by New England held the rookie to 30 yards on Sunday. The Patriots’ defensive front stayed disciplined in their rush lanes making it difficult for Allen to escape, and the linebackers contributed as well dropping into underneath zones with their eyes on the quarterback at all times. When Allen took off, there was always a second layer of the defense there waiting for him. After the game, linebacker Elandon Roberts told me that the Patriots linebackers were cognisant at all times of Allen’s whereabouts and ability to run the ball when they dropped into coverage. It was clear that the Patriots weren’t going to allow him to dominate the game with his legs.
The Patriots also intercepted Allen twice with two terrific plays on the ball by rookie cornerback JC Jackson and veteran Jason McCourty.
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On Jackson’s interception, the undrafted rookie said he read Allen’s eyes the whole way. Jackson drops into an underneath zone in cover-1 look but comes off his assignment to break on the corner route when he sees Allen loading up to throw the ball. Allen sails the pass a little bit, but this is a heady play by the rookie to jump the route.
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As for McCourty, he was in man coverage on his late-game interception and showed off some tremendous ball skills. McCourty read the receiver’s route beautifully and broke underneath it before locating the football in the air to snatch it while getting both feet in bounds.
The Bills rookie is limited as a passer, but the Patriots defense did its part to make sure he didn’t have a breakout performance on Sunday.
7. Special Teams Ace Matthew Slater Has Throwback Performance
After missing out on the Pro Bowl for the first time in seven seasons, Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater reminded us what makes him such a unique player on Sunday. Slater finished the game with a blocked punt, two special teams tackles, and two punts downed inside the Buffalo ten-yard line. In the postgame locker room, Slater credited teammate Nate Ebner and special teams coach Joe Judge with identifying a weakness in Buffalo’s punt protection in film study.
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On the downed punts Slater told me, “Ryan and I work on that a lot. We spend a lot of time doing that. I don’t want to get too far into what our landmark is but there is something we are looking for and he makes those plays really easy. He put the ball up there and allowed me to get down there in time. He and I work a lot on those types of plays and its fun to go out there and execute them.”
All that hard work on the practice field paid off for Slater and Allen on Sunday.
8. Patriots Run Defense Gets Back on Track
The Patriots defense set the tone early on in this one that they weren’t going to be pushed around in the running game like they were against Pittsburgh, and the run defense overall took a significant step forward on Sunday. The Patriots’ defensive front played with much better power at the point of the attack leveraging blocks with good pad level and hand placement. They also got a big boost from a big man; nose tackle Danny Shelton. Shelton was inactive for the last three games, and the Patriots run defense was nonexistent without their 350-pound defensive tackle. Although Shelton only registered two tackles, his impact was bigger than what the box score would suggest. Mostly lining up over the center, Shelton took on multiple blockers in the middle of the defense which allowed the players around him to stay clean and make tackles. At his locker postgame, Shelton told me that it felt like his NFL debut all over again as he finally got to see the field again, and he also said that he focused on playing his role as a space eater anchoring the Pats run defense. The Bills might not have the league’s best rushing attack, but the Patriots defense improved in that area in Sunday’s win.
9. Julian Edelman Breaks Out in Second Half
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman had an eventful day on Sunday, but ultimately was a primary reason why New England got the win. Edelman dropped a catchable throw from Brady on the Patriots’ opening drive, was called for a penalty for blocking after calling a fair catch on a punt, and stalled another drive with a holding penalty later on in the game. However, Edelman recovered in the second half hauling in Brady’s only touchdown pass on the afternoon in epic fashion.
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On the play, Edelman ran a slant over the middle. First, notice how he hesitates at the top of the route to set up the corner for an inside release. That slight hesitation allows Edelman to process the defensive backs positioning and technique and causes the defender to pause his movements allowing for Edelman to quickly gear down at the top of the route to create separation. Then, Edelman shows terrific awareness continuing into the end zone after it appears he was tackled, but his body never hits the ground, and Edelman puts the Patriots up by three scores.
The Pats slot receiver would add a 25-yard punt return later on, his longest of the season, and led the team with six catches for 70 yards.
10. Play of the Game: James White’s 27-Yard Touchdown Run
This week’s play of the game goes to Patriots running back James White with an assist from wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
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First, notice the impact that the jet motion by Patterson has on the defense. Three plays before, the Patriots ran a jet sweep to Patterson for 15 yards. This time, they fake the jet motion to Patterson before handing the ball off to White. That gets the linebackers and defensive linemen out of their gaps as they react to Patterson, and allowed the Patriots’ offensive line to get up on their blocks to open the hole for White. The left side of the offensive line down blocks to pin the defensive line to the right while Mason pulls once again to turn out the linebacker in the running lane. After that, it’s all White in the open field as he runs through an arm tackle and shows impressive speed to the edge before diving in for the touchdown.
One last interesting note: during his postgame press conference White said, “just kind of dive without reaching the ball out is something that I’m used to doing” as the Pats running back made sure not to reach the ball across the goal line. Somebody should show that quote to Steelers tight end Jesse James.
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