FOXBOROUGH – This was turning into a letdown game. Instead of two comfy home victories and the top playoff seed, the Buffalo Bills were exposing the Patriots as still emotionally spent from that garrison finish last week at Pittsburgh.
Early second quarter, third down and seven at the Patriot 15. Tom Brady tries to hit Kenny Britt in the right seam. Jordan Poyer jumps the route, picks it off and runs it to the house for a pick-six. Bills 10, Patriots 3. Gillette Stadium is shocked. What must have Steeler fans been thinking?
Instead of the Patriots heading to an unlikely and shocking home upset loss, it became the turning point of the game. Following that pick-six, the Patriots scored on their next six possessions. The Bills were 8 for 11 on third down conversions, 0 for the second half. Brady settled in, mixed in the rush with the pass just perfectly, let a few replay calls go their way, and the Patriots cruised to a 37-16 win on Christmas Eve.
With Jacksonville losing at San Francisco later Sunday afternoon, the Patriots clinch at least a first round bye. A Pittsburgh loss to Houston on Monday night or a win next week at home against the Jets locks up the top playoff seed for the Patriots.
The Bills were very grinchly on Sunday. The game was very competitive until the fourth quarter, and it was 13-13 at the half. Buffalo won the opening toss, deferred to the second half, and did pull off the “double score” that the Patriots like to do. But both scores were only field goals, one thanks to a screen pass that lost eight yards, and the other thanks to both a dropped touchdown pass and a curious replay decision that also cost the Bills a touchdown.
Tyrod Taylor did a good job in leading the Bills’ offense until the Patriots simply overpowered him in the second half. Deonte Thompson caught three passes, two of them for 33 and 46 yards. Kelvin Benjamin and LeSean McCoy each had five catches for 70 or more yards. McCoy chipped in with 71 rushing yards on 17 carries. The Patriot defense looked soft, and cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler were beaten for long gains on a few occasions.
But things changed in the second half. Taylor wound up being sacked six times in the game. Twice Buffalo went for it on fourth down and the Patriots stopped them both times. While the offense started to click, the down linemen of the Patriots more or less took over the game and shut down Buffalo with stops and sacks.
Brady will look at the Poyer pick as the turning point, but nationally the turning point of the game will likely be a replay overturn which was condemned by several experts and really took the air out of the sails of the Bills.
Facing second down and goal at the Patriot four, Taylor tried to hit Charles Clay in the end zone. Clay had a touchdown but simply dropped the ball. On the next play, Taylor threw a pretty lob pass to the right corner of the end zone. Benjamin leaped up over former Bill Gilmore to make a nice catch. It took him a step or two to secure the catch, and when he did, his right foot was down. His left foot looked like it either brushed the grass surface or missed it entirely. The two men fell out of bounds, and the official signaled touchdown.
Replay took a while, like the Jesse James play last week. Both Jim Nantz and Tony Romo said that the play should stand. It looked at this typewriter that Benjamin did not brush the ground with his left foot, but not clearly enough to overturn the call. After review, no catch. With two seconds left, the Bills had to settle for a chip shot field goal and a 13-13 tie at halftime.
The call was panned nationally. CBS’ halftime show panel was unanimous in its denouncement of the call. Both Dean Blandino, former supervisor of officiating and Mike Perreira, the previous one, stated on Twitter that the reversal was the wrong call. Perreira questioned the standards being used as to whether or not a call stands. Referee Craig Wrolstead said to a pool reporter said that Benjamin did not have full control until only his right foot was down, and that his left foot was never in bounds before he did.
The Patriots got another replay call which proved critical, but was far less controversial. Midway through the third quarter, the Patriots faced fourth and one at the Buffalo 26. Dion Lewis took the handoff and was stuffed. The officials all signaled first down for Buffalo. But replay showed that Lewis held out the ball across the 25-yard line, the line to gain for the first down. Both Nantz and Romo called for Bill Belichick to challenge the call. Belichick did, and the call was reversed. The Patriots went on to tie the game at 16 after that replay challenge.
The Patriots had two offensive cogs on the day. Rob Gronkowski again bedeviled the team he grew up rooting for with five catches for 67 yards, and a one-handed touchdown catch in the second quarter. Lewis had a career high 129 yards rushing on 24 carries, to go with five catches for 24 yards. Lewis had two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. Brady had 21 of 28 passing for 224 yards, two touchdowns and a 106.8 passer rating despite the interception.
Mike Gillislee saw his first action in six weeks, and gutted his former team with 28 yards rushing on six carries. He got stuffed once again on a short yardage play, but also caught one pass for 15 yards. Gillislee saw action largely because both Rex Burkhead and James White were injury scratches for the game.
The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to win 12 games in a season 8 years in a row, breaking the tie they shared with the Colts from 2003-09. Buffalo must now get help in making the playoffs, which they have not done so since 1999, the Bills being the only NFL team to not make the playoffs at all in this century. Their last playoff game was the “Music City Miracle”, the crushing loss at Tennessee on a miracle kickoff return by Kevin Dyson.
The Patriots can now bunker down at their homes for Christmas, rest easy with their families and enjoy chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and look forward to hopefully clinching the top playoff seed next Sunday on New Year’s Eve with a home date against the woebegone Jets. There will be no lumps of coal in the stockings of the Patriots this year.
The Patriots got some nice early Christmas presents in the last two weeks. They can make their new year extra nice if they can finish off the regular season with a win they will be expected to pull off.
For now, it’s time for the Reason, and then they’re on to the Jets.
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