Over the first two games of the 2011 season, so many of the yards the Patriots defense had allowed to both San Diego and Miami could be explained away in the context of the game -- that is to say New England held second-half leads and was willing to allow some garbage-time totals that meant nothing anywhere, other than the stat sheet.
And initially on Sunday, it certainly looked like the Patriots defense was building toward a similar scenario -- New England kept running back Fred Jackson relatively bottled up through the first two quarters on the way to a 21-0 first-half lead. As was the case over the first two weeks, the New England offense built a sizable cushion, one that figured to be good enough to withstand the same sort of second-half assault on the stat sheet from Ryan Fitzpatrick and the rest of the Bills. For the most part, it was good, complementary, consistent football in all three phases of the game.
But things went south down the stretch. The Buffalo quarterback, who went 27-for-40 for 369 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions, kept finding open receivers, and Jackson (who ended up with 161 yards from scrimmage and a touchown) kept moving the chains. Meanwhile, New England kept committing foolish penalties (especially one from safety Sergio Brown) and showing poor form when it came to tackling. The Patriots offense didn’t help (one second-half touchdown), but in truth this was on the defense: The Bills scored on five of their final eight drives (three touchdowns and two field goals), and on their last two scoring drives, Buffalo didn’t even hit third down until Rian Lindell’s 28-yard game-winner at the buzzer made it 34-31 (click here for the complete recap).
With Tom Brady at an all-world level over the last year-plus, there were very few occasions when the defense was asked to bail out the offense. But on Sunday, when the Patriots needed the defense to help them out -- Hey, maybe a key stop or two here or there -- the D failed to close out the game. And so, the Patriots’ 15-game winning streak against the Bills, one that dated back to Sept. 7, 2003, is now a memory. (Officially, it was a stretch of 2,941 days between Buffalo wins over New England.)
“It’s a football game. Stuff like that happens. We have to be able to weather the storm,” linebacker Jerod Mayo told reporters after the game. “As a defensive unit, we have to get the ball back to our offense. We weren’t able to do that. We knew they were never out of the game. ... We knew they could come back. They had that ability with that explosive offense. We just didn’t execute.”
“They made more plays when they had to have it, so, we’ve got a lot of work to do, obviously,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington, who came away with two interceptions in the loss. “Sixty minutes … that’s why you play the entire game. We’ve just got to do a better job of closing out, playing a full 60 minutes; a better job of playing off each other -- offense, defense, special teams. A better complementary game.”
There is some comfort in the fact that the Jets and Dolphins also lost on Sunday, but when the film comes on Monday at Gillette, there will be very little to feel good about regarding the second-half defense for the Patriots.
“They have a good football team, and I still think we have a good football team,” Mayo said. “We just didn’t play well today.”
“It’s a long football season and we’re not going anywhere,” Brady said. “We’ll be back and we’ll be fighting next week. Hopefully we’ll learn from it, move on, make a few less mistakes next week, and try to go win a game in Oakland."
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday.
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE ISN’T NECESSARILY GOING TO KEEP ITS FOOT ON THE GAS ALL SEASON
The New England offense certainly left some points on the field -- particularly at the start of the second and fourth quarters -- but the bottom line remains that if you score 31 points, that should be more than enough to warrant a victory. (Despite the four picks, Brady was 30-for-45 for 387 yards and four touchdowns.) However, don’t tell Brady the offense did its job.
“It’s never easy; [Buffalo] came back last week,” Brady said. “We were expecting a four-quarter game and we had our opportunities. We didn’t really take advantage of them like I wish we would have. We had too many turnovers, too many penalties, and allowed [Buffalo] to get some easy plays there. They took advantage when they needed to.”
There were plenty of positives on the offensive side of the ball (Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski chief among them, and we’ll get to them shortly), but two points of interest before that:
One area where this game differed from the first two was New England’s use of the no-huddle offense. Through the first two games of the season, the Patriots used no-huddle for 30 percent of their snaps. On Sunday against the Bills, New England was in the no-huddle for 12 of its 71 plays from scrimmage, good for 17 percent. The Patriots used no-huddle the most frequently on their second drive of the third quarter, when they went with it on six of their 10 plays on a drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to make it 24-17 with 4:53 left in the third. Brady has always been mindful of walking that line between the no-huddle and playing “out of control” (his words), and perhaps he thought the Patriots were straying a little too close to the latter instead of the former.
Another thing that stood out was the running back rotation. The Patriots averaged 4.2 yards per carry, with Stevan Ridley (Stevan Ridley?) leading the way with seven carries for 44 yards. For whatever reason, the Patriots didn’t really use BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- who usually runs very well against the Bills (in three games, he’s averaged more than 100 yards per contest against Buffalo), deciding to go with a rotation at running back that included Ridley, Woodhead (six carries for 21 yards) and Julian Edelman (two carries for three yards). Green-Ellis ended up with nine carries for 16 yards.
CHAD OCHOCINCO ISN’T FEELING SO GOOD RIGHT NOW
There were two not-so-memorable moments for Chad Ochocinco on the afternoon. The first came on New England’s first drive of the second half when Brady dropped back to pass with the Patriots sitting on a first-and-10 at their own 43. The quarterback zipped it over the middle toward Ochocinco, but Buffalo defensive back Leodis McKelvin simply cut in front of him at the Buffalo 40, snatching the ball away and motoring down to the New England 39-yard line.
The second was far uglier. In the fourth quarter, with the Patriots sitting on a third-and-4 at the Buffalo 41-yard line, Brady went deep down the sideline for Ochocinco, who was in single coverage with McKelvin ... and Ochocinco simply dropped the football. The Patriots ended up converting the ensuing fourth-down attempt (and picking up a fourth-down attempt later on in the drive), but with 8:18 left in the game, he didn’t see another ball come his way the rest of the afternoon.
“It just got away from me.” Ochocinco told reporters after the game. “Is it killing me? No. It was good. Mentally, it was really good. I knew all my [stuff]. Now, that felt good. That’s step one. It’s just got to come quicker."
It was believed that Ochocinco -- who ended up with two catches for 28 yards, and now has five catches for 87 yards through three games -- would have a real chance for more offensive opportunities this week with tight end Aaron Hernandez on the shelf because of a knee injury. And while he was on the field for large chunks of time throughout the first half and he targeted almost as much as he was often on Sunday (four times) than through the first two weeks combined (five), it’s clear there is still a lack of confidence when it comes to utilizing the receiver.
Brady was asked about his throws to Ochocinco.
“I’ve got to wait and see the tape, but [McKelvin] made a good play,” he said. “With receivers, some days you catch them, some days you drop them. With quarterbacks, some days it’s a touchdown and some days it’s an interception, it’s just a part of playing football. It’s a long football season and we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back and we’ll be fighting next week. Hopefully we’ll learn from it, move on, make a few less mistakes next week and try to go win a game in Oakland.”
WES WELKER IS BEASTLY
We did a piece last week detailing the trust levels that Brady has in each receiver, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the quarterback have more confidence in a receiver right now than he has in Wes Welker. On Sunday, Brady targeted Welker an astonishing 20 times, and the receiver came away with 16 receptions. (Through three games, Brady has targeted Welker 43 times, and the receiver has 31 receptions for a 72 percent target rate.)
“Wes is always a big factor in the game,” Brady said. “I know he had a bunch of catches. He’s a great player for us.”
That level of trust was on display when the Patriots were driving in the fourth quarter. In a 15-play sequence when New England went 71 yards to tie the game at 31, Brady leaned on Welker in every major moment. The quarterback sent six passes in Welker’s direction and the two connected on four of them. That included one successful third-down conversion and two fourth-down conversions, including a fourth-and-goal from the 6 when Welker reached the end zone with 3:33 left to tie the game.
Against the Bills, his 16 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns were both single-game records for the franchise. Welker has caught 10 or more passes in 12 games, which is also a team record. However, the wide receiver, who is now on pace to catch 165 passes this season, wasn’t in much of a mood to talk about those records after the game.
“Pretty much it detracts everything,” Welker said. “I mean, we lost the game. You know, what should be a great fun day of breaking records and doing all those things, it's totally the opposite. I think it shows that we've got a long way to go and we got to step up across the board and make plays, and understand that we just can't play like this.”
DEVIN McCOURTY HAD EIGHT TACKLES, BUT QUESTIONS REMAIN
Over much of the first two games, McCourty was matched up in single coverage against two of the NFL’s elite receivers, Miami’s Brandon Marshall and San Diego’s Vincent Jackson. As a result, he was thrown at an awful lot but still managed to make his share of plays, while allowing the rest of the pass defense to focus its efforts on other options like Davone Bess and Antonio Gates.
However, there’s no such excuse for Sunday’s performance against the Bills. McCourty looked tentative and unsure of himself for large portions of the game. He was beaten by Steve Johnson for an 11-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and he also was the victim of Fitzpatrick-to-Donald Jones 29-yard pass play on the final drive of the game. McCourty finished with a team-high eight tackles on the afternoon.
“We go into each game as a unit. We've got to take the field despite what the offense does,” McCourty told reporters after the game. “I wouldn’t say that we look at it as bailing each other out, but when we get on the field it’s our chance to make plays and get off the field, and today we didn’t get that done.”
The truth is that it wasn’t a very good afternoon for any of New England’s defensive backs, save Kyle Arrington. It’s worth going back and taking a look at the game again, but at least statistically, the cornerback out of Hofstra was the defensive star for the Patriots, posting a pair of first-quarter interceptions (he nearly had a third pick on the final Buffalo drive of the first half). The first was a result of a tipped pass intended for Jones (with McCourty covering Jones), and the second on a bad fourth-and-14 throw by Fitzpatrick into multiple coverage.
PAT CHUNG IS EVEN MORE VALUABLE THAN WE THOUGHT
Frankly, it wasn’t just McCourty who looked like he was struggling out there on Sunday against the Bills. The Patriots were clearly at less than their best in the backfield without Pat Chung. The safety, who was hobbled over the course of the week with a hand injury and declared out on Saturday, wasn’t in there against Buffalo, and the defensive backs that were out there weren’t able to slow down the Bills’ passing game.
There was some good, but lots of not-so-good. Leigh Bodden was beaten deep twice, including one play down the New England sideline on the Bills’ first play from scrimmage. Making matters worse was the fact that two safeties took bad penalties at inopportune times: Sergio Brown was hit with a pass interference penalty in the end zone that negated an interception (arguably the costliest play of the game), while Josh Barrett missed a tackle on Jackson on the 38-yard catch-and-run that set up Lindell’s game-winning field goal.
“I think the main thing, mentally, is getting back to work,” McCourty told reporters after the game. “We don’t really have time to be frustrated or disappointed on the first three games of the season. We have to keep playing and keep going at it because it’s a long season. If we kind of stick on what’s been happening the first three games, we’re really going to be in trouble.”
ROB GRONKOWSKI LOOKS LIKE A PRO BOWLER
It was a happy homecoming for the native of upstate New York, as he ended his day with seven catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the first half on perfectly thrown balls from Brady. The first one was a one-yard catch in the first quarter over the middle when the big tight end was somehow able to gain enough separation from a Buffalo defender for New England’s second touchdown of the game. The second came midway through the second when he hauled in a 26-yard grab down the seam to make it 21-0, the high-point of the afternoon for the New England offense.
It was also the high water mark for Gronkowski. The big tight end had five catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the first half (his receiving yardage would have been higher if not for a penalty on Nate Solder for illegal hands to the face, which wiped out a 35-yard reception before halftime), but was limited to two catches for 38 yards in the final two quarters.
“You always want to get off to a fast start, but we’ve got to keep on going and keep on hanging on to that,” Gronkowski told reporters after the game. “They’re a good defense. The Bills have good players, they play hard and the go 100 percent every play. They’re a tough defense.”
WHEN IT COMES TO TURNOVERS, THERE’S NO MARGIN FOR ERROR
Just as turnovers told the story for the Patriots last week (when New England was able to force some timely takeaways in the win over the Chargers), it was more of the same this week ... although this time around, it wasn’t a happy ending.
New England turned the ball over four times (on four interceptions) against the Bills, as Brady threw one in the second, one in the third and two in the fourth quarter. Buffalo turned the four picks in 24 points, setting the tone for the game and giving Brady his first four-interception day since Nov. 5, 2006, a game the Patriots lost to the Colts.
Two of the four were fluky picks, as the ball was batted or knocked into the air, and two of them happened inside the Buffalo 25-yard line. On one of them, George Wilson went up and made a great play on a ball meant for tight end Gronkowski. On the other one, Bryan Scott corralled a ball that was meant for running back Danny Woodhead that popped into the air, snaring the ball and taking the air out of a New England drive that likely would have given the Patriots a 28-7 lead at the half.
“[Buffalo] made some good plays on the ball. Some days the ball gets batted up in the air and it goes your way, and some days it doesn’t. That’s part of the game,” Brady said. “George Wilson made a hell of a play on that one interception. It’s the way the ball bounces. That’s football.”
“I think the turnovers really killed us in the end,” Welker said. “We were able to do some good things out there and moved the ball pretty well and things like that. We get in key positions, we can’t turn the ball over and make some of those mistakes, and pick six’s and different things like that. We didn’t play very good complementary football with each other. The Bills came out there and played hard and kept fighting, and they were definitely a tougher team than us today.
“I think any time you turn the ball over, especially in the situations we were in, it’s never good. It’s never good for your psyche, it’s never good for the team and never good for scoring points. It’s not just Tom. It’s everybody getting on the same page and understanding that we’re in this together.”
IT LOOKS LIKE THE PATRIOTS WON’T HAVE TO AUDITION ANY MORE PUNTERS
Punter Zoltan Mesko collapsed in a heap after teammate James Ihedigbo came crashing into him in the second half of last Sunday’s win over the Chargers, and his prospects for this week’s game looked bleak. But after a solid week of practice, Mesko came out against the Bills with a soft brace on his left knee and looked no worse for wear. He had an excellent afternoon, averaging 46.7 yards per punt on his three punts. He dropped two inside the Buffalo 20-yard line, and one ended up sailing 57 yards.
It was part of an excellent performance for New England’s special teams unit. Stephen Gostkowski had a near-flawless afternoon, cleanly connecting on all four of the Patriots’ extra point attempts, as well as a 23-yard field goal attempt. In addition, he put all six of his kickoff attempts into the end zone, with five of them going for touchbacks. Julian Edelman averaged 21 yards on three kick returns, and New England’s punt and kick coverage units did an excellent job bottling up dangerous return man C.J. Spiller -- the Patriots average starting field position was their own 30, while the Bills’ average start was their own 20.
THE PATRIOTS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO START WORRYING ABOUT THE BILLS ON A CONSISTENT BASIS
The last time Buffalo defeated the Patriots, it was believed we were on the brink of a new era in the AFC East, one that would be dominated by Gregg Williams, Drew Bledsoe and the rest of the mighty Bills, who were poised to reign supreme over the division for the foreseeable future. Of course, Buffalo went 6-10 that season missed the playoffs, and have been fundamentally irrelevant on the NFL landscape since then.
This time around, it seems that the Bills have built a more sustainable model. They might not be headed to the playoffs quite yet, but they appear to have a nucleus of players in place that, if allowed to grow together, could make the annual trip to Buffalo a consistently unenviable proposition within a year or two. Fitzpatrick has come into his own as a quarterback, he has a new collection of offensive options around him (Stevie Johnson being the best among them) and there are a handful of talented players on the defensive side of the ball (including Kyle Williams).
This win Sunday meant something for the Bills -- just as the Lions used their preseason contest with the Patriots as a chance to show the football world they had arrived, Buffalo was pointing to this game as a way to validate themselves as a team worthy of undefeated status. (In the aftermath of the win, stadium workers took no chances, first guarding the goal posts before lowering them on their own before fans got any ideas.)
“I think in terms of what this means for the city of Buffalo, it's the biggest win since I've been here, for sure,” Fitzpatrick said.
Sunday’s win was particularly sweet for linebacker Chris Kelsay, who was one of four Buffalo players still on hand since the team's last victory over New England, back in 2003.
“It’s the biggest win of my career. I can't think of any bigger,” Kelsay said. “To beat these guys at home, in front of our fans, with the way they're behind us despite being down early, it's huge. I'll never forget it.”