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A Christmas Present For Division Champions

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
December 21, 2019 at 10:38 pm ET

A Christmas Present For Division Champions(PHOTO: Winslow Townson - USA TODAY Sports)

🕑 Read Time: 5 minutes

FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots fans were all nestled, all snug in their beds, while Super Bowl visions danced in their heads.

If Clement C. Moore will forgive me, this is most likely how Patriot Nation feels four days before the Reason For The Season. Lots of fans at Gillette Stadium wore clothing that resembled a large, old man who looks chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. The Patriots, champions of the AFC East for the eleventh straight year (an NFL record), sent the fans home with lots of holiday spirit thanks to a 24-17 victory over the much improved/playoff bound/still doesn’t have enough to win Buffalo Bills on Saturday afternoon. It seemed like Bill Belichick came out in the beginning and to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

The Patriot win now sets up a likelihood that the team will clinch the two seed and a first-round playoff bye next Sunday at home against the Miami Dolphins. A bad weather day will put the Dolphins into a “get on the bus” mindset early, but things look awfully good for the defending champions right now despite some uneven play during the season and some stinging losses to fellow division champs throughout the conference. The Kansas City Chiefs, who were huge Buffalo fans today, have to be thinking about a return trip to Foxborough in the Divisional round next month.

All fanciful comments aside, the Patriots’ win over Buffalo today was far more dominating and convincing than the final score might suggest. Six plays, which could be categorized as “stupid” or “foolish” on the part of the Patriots, prevented this game from being a rout. The Patriots totally outplayed the Bills in the first half, but unbelievably went into the locker room at halftime tied at 10. Take away these six plays and this game would have looked more like Super Bowl LIII, or perhaps even better.

The six plays were, in chronological order:

Fourth play of the game. Screen pass to Rex Burkhead for 18 yards. Jordan Poyer catches him from behind and knocks the ball loose. Micah Hyde picks up the fumble and returns it 31 yards to the Patriot 31. Thanks to the short field, Buffalo takes a 3-0 lead on a 35-yards field goal by Needham’s Stephen Hauschka.

Late second quarter, fourth and one at the Buffalo 41. Tom Brady drops back to pass and suddenly hands off to N’Keal Harry on a jet sweep left. Good decision to go for it, good play call. But Harry was upended by Kevin Johnson just as he turned the corner for no gain.

Ensuing drive. Bills are at the Patriot 34, second down and one. Josh Allen drops back and floats this balloon deep left to tight end Dawson Knox. Knox beats Patrick Chung by a step and hauls in the pass at the one (it was originally ruled a touchdown but Knox was down at the one on a replay check). Two plays later, the Bills hit tackle Dion Dawkins on a tackle eligible play to tie the game at 10-10 at the half.

First offensive possession of the second half. Patriots are at the Buffalo 33, second and eight. Brady drops back and hits old chum Ben Watson with a perfect screen toss in the left flat for a touchdown. But Julian Edelman was called for offensive pass interference, as he collided with Poyer during the play. It could be argued that the collision was accidental and not an intended block. Pats settle for a 51-yard field goal by Nick Folk.

Ensuing drive. Bills are second and 13 from their 47. Allen is under siege by two rushers, and heaves a deep throw off his back foot. John Brown made a move to the outside on Stephon Gilmore, he bit on the fake, then turned inside and slanted towards the end zone. Devin McCourty was out there in centerfield and Brown blew right by him, then caught the long floating pass and had a 53-yard touchdown.

Ensuing drive. Patriots have third down and 17 at their own 38. Brady hits James White in the right flat with a nice screen pass for 18 yards and a first down. But again, the play was called back on offensive pass interference as Watson collided with Tremaine Edmunds at the point of attack. The Patriots punted two plays later.

Take away these six plays, and the Patriots completely dominated the Bills all game long. It was a victory which will make Patriot Nation feel much better about their team. During the week, Burkhead will get spoken to about ball security, the receivers will get talked to about illegal picks, Chung will be shown the Knox touchdown, and Gilmore will see the Brown play on film and draw his own conclusions. The Harry stop was mostly a lucky play by Johnson. Good decision to go for it on fourth down, good play call, the play should have worked. Johnson got fortunate that he was in the right place at the right time and happened to hit Harry the exact right way. Nine times out of ten Harry gets that first down.

The fourth quarter showed why the Patriots are still champs and should do well in the playoffs. On their second possession (after a 20-yard field goal by Folk cut the Buffalo lead to 17-16), the Patriots got the ball at the 41 and drove 59 yards for the lead score. Edelman started it with a beautiful seam route against a zone defense and went for 30 yards. The next six plays were all runs, with Burkhead finishing the drive with a one-yard right end run. Brady then hit Edelman on a crossing route for a two-point conversion and a seven-point lead with just over five minutes to go in the game.

The Bills got the ball back, and all New England had to do was to defend the end zone. Former Dallas Cowboy Cole Beasley riddled J.C. Jackson with four catches for 57 yards on the drive. But once Buffalo got into the red area, the Patriot defense shut the door on any chance Buffalo had to upset the champs. Allen scrambled for a one-yard loss on first down. Allen then overthrew Knox in the end zone on second down with a hurried throw. Allen was sacked for a six-yard loss by Adam Butler on third down. Finally, on fourth down, Allen rolled right and tried to hit Beasley in the end zone. Jackson came out of nowhere and swatted the ball away from Beasley to seal the win.

Brady finished with 26 of 33 passing for 271 yards, one touchdown and a 111 passer rating. Sony Michel was the offensive star of the game for the Patriots, gaining 96 yards on 21 carries and a 4.6 per carry average. Edelman had five catches to lead the team, but Burkhead had 77 receiving yards despite the lost fumble in the first quarter.

Allen did much better than in the first meeting between these teams. He finished 13 of 26 passing for 208 yards, two touchdowns and a 102.7 rating. Beasley had 108 yards on seven catches, while Brown’s touchdown was his only catch of the night against Gilmore.

The Patriots finish the regular season at home against Miami, which should be a layup unless Brian Flores can somehow transfer his enmity towards his former team into the mother of all December upsets. A Patriot win clinches the two seed and a first-round bye. Baltimore would have to lose out for the Patriots to get the one seed back. The Patriots are probably looking at a rematch with Kansas City in the Divisional round if things break as expected.

We’ll get to that later. Meanwhile, Belichick will gather up his team and his sleigh, and as the story ends, I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night! And we’re on to Miami.”

And everyone’s holidays in the northeast USA just got a little merrier.

New England Patriots News 12-22, AFC East Notes

About Bob George

Covering Boston Sports since 1997. Native of Worcester, Mass. Attended UMass and Univ of Michigan. Lives in California. Just recently retired after 40 years of public school teaching. Podcasts on YouTube at @thepic4139

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