By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots used a huge second half in which they scored 45 points including 31 in the final quarter to come from behind and blast the Buffalo Bills 52-28.
The Patriots used a devastatingly effective running game with rookie Brandon Bolden (127 yards) and Stevan Ridley (106 yards) both running roughshod over the Bills much ballyhooed front seven.
Josh McDaniels did some great adjustments after halftime and turned the tables on the Bills running the ball at their smaller sub-packages and the results were easy to see as the Patriots rolled up 247 yards rushing. The Bills are known to like to stunt and twist their DL in an attempt to get to the QB. One way to combat that is to run right at it, especially between the tackles and the Patriots did that perfectly.
The added benefit to that is that once the running game gets going, the play action pass is that much more effective and Tom Brady reaped the benefits of it by passing for 340 yards and three touchdown passes. Buffalo which had re-tooled its entire defense to combat Brady and the Patriots was, on this day left in the same position it has been in for too many of the matchups since Brady became QB for New England. Buffalo finished the game red-faced and embarrassed, when the Patriots ran up nearly 600 yards of offense on the day.
It wasn’t smooth sailing by any means as turnovers and poor special teams play (two missed FGs) hurt the Patriots in the first half. A fumble by Rob Gronkowski was quickly turned into seven points when Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick hit TE Scott Chandler for a 24 yard TD. Another fumble by Wes Welker had the Bills knocking on the door just before half-time. But on a Fred Jackson run from the one yard line, Brandon Spikes hit Jackson with a jarring tackle that knocked the ball loose. Vince Wilfork recovered at the three and the Patriots went into the half down 14-7 instead of by double digits.
Fitzpatrick was torching the Patriots secondary right down the middle for most of the game. Safeties Pat Chung and Steve Gregory easily had their worst games of the season. Out of position, taking bad angles and being beaten easily, the Bills worked the middle of the field easily. And that was never more evident than the 68 yard slant for a touchdown caught by Donald Jones in the third quarter.
The Bills were isolating their receivers and running backs on the safeties and linebackers and Fitzpatrick was having his way early in this one. But the defense was able to generate a much better pass rush on Sunday and although Fitzpatrick was able to throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns, he also threw four interceptions.
One bright spot for the secondary was the play of Devin McCourty, the lightning rod for criticism (right or wrong) had a solid game on Sunday, providing good tight coverage and coming up with two interceptions. His second was a beauty, he had blanket coverage on Stevie Johnson and as the ball came in, he undercut the route and leapt making a fantastic pick. He returned the ball deep inside Buffalo territory, which the Patriots quickly turned into seven points.
The defense forced six turnovers on Sunday, cashing in on many opportunities to make a difference. Spikes, in particular was the catalyst on two of such plays, jarring the ball loose. The run defense was stellar; Buffalo who came into the game averaging 178 yards per game running the ball could only manage 64 on Sunday. The game plan was to stop the run, make the Bills one-dimensional and force Fitzpatrick to beat them. Mission accomplished, although their plan on the middle of the pass defense was far from it.
After the Jones touchdown, and down 21-7, the game hung in the balance, but the Patriots didn’t panic. Instead, McDaniels gave Buffalo a great mix of runs where they chewed up huge chunks of yardage, running on the Bills smaller sub-packages and the Patriots quickly scored to make it 21-14. Another drive resulted in Brady running the ball in for a touchdown tying the score at 21-21. The game had turned, the defense was adjusting and now stopping Buffalo quickly and the crowd, thunderous just moments before was now silent.
Using a beautiful play-action pass, Brady froze the Bills linebackers and TE Rob Gronkowski ran down the middle of the field all alone for an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for good 28-21 in the first play of the fourth quarter and the handwriting was on the wall. The fourth quarter was a nightmare for the Bills who saw their re-tooled defense shredded mercilessly to the tune of 31 points.
In the second half, the Patriots scored six straight touchdowns and then a field goal on seven possessions. And a lion’s share of the credit has to go to the Patriots offensive line. Missing G Logan Mankins, many thought the unit would be overmatched against the Bills front seven.
Quite the opposite, the Patriots OL dominated the line of scrimmage and for the first time in over 30 years, the team had two 100 yard rushers. With 340 yards passing, the team also had two 100 receivers as both Gronkowski and Welker shook off fumbles and dropped passes to put in solid efforts. How many times was Mario Williams name mentioned yesterday? If you said zero, then you’d be correct. Sebastian Vollmer had a fantastic game making Williams invisible all day.
“I think they were really challenging us to run the ball. They had some little guys on the field with our big personnel groupings, so at that point you have to try to take advantage of it,” Brady said after the game. “You can’t just keep throwing into a heavy pass defense, so we ran it.”
Spikes is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the running game. His two hit causing fumbles are the type of plays the defense needs. Vince Wilfork had a great afternoon, a tipped pass that turned into an interception, a recovered fumble and a thunderous hit on a screen pass that could be heard in the next county. At the time it reminded one of the Bryan Cox hit back in 2001.
The bottom line is with the game in the balance the Patriots responded in a big way, had they packed it in down 14 in the 3rd quarter, the division would be firmly in Buffalo’s hands and they’d be down two games in the standings. Now tied with Buffalo and the sagging Jets at 2-2, everyone else in the division was put on notice. This isn’t the 2011 version of the New England offense; it is re-tooled, and much more diverse, with ever sharper teeth.