Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was sandwiched by Buffalo defenders on this second-half sack. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
FOXBORO — In a contest that had a distinct preseason feel, the Bills ended up taking a 17-9 win over the Patriots in the regular-season finale for both teams Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
The Bills end their season 9-7 — the best record for the franchise since 2004 — while the Patriots head into the playoffs with a 12-4 mark and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. It was the first win at Gillette Stadium in franchise history for Buffalo.
The Patriots sat a large number of starters in this one — right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Julian Edelman, guard Dan Connolly, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Brandon Browner were all inactive for the contest. And many of the starters who did play were done by halftime. As a result, backups like wide receiver Brian Tyms, linebacker Jonathan Casillas, wide receiver Danny Amendola, tight end Steve Maneri and cornerback Malcolm Butler got plenty of time out of the gate in this one.
In terms of actual game action, the Bills were able to connect for touchdowns on two of their first three drives of the game, taking a 17-6 halftime lead on the strength of a touchdown pass to Robert Woods, a 1-yard run from Boobie Dixon and a 48-yard field goal from Dan Carpenter. Orton finished 16-for-23 for 176 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, the Patriots got three field goals from Stephen Gostkowski (35, 44 and 24 yards). Quarterback Tom Brady — who was yanked after two quarters — finished up 5-for-9 for 64 yards. Jimmy Garoppolo played the second half, and ended 10-for-17 for 90 yards. Brandon LaFell had four catches for 70 yards.
Here’s what we learned about the Patriots:
Jamie Collins is amazing.
Not really breaking any news here, but in the context of this game, it’s worth noting that the young linebacker provided one of the defensive highlights of the season. With just over eight minutes left in the first half, he busted up the middle on a second-and-8 situation. He was briefly slowed by running back C.J. Spiller, but Collins was able to elude that block. Delivering a really impressive second effort, he circled back around and punched the ball loose while tackling Orton, forcing the fumble. One of the most impressive defensive plays of the year, and another sign that in his second season in New England, Collins has emerged as a true defensive playmaker.
It appears that Vince Wilfork hit his incentives.
We’ll have to wait for official confirmation on this one when it comes to snap counts, but given the fact that he played most of the first two-plus quarters, it appears that the veteran was able to hit the 70 percent playtime mark for the season. That guarantees he’ll net a sizable incentive package, based on his 2014 contract. It’s been an impressive season for Wilfork, who has come back nicely from the Achilles’ injury that brought his 2013 season to a premature end.
They have some offensive flexibility.
The Patriots ran what is believed to be their first wildcat snap of the season in the third quarter, utilizing running back Brandon Bolden as the signal-caller, who ended up going for five yards. Late on the same third-quarter drive, New England went with a read-option style play fake, as Garoppolo faked the handoff and kept it, running for a four-yard gain. The plays were likely nothing more than showing something different on film, but they were still interesting to see from the Patriots offense.
Jimmy Garoppolo is pretty nimble.
The backup quarterback, who displayed some nice quickness over the course of the preseason, flashed some speed in the fourth quarter on Sunday against the Bills. The Buffalo pass rush did a nice job getting after him, but he also spun out of near-sacks on back-to-back plays in the fourth, picking up a nine-yard gain on one play and eliciting a big cheer from the Gillette Stadium crowd. He ended up as one of New England’s leading rushers on the afternoon, and did as well as could be expect scrambling for his life behind the Patriots’ backup offensive line in the fourth quarter.
Brian Tyms has some versatility in his game.
Heading into this week, the young receiver has flashed exceptional speed with a series of go routes. Sometimes, they paid off (he hauled in a touchdown catch in an October win over Buffalo on a play that showcased his terrific quickness) and sometimes, it didn’t. But on Sunday against the Bills, he saw lots of action early, and was asked to run a variety of routes. He finished the first half with a team-high four targets, and ended up with three catches for 31 yards in the win. A nice afternoon for the young receiver, and something to build on going forward.
They did not get out of this one completely healthy.
Left tackle Nate Solder suffered what the team referred to as a knee injury in the late stages of the first half, and was seen seriously limping just before halftime. In the third quarter, the Patriots announced that his return was questionable, but he did not return to the game over the course of the second half. Marcus Cannon got the bulk of the snaps in his place, and the TCU product could be in line for more work if it turns out to be a significant injury for Solder. In addition, defensive lineman Sealver Siliga was slow to get up following a fourth-quarter scrum.
The second season will start for the Patriots in two weeks.
New England will host a divisional playoff game in two weeks. The energy level at Gillette Stadium should be significantly different for that one than it was Sunday afternoon.