Patriots Win 11th Straight Division Title
The Patriots all week leading up to this game stated that this was a playoff game, and judging from their preparation, intensity, and production, they totally bought in. They won their 12th game of the season, a hard-fought 24-17 win over the Buffalo Bills which clinched the AFC East for the 11th year in a row and puts them one step away from a playoff bye and the #2 seed.
We’ll get to the grades for the players in just a moment, but first a word about the coaching staff. In any profession, perhaps the hardest thing to do is assess oneself critically and be able to say that something isn’t working, even if that something was your idea. The ability to self-assess, or in Patriots parlance “self-scout” is something they are head and shoulders above everyone else in the league since Bill Belichick took the reins.
Everyone says they’re going to “self-scout” and they all will change up their gameplans, and occasionally many teams come up with a brilliant one. But nobody, nobody can morph their teams from one week to the next, depending upon their opponent and put in the time, preparation and commitment than the Patriots have done the past 20 years.
And the players have to buy in completely or it doesn’t work. How many times have we heard the past 20 years, “well Team A is more talented across the board” and how many times has Team A looked up at the wrong end of the scoreboard at the end of the day. So at the end of the day, when the votes are in for the Coach du jour, Belichick will get no votes but his team will probably win 13 games, while the naysayers will tell us they can’t win it all again.
So, check out our grades and we’ll take one more look at the game film before putting a bow on this week.
Tom Brady was showing signs of age, decline and his elbow has been bothering him for several weeks. Plus he was facing a team that has increasingly played him tougher and tougher for the past few years and was in the top 3 of most defensive categories. So, how did that work out? Brady had his best game in several weeks, perhaps all season.
Brady completed 26-33 for 271 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Completing nearly 79 percent of his passes while averaging 8.2 yards per pass attempt against this Bills defense is outstanding work.
Brady got everyone involved and mixing things up and hitting nine different receivers kept the Bills defense off-balance all night long. His back-shoulder throw to Matt LaCosse for a touchdown showed perfect touch. This was a vintage Brady performance.
Running Backs: B+
The Patriots running game followed up their most productive game of the season in Cincinnati with a game that was arguably more impressive considering the opponent. The team rushed for 143 yards against a tough Bills defense and were running physical, getting yards after contact and following the blocking well.
Sony Michel had his best game of the season rushing 21 times for 96 yards. Rex Burkhead, once again turning it on late in the season, rushed 5 times for 20 yards, including the game-winning touchdown run where he was hit in the backfield and broke two tackles to get into the end zone.
N’Keal Harry had 18 yards on a reverse, with a lead block by Brady (yes everyone bought in). James White chipped in with 13 yards. Brady picked up a key QB sneak to keep the chains moving. The running backs (Michel, Burkhead, and White) combined for 235 yards rushing and receiving. Solid night? You bet.
Wide Receivers: B-
The Patriots wide receivers led by #11 (Who else?) had a solid night. Julian Edelman was questionable with knee and shoulder issues. Then he missed a few series that nearly took a quarter going through concussion protocol. But he still led all WRs with 5 catches for 72 yards. And maybe the Bills thought that as hobbled as he was, they didn’t need to double him. That assessment was wrong. He was beating coverage consistently and late in the game…was doubled. In a league where all the players are physically tough, Edelman is one of the toughest.
Burkhead led all Patriot receivers with 77 yards on 4 catches, yes he had a fumble on a good defensive play but more than made up for it. He showed excellent vision and followed his blocks well. Jakobi Meyers came off the bench when Edelman was down and collected 3 passes for 25 yards.
Harry caught two passes for 25 while Mohamad Sanu caught 3 passes for 24. Sanu was again a disappointment. While he may have gotten a poor spot on a third-down pass short of the sticks, he totally whiffed on a block on a 4th and 1 with Harry getting stopped by his man on a play that could have went for a big gain.
Tight Ends: B-
Matt LaCosse scored his first touchdown of the season on an 8-yard pass from Brady down the seam. He also had his best game in the run blocking department, the offense put him in motion and he did a good job, even lining up in the backfield. His pass protection was much, much better this week.
Ben Watson had three catches on three targets with two going for first downs. He also had a 33-yard touchdown wiped out on an offensive pass interference call on Edelman. This was a much better day for the tight ends than we’ve seen in a while.
Offensive Line: A-
The offensive line play was outstanding on Saturday. Buffalo didn’t sack Tom Brady and for the vast majority of the game he played with a clean pocket. They also cleared out big chunks of yardage in the running game. It is amazing what the backs can do when they are not getting hit four yards deep in the backfield.
Shaq Mason had a very impressive game in the run department, looking like the guy we’re used to seeing blowing people up in the running game. Ted Karras and Joe Thuney were also excellent in the running game.
Marcus Cannon hurt an ankle and was replaced by swing tackle Marshall Newhouse who played well, he did a good job in the running game but gave up a pair of QB hurries and a hit. But this unit going against the Bills performed as well as one could hope for.
Defensive Line: B+
The defensive line did a tremendous job of bottling up Devin Singletary holding him to just 46 yards on 15 carries (3.1-yard average). And that begins with Lawrence Guy who was outstanding once again. Guy led the team with six tackles, a sack of Josh Allen and two QB hits. Danny Shelton was also solid in the running game.
John Simon had a QB sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Chase Winovich who is looking like Lucius Malfoy these days with his dyed hair more white than blond, was his normal flying around the field self.
The linebackers were led by Dont’a Hightower with 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup while Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy weren’t as impactful as they can be and normally are. Ja’Whaun Bentley played his very tough, downhill style in the running game.
Elandon Roberts played about 20 snaps as a fullback and seems to be relishing his role. “Same on defense, same on offense. When a linebacker steps into the hole, Imma run through their motherf***n’ face. Period. That’s all I think about, making my block, running through a motherf***r’s face.” How can one argue with that?
The Patriots secondary had a good, but not great day against the Bills. While Josh Allen only completed 50 percent of his throws (13 of 26), hit on two long completions, one for a 53-yard touchdown and the other (33 yards to Dawson Knox) set up a 1-yard touchdown pass on a tackle eligible play.
Stephon Gilmore got beat on a double move by John Brown and moved to the right. Brown cut left and safety Devin McCourty got caught peeking in the backfield at the pass rush and Brown then blew right by him too. However, it was his only catch of the game. Knox only caught the one big pass over Pat Chung, but was open on a couple of others but was overthrown.
Cole Beasley caught 7 passes for 108 yards out of the slot and was finding excellent success all game long. The Patriots missed Jonathan Jones who was out with a groin injury.
Special Teams: B
The Special Teams were led by Nick Folk on Saturday. Folk hit a 51-yarder to give the team the lead and was 3-3 on field goals for the day. You don’t have to hold your breath on kicks for the first time in a while this season. The return game was forgettable and the coverage units were okay but not their usual shutdown selves. Jake Bailey punted twice averaging 46.5 yards but didn’t drop either inside the 20.
The Patriots coaching staff gets excellent marks this week. And it begins with Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was extremely creative of trying to get everyone involved in the offense this week and used so many different looks and formations, there were times he had the Buffalo defense thoroughly confused. That doesn’t happen very often. With his play-calling, they were able to put together those long drives in the death-by-1000 cuts mold.
Defensively, they had Allen very confused early in the game but give the 2nd year QB credit, he made a few outstanding throws and hung in there. But with the Bills driving late in the game, they brought pressure and got a sack and forced a throw off his back foot to get an incompletion in the end zone to salt the game away.