ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- There was no panic, at least not in the Patriots’ defensive huddle.
Granted, the Bills had taken a 14-7 lead with just under two minutes left in the first half. The sellout crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium was singing and dancing and dreaming of a September upset of the Patriots along the lines of what we saw last season. And now, the Buffalo offense was on New England’s doorstep once again -- specifically, the Patriots’ 4-yard line -- and set to take a two-touchdown lead heading into halftime.
But as the Buffalo offense kept pushing the New England defense closer and closer to the goal line, there was no sense of worry.
“We just [had] to make a play,” linebacker Jerod Mayo recalled after the game. “I heard a lot of guys in the huddle saying, ‘Hey, let’s make a play. We can’t give them a touchdown.’ ”
The Bills, sitting on a second-and-goal at the Patriots' 4, gave the ball to running back C.J. Spiller. And then, in what was the biggest defensive play of the season for New England, linebacker Brandon Spikes came crashing into the play, knocking the ball loose. Vince Wilfork was there to scoop the thing up.
Suddenly, the Patriots had life.
“That was a huge play,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “That was a big momentum play, because we were getting the ball to start the third quarter, so we felt like we would have a chance to cut into it a little bit if we could just get out of there with a field goal.
“It was a huge play.”
It was one of six turnovers forced by the New England defense on the afternoon, and the play that ultimately provided the spark for the Patriots. While New England would hit the Bills with a ferocious second-half offensive attack, scoring on seven straight drives, Buffalo stalled out completely: The Bills wouldn’t run another play in Patriots territory until midway through the fourth quarter. (Buffalo did connect on a 68-yard touchdown pass play early in the third, but that came from the other side of the field.)
“Those guys really came up and made a big play for us,” Mayo said of the goal-line fumble and recovery. “I think it was huge.”
In the 52-28 thrashing of the Bills (click here for the complete recap), there were several offensive stars on the afternoon. Brady was on the mark for most of the day, going 22-for-36 for 340 yards and three touchdowns. Brandon Bolden (137 rushing yards) and Stevan Ridley (106 rushing yards) kept the chains moving and ground out the tough yards. And Wes Welker (nine catches, 129 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (five catches, 104 yards, one touchdown) shook off early fumbles and went over the century mark themselves.
In all, it marked only the second time in NFL history a team had two rushers top 100 yards and two pass-catchers top 100 yards in a single game.
But in the end, it was the defense that rose to the occasion with a series of tone-setting hits that proved to be the difference. Wilfork was immense in the trenches, coming up with the fumble recovery and delivering the hit of the year on Donald Jones, knocking the Buffalo wide receiver literally sideways. Brandon Spikes forced a pair of fumbles, and while he missed a few assignments on the day, he rivaled Wilfork when it came to landing crushing blows, particularly when he knocked Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler loopy on an interception return. Devin McCourty redeemed himself after stumbling late in the loss to the Ravens with a pair of picks.
And the Pats held the vaunted Buffalo running game in check -- C.J. Spiller had just 33 yards on eight carries, while Fred Jackson had 13 carries for 29 yards.
“We just kept battling in there and made enough plays at the right time,” Belichick said of his team’s defensive effort. “It wasn’t perfect, but we did enough good things.”
The measure of a successful team isn’t so much in how the players come together during the easy times -- the blowout victories. It’s how they respond as a group to adversity. And faced with the prospect of starting the season 1-3, the Patriots responded with a real gut-check victory, showing the sort of mental toughness and resolve needed to bounce back to come away with a division victory on the road.
“I think we showed the heart of a champion today -- being down, on the road, dropped two in a row, our backs were against the wall,” Wilfork said. “Everybody kept their composure. We were poised. We executed well in critical situations. We came up with some big stops, some big plays.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday in Orchard Park.
AT TIMES, TOM BRADY WAS HIS OWN BEST PROTECTOR
In the offseason, Buffalo’s front four of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mark Anderson was touted as a unit that could be a game-changer in the AFC East. And while the group had its moments on Sunday against the Patriots with one sack and three quarterback hits, the New England quarterback was clean for much of the afternoon, finishing with 340 yards on 22-for-36 passing with three touchdowns.
While the bulk of the credit should go to the New England offensive line -- a unit that included backup left guard Donald Thomas working in place of Logan Mankins -- one of the big reasons Brady was able to steer clear of the rush was because he once again showed an acute knowledge of where the pressure was coming from. Three occasions stand out, with the first two coming on pass plays (one to Gronkowski that eventually was broken up and another to Danny Woodhead that went for a 17-yard touchdown pass) and the second on his 4-yard scramble for a touchdown in the third quarter.
On all three occasions Brady looked off his first read, surveyed the pocket, made the necessary adjustments and waited until something developed. And all three were great examples of one of the things that makes Brady a great quarterback: tremendous pocket awareness.
Of course, the offensive line also played well.
“Our line, our tight ends, our backs, they all did a good job,” Belichick said. “We were a little disappointed in our running production the last couple of games, and we really made a big emphasis this game. We worked hard on it in practice and we were able to have some good results today. You can’t say enough about the offensive line, though. These guys have a good front and we were able to block them.”
ROB NINKOVICH WOULD LIKE TO ISSUE A MEA CULPA
The linebacker/defensive end ended the 2011 on such a ridiculously high note -- Ninkovich and Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs were the only two NFL defenders who had at least six sacks and two picks last season. But through the first three games of the 2012 season, he’s had plenty of moments when he’s been overwhelmed, particularly last week against the Ravens.
The Purdue product, as well as the coaching staff, tweaked some of his assignments, which could have been one of the reasons he flipped the script Sunday against Buffalo. On a day when there were several defensive standouts for New England, Ninkovich was among the best. He finished with seven tackles (four solo), as well as his first sack of the season and a forced fumble.
He was at his best in a terrific back-to-back sequence late in the third quarter. With the Bills in a first-and-10 at their own 42, he collapsed a rushing lane and brought Fred Jackson down two yards behind the line of scrimmage. He followed that up with a sack -- a pure speed job where he beat his man off the edge and brought down Fitzpatrick from behind.
“I hold myself accountable for the previous couple of games [and] I didn’t feel like I was active enough in just changing things up on the offense,” Ninkovich said when asked about his work this year. “I was able to go out there and change up my rush styles and change up my inside-outside moves, what I was going to do previously coming into this game. Just get back to more energetic and just getting after the ball. That was my mentality coming into this game.”
THE PATRIOTS HAD NO PROBLEMS CLOSING THIS WEEK
New England struggled mightily down the stretch last week against the Ravens -- the Patriots had the ball and a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter against Baltimore but couldn’t close, dropping a 31-30 decision. On Sunday against Buffalo, there were no such problems. New England put the hammer down against the Bills, dropping an astounding 31 fourth-quarter points and closing things out in style.
“Things weren’t looking too good there at the end of the first half," Belichick said. "You always want to try to get off to a good start and play the game from ahead. But sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. The big thing is to play 60 minutes and finish the game. We haven’t done a great job of that the last two weeks. It was certainly a lot better today, so we’ll take the outcome.”
When it came to closing, there also was a question about the Patriots' ability to finish off drives. Over the first three weeks of the season, New England was 6-for-12 in the red zone when it came to scoring touchdowns -- way off last year’s pace of 65 percent. (This year’s numbers included two occasions against the Ravens when the Patriots had to settle for field goals in the red zone.)
But again, there was no such issue against the Bills. New England was a season-best 5-for-6 in the red zone when it came to scoring touchdowns. That included two runs from Ridley (a 6-yarder and a 2-yarder) and one from Bolden (a 7-yarder). It was the most impressive performance in the red zone from the New England running game since BenJarvus Green-Ellis departed for Cincinnati via free agency following the 2011 season.
“A lot of that credit goes to the offensive line up front," Ridley said. “They did an exceptional job, and it was a great game plan. For us backs, it was just going in there and getting the yards that were given to us. You have to make the most out of them, It’s a team effort all the way around on the offense. From the quarterbacks to the O-line to the running backs to the wide receivers blocking down the field, it takes 11 of us to go out there and do that. It’s not just about us. It’s a team, right here.”
EVEN WITH A QUESTIONABLE HIP, ROB GRONKOWSKI CONTINUES TO DECIMATE HIS HOMETOWN TEAM
No one has done a better job of absolutely thrashing his hometown team than Gronkowski. The big tight end from upstate New York, who came into the game questionable with a hip issue, had some problems right out of the gate -- including a couple of dropped passes and a fumble. But in the end, he showed why he remains without peer. He had five catches (on 11 targets) for 104 yards (which represented a season-high) and one touchdown.
In five career games against the Bills, he has 27 catches for 418 yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers represent his best numbers against any opponent.
“[I’ve] got to execute those plays -- we can’t be having that. It hurts the team a lot and got to be protecting the ball better, no doubt about that,” Gronkowski said when asked about his drops and turnovers. “[But] it’s awesome that Tom [Brady] came back to me, trusted in my abilities, trusted in me throughout the whole game [and] kept throwing me passes. So it was overall a great team win.
“A lot players did a lot of great things -- the running backs had a great game, the O-linemen had a great game. Overall, [an] awesome team win.”
DEVIN McCOURTY TOOK ANOTHER STEP TOWARD CONSISTENCY
McCourty started the season really well, delivering two impressive performances against the Titans and Cardinals. (He was a large part of why the Patriots limited Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald to one catch two weeks ago.) However, he stumbled for large portions of the Ravens game, dropping two possible picks and committing an awful late penalty that set up Baltimore’s game-winning field goal.
On Sunday against the Bills, it was a really impressive bounceback for McCourty, who delivered five solo tackles (one for a loss), two passes defensed and two interceptions. On a second-quarter pass attempt from Fitzpatrick to T.J. Graham, McCourty came away with the ball. He also had a nifty fourth-quarter pick where he stepped in front of a pass meant for noted birthday-cake aficionado Stevie Johnson near midfield and took it all the way back to the Buffalo 12-yard line.
“Devin’s had a lot of good coverages, and he made two real good plays on the ball,” Belichick said of McCourty, who had two interceptions in a game for just the second contest in his career. “Devin works hard -- we have a lot of confidence in him. He’s one of the hardest-working players on the team. Believe me, nobody feels worse after missing an opportunity than he does, but nobody will work harder to get it fixed and get it right. So give him a lot of credit for that.”
BRANDON SPIKES IS NEVER DULL
With linebacker Dont’a Hightower suffering a first-half hamstring injury, it certainly appeared that the Patriots asked more of linebacker Brandon Spikes on Sunday against the Bills. And true to his nature, Spikes was always around the ball, and almost always doing something interesting.
Early on, he was caught out of position and badly exposed in pass coverage -- on the second touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to Scott Chandler, he appeared to have trouble with an assignment, and Chandler snuck behind him to make the catch and reach the end zone. He also chose the wrong gap on running plays on at least two occasions, allowing Jackson to pick up extra yards on the ground.
But just before the end of the half, he delivered the hit that changed the tone of the game, blasting Spiller on the cusp of the New England goal line. The hit knocked the ball loose, and Wilfork recovered the fumble. In the fourth quarter, he forced another fumble, this time knocking the ball loose from Jackson. (The turnover led to a New England touchdown.) He also delivered a teeth-rattling hit on McCourty’s second interception return of the afternoon, crushing Chandler on a block.
“He’s a different character,” Ninkovich said of Spikes, who had seven tackles (three solo) to go along with a pass defensed and two forced fumbles. “[He’s got] tons of energy. I love playing with the guy. I always know where he’s at because he’s screaming at me consistently to go make plays. He’s one of those high-energy, all-around great football players. He’s got something you can’t teach -- just instincts.”
“He had a huge game,” Wilfork said. “I mean, he caused two fumbles. One was on the goal line that was huge -- that was seven points. He’s coming into his own. He’s becoming an elite player.”
BRANDON BOLDEN MIGHT BE THE NEW BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS
It’s hard not to see the comparison: Both Bolden and Green-Ellis are undrafted free agent running backs out of Ole Miss. In addition, both are big, physical backs but are relatively quiet guys who prefer to let their play do the talking.
And like Green-Ellis a few years ago, Bolden has seized his opportunity in New England. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound rookie was immense on Sunday against the Bills -- on 16 carries, he finished with 137 yards and a touchdown. Averaging an absolutely ridiculous 8.6 yards per carry, he ran hard, punishing opposing defenders and doing his best to keep the chains moving.
“We just stuck to the game plan, and I did what I was asked to do,” Bolden said. “We made the best out of every opportunity.”
One of the reasons the Patriots struggled to close out the Ravens last Sunday was their inability to run the ball effectively in the second half. There was none of that from Bolden against the Bills: In the second half alone, he had 12 carries for 112 yards and accounted for 29 of the 42 yards on New England’s first full drive of the fourth quarter. (It was the first time the Patriots have had two running backs over 100 yards since Dec. 19, 1982, when Tony Collins (103) and Mark van Eeghen (100) did it.)
Bolden said it was something special to see the game plan work to perfection, especially in the second half.
“No offense, but it’s just like how you guys work to ask questions all day,” he told reporters. “Think about getting that perfect answer, and that’s how it feels. We get out there and do what we do, and it just feels great. All of that hard work.”
“Brandon is a hell of a runner,” Ridley said of his teammate and former college rival. “I have no doubt in the running back room at all. We were just waiting on the opportunities that were given to us to go out and compete. That’s what Brandon is doing, on every play that they give him. Whether it’s on special teams, it’s 100 percent. If it’s on offense, it’s 100 percent.
“We’re going to lean on each other and press forward. There will be some games where they will call on us, and we just have to go in there and make the plays. This day, and this game today, it goes to Brandon Bolden. He shined, and I’m happy for him. I really am. That’s from the bottom of my heart.”
THE KICKER SITUATION BEARS WATCHING
Something that will be interesting to watch going forward is how kicker Stephen Gostkowski responds to what happened in the first half against the Bills. Gostkowski, who missed a potential game-winner two weeks ago against the Cardinals, botched a pair of field goal attempts Sunday against the Bills, missing from 49 (wide right) and 42 (wide left) in the first half.
Two important things to remember: Gostkowski had an excellent night sandwiched in between the Cardinals and Bills, connecting on all three of his field goal chances and all of his extra-point attempts against the Ravens, so it might be unfair to suggest that the two performances might be somehow connected. And the Patriots didn’t hesitate to have him attempt another field goal down the stretch, as he banged home a 30-yarder late in the fourth quarter to finish the scoring. ("We just felt like it was another opportunity for us to kick under pressure, and so we did it," Belichick said with a shrug.)
“I don’t know -- we’ll just have to take a look at it. It looked like they were both fairly close, but you know, we’ve got to make those kicks,” Belichick said when asked about Gostkowski’s misses. “But it’s a whole group. It’s a snap, it’s a hold, it’s a kick, it’s everything. I don’t know. I’ll have to take a closer look at it.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE IN THE BILLS’ HEADS
There’s just something about the Patriots that seems to bring out the worst in the Bills. Last year’s September shocker aside, the Pats have dominated the series with Buffalo, winning 17 of the last 18 games. For the most part, they’ve been able to do it fairly easily: The Patriots scored over 30 points for the fifth straight game in the series (New England scored 31 and 49 points against Buffalo in 2011).
During the Patriots’ ridiculous offensive run in the second half, there was a sense of inevitability about the whole thing. Instead of the Bills launching some sort of comeback, there was a “here we go again” feeling to the whole thing. It wasn’t a matter of if the Patriots were going to win, it was only a question of how much they were going to win by.
“We beat them last year. We were up three touchdowns last year in the other game. We were up two touchdowns in the second half this game,” Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “That’s the most frustrating thing, I think, is for some reason these games especially vs. these guys when they start rolling, unfortunately, we haven’t had an answer. We have to figure out why. We have to try to put a stop to that, but we did not have an answer today.”
Said Bills coach Chan Gailey: “They’re the defending [AFC] champs for a reason. They’re good. They played well today. We didn’t measure up. Last two were bad, one before that was better. You try to learn from history. It’s not a predictor of the future, but it is what it is. You learn from it and you try to get better from it. We were not good enough today.”