FOXBORO -- Ryan Fitzpatrick certainly wasn’t acting like Ryan Fitzpatrick.
As the clock ticked down and the shadows started to grow in the late afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the same quarterback who had thrown 16 interceptions in six previous games against the Patriots was delivering crisp, efficient passes to a variety of receivers. Meanwhile, the Bills, who were trailing by six, were marching deep into New England territory against a defense that looked like it had no clue how to stop Buffalo.
But then, the football universe readjusted, and Fitzpatrick did what he almost always does against the Patriots: deliver a turnover. Devin McCourty stepped in front of a Fitzpatrick pass intended for receiver T.J. Graham in the end zone with 23 seconds left, caught it and kneeled down. The pick ultimately allowed the Patriots to escape with a 37-31 win over the Bills at Gillette Stadium. (Click HERE for the complete recap.)
(In truth, the turnover wasn’t Fitzpatrick’s fault. There was some miscommunication between the quarterback and the receiver, and it looked like Graham was supposed to come underneath McCourty instead of running past him. To Graham’s credit, he said it was on him after the game with a rather disarming line, saying, “I take the blame for that one. That might be why I don’t get on the field as much.”)
The Patriots’ defense again yielded some alarming numbers, including 481 total yards -- including 337 passing from Fitzpatrick and 162 rushing yards, the most New England has let up all season. However, as was the case against the Jets and Broncos earlier this season, the Patriots had a little bit on both sides of the ball when it counted. New England forced three turnovers, built itself a sizable early cushion (17-3 in the second quarter), ran the ball well for large portions of the afternoon and got a very good special teams performance.
“A tough matchup with Buffalo,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “They did a good job and fought us right to then end, but we made the plays that we needed to make. It wasn’t perfect, of course; we’ve got a lot of work to do. But in the end, I think the turnovers were the difference, and we’ll just move on to Indianapolis.”
“It was a weird game,” said wide receiver Deion Branch of a contest that saw 21 penalties, 14 of which were called on the Bills. “It’s not a good feeling, because I know that we’re a lot better than what we put out on the football field today. We know that. Buffalo is a great team, but at the same time, we didn’t put our best game on the field.”
In the wake of the win, there are still defensive questions, questions that are now more troubling than a few weeks ago considering the fact that the Patriots had two weeks to prepare for the Bills and still needed an interception in the final minutes in the end zone to come away with a win. Bad routes, ill-timed penalties and sloppy tackling all make for a bad combination.
“We had penalties, dropped balls, offsides, missed tackles. Missed tackles and dropped balls -- that’s pretty fundamental,” Belichick said. “We just didn’t do a good job on a number of areas. I don’t think it was any one thing. Overall, we made some plays and we did some things well, but there were other things that just weren’t as sharp as what they need to be or what they should be.
“It was far from perfect.”
Like previous wins over the Broncos and the Jets, this one will not help the Patriots when it comes to their BCS ranking. There will be no style points awarded for sneaking past a division foe that will struggle to reach .500 this season. But as was the case in the wake of those other narrow wins, the Patriots repeated the same mantra: a win is a win.
And while many in the locker room weren’t overly happy about how this one ended, Belichick felt good enough about the outcome to give the players Monday off. That counts for something, right?
“I’ll take any win,” Belichick said. “I’ll take any win.”
Here are nine other things that we learned about the Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
THE PATRIOTS MAY NOT FACE A BETTER RUNNING GAME ALL YEAR
Through the first half of the season, the Patriots were one of the best teams in the league against the run -- New England entered the game on Sunday allowing 88.6 rushing yards per game, seventh-best in the league. Only one running back topped 100 yards on New England all year (Ray Rice), and only two teams topped four yards per carry against them.
But the Bills were able to run the ball consistently against the Patriots on Sunday, finishing with 162 yards on the ground as a team, a 5.8 yards per carry average (both marks representing the largest yields by New England on the year) and a pair of rushing touchdowns. Fred Jackson had 80 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns, while C.J. Spiller added nine carries for 70 yards and Fitzpatrick had 12 yards on three carries.
While they were able to get good, consistent yards for most of the afternoon -- other than the sacks of Fitzpatrick, the Bills did not have a negative play on the day -- the running game was most impressive when Jackson delivered a great second effort on a red-zone running play, keeping his legs moving after the initial point of contact and pushing his way into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
“They had a lot of balance,” Belichick said of the Bills backs, who had 11 rushes for first downs Sunday against the Patriots. “And we missed some tackles and we didn’t play some of the runs very well. But those backs are good backs -- they make yards against everybody.
“We’ve got to do a better job -- give them credit; they gain a lot of yards against everybody. They do a good job. They’re not easy to get on the ground -- even if you play the play halfway decently, they make a lot of yards on their own.”
THE PATRIOTS HAVE A KNACK FOR WELL-TIMED TURNOVERS
In addition to the final interception by McCourty, the Patriots were able to force a pair of fumbles on the afternoon, and are now +16 in the takeaway department (10 interceptions and 13 fumbles, to go along with seven giveaways). In the big picture, all three turnovers meant something.
•The first came in the first quarter with the Bills sitting on a second-and-7 at their own 23. Vince Wilfork was able to get off quickly, and ended up strip sacking Fitzpatrick, knocking the ball away. The ball was recovered by Jermaine Cunningham at the Buffalo 13-yard line, and the Patriots quickly turned that into a touchdown, as Stevan Ridley went in three plays later from the 1-yard line to make it 10-0 with 3:54 left in the first quarter.
•The second came in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots clinging to a 34-24 edge. Buffalo was sitting on the New England 13, but Jackson ended up fumbling the ball away after being hit by defensive back Devin McCourty. (The ball was recovered by cornerback Kyle Arrington.) The Patriots couldn’t turn that takeaway into points, but the ability to keep Buffalo from scoring any points in that situation would play a key role down the stretch.
•The third was at the end of the game on a pass play that Fitzpatrick later said was designed to get the ball to Graham. However, it certainly appeared that there was a miscommunication between the quarterback and receiver -- frankly, it was thrown like McCourty was the intended receiver.
“Really, at that time in the game, you know [a turnover] can come really from anywhere,” said McCourty, who also had eight tackles (four solo) in the win and now has three interceptions on the season, all against the Bills. “You just try and focus on where the guys are that they like to throw to, with [Scott] Chandler being a big target in the middle of the field and Stevie Johnson. Chandler lined up right in the middle, so I knew it was a good chance it could be some type of play in the middle of the field. Right there, he just threw it, and I happened to be right there.
“There’s nothing bigger than turnovers,” added McCourty, who is now tied with Tavon Wilson for the team lead in interceptions. “We know each game we have to go out and win the turnover ratio. No matter what happens in the game, we have to come out on top with the turnover ratio.”
BRANDON SPIKES DOESN’T HAVE A LOT OF FANS IN BUFFALO
In a September game between the Patriots and Bills in Buffalo, New England linebacker Brandon Spikes didn’t endear himself to the football fans of upstate New York when, after a Fitzpatrick interception, he delivered a vicious blindside hit to Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler, knocking the tight end from the game. Spikes wasn’t flagged, but was later hit with a $21,000 fine for the incident.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the Bills -- and Fitzpatrick in particular -- weren’t crazy about what the linebacker did in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game. With just over 10 minutes remaining in regulation, Spikes broke through the Buffalo protection and drive his facemask into Fitzpatrick’s facemask as the two went tumbling backward. The force from the hit knocked off the quarterback’s helmet, but Fitzpatrick popped right back up and got in Spikes’ face, uttering an expletive and going head-to-head with the linebacker before the two were separated.
While Spikes picked up a roughing the passer penalty -- his third of the season -- Fitzpatrick didn’t hesitate to take a shot at Spikes after the game.
“I think that Spikes is an emotional player,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think he’s a punk at times, and took a cheap shot at Scott [Chandler] in the first game, and was doing a lot of talking and hitting out there. He’s not one of my favorite players. He’s not high on my list. I think that’s all just mentality, and I think it’s important that you don’t back down from anybody.”
For his part, Spikes was not around after the game to talk about the incident, but did offer a “Bahahahahahaaaa” via Twitter.
THE NEW ENGLAND OFFENSIVE LINE IS THIN
The Patriots lost starting guards Logan Mankins (ankle) and Dan Connolly (back) on Sunday, and the Patriots had to finish with Donald Thomas in place of Connolly at right guard and Nick McDonald for Mankins at left guard. Thomas was on the field late in the first half, while McDonald relieved Mankins after the left guard was injured in the third quarter on a third-and-5 play that ended up being a sack of Brady.
“You have to prepare each week as if something like that is going to happen,” said McDonald, one of eight offensive linemen who dressed on the day for the Patriots. “It’s unfortunate that someone goes down -- you never want to see that. We’re good friends and good teammates. But when they go down and your number is called, you have to play just like they would. Just like a starter would.”
“We were kind of fortunate there,” Belichick said after the game when asked about the loss of Connolly and Mankins. “Most of the time, we only carry seven offensive linemen in the game, and we happened to have eight today, so both Donald and Nick ended up filling in there. We’ll obviously have to watch the game and see how it all turns out, but there weren’t a lot of problems, I know that. That was obviously unexpected, but luckily, they came through for us. That’s why everybody has to be ready -- you just never know when the bell is going to ring. Both Nick and Donald answered it.”
According to Mike Lowe of the Portland Press Herald, Mankins was spotted after the game in a walking boot. A great warrior of a player -- remember, this is someone who played most of the 2011 season on a torn ACL -- it’s clear that he’s hobbling. But regardless of the injuries, it was another positive performance for the New England offensive line: Brady was sacked just once on the afternoon, breaking a streak of eight-plus sack-free quarters.
DANNY WOODHEAD CONTINUES TO CONTRIBUTE
The undersized back again delivered a jolt to the New England offense, coming away with a pair of touchdowns -- one on the ground and another in the air -- as well as 15 yards on the ground and four catches for 46 receiving yards. It was the first time in his professional career where he finished with two touchdowns in a game.
“It’s a pretty good day because we got the ‘W.’ That’s really the only thing that matters. Two touchdowns, whatever. That’s not the most concern. It’s just getting the win, and we got the win,” he said. “That’s not something I’m too concerned with. The team comes before myself, and it’s the win that matters. It’s not getting myself two touchdowns.”
Woodhead had his best sequence in the second quarter when he fueled New England’s best and most efficient drive of the game, an eight-play, 83-yard series that consumed a tidy 2:58. On that series, Woodhead accounted for 37 of the 83 yards, including a 15-yard run for a touchdown where he wasn’t touched on his way to the end zone.
“Phenomenal, man,” Ridley said of Woodhead. “He’s the leader in our room. Woody does it all -- he runs the ball, he catches it well. He’s a threat to the defense. They have to find the little short guy out there somewhere, but most of the time, he’s making plays and it’s too late. My hat is off to Woody for leading that room and doing his job.”
He also showed off a touchdown dance that may or not have been inspired by Ridley (who had 98 rushing yards of his own.)
“He’s feeling it, man,” Ridley said when asked about Woodhead’s touchdown dance. “What can we say about Woody? Two touchdowns? He does what he wants.”
On an afternoon where the Patriots honored the greatest third-down back in the history of the franchise in Kevin Faulk, it was the modern-day equivalent who provided a spark, showing a versatility and dependability that sparked comparisons to No. 33.
“I think Danny is a versatile player,” Belichick said of Woodhead. “He does a lot of things well. He’s good in the passing game. He’s got a good feel for man and zone coverages and getting open, and he does a good job in blitz pickup. He runs well, reads his blocks well and he’s got good quickness.
“He’s got some speed and he really runs strong for a smaller player. He’s got a good skill set -- he’s smart, he works hard, and is always trying to improve, and he does what we ask him to do. So he’s got a lot going for him.”
DIFFERENT PLAYERS HAVE DIFFERENT IDEAS ABOUT WHAT CONSTITUTES CLOSING
It wasn’t a textbook example of four-minute football, but in a year where the Patriots have struggled to finish off teams in the fourth quarter, what they did down the stretch against the Bills was probably as close as we’re going to get.
With the feisty Bills down by three in the fourth quarter -- thanks in large part to Fitzpatrick’s ability to find some holes in the middle of the field throughout the second half -- the Patriots were able to put together a 14-play, 59-yard drive (with 24 yards coming from Ridley) that stalled out in the red zone but ended with a 27-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski with just over two minutes left to make the score 37-31.
On that drive, the Patriots were able to get it down to the Buffalo 2-yard line, but a two-yard loss on a run from Ridley, which was followed up by a false start penalty on the running back, put New England at the Buffalo nine. After a missed connection with Woodhead, the Patriots were forced to try the field goal. While Ridley issued a mea culpa after the game, he did add that the Patriots were “phenomenal” when it came to finishing.
“A mental error by me. That’s something I have to do better on,” Ridley said of his two missteps inside the Buffalo 10 late in the game. “I can’t point the finger at anybody -- that’s a blow to us, because we’re lining up to punch the ball in and get a touchdown, and we get a false start and that brings us back. Those are things we have to eliminate to play cleaner football. But overall, I think just as a team, we did a phenomenal job of finishing and playing 60 minutes.”
That stands in stark contrast to the words offered by Brandon Lloyd -- when the wide receiver was asked if it was “gratifying” that the Patriots were able to get three points on what appeared to be a reasonable facsimile of a four-minute offense, he looked like someone waved a container of spolied milk under his nose.
“You know, a four-minute offense, you’re supposed to end the game, so there’s nothing gratifying about what we did. We have a lot to work on. We won the game -- it wasn’t pretty, but we won. We still have a lot to work on, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on,” he said. “[But] we didn’t finish the game off. You just want the clock to run to zero in a four-minute offense.”
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI RENDERED LEODIS MCKELVIN A NONFACTOR
The Patriots were especially wary of Buffalo’s special teamers heading into this game, particularly the work of kick returner Leodis McKelvin. McKelvin averaged 19.5 yards a punt return, the best in the league, and had an 88-yard return for a touchdown. In addition, he entered Sunday’s game third in the league in kick return average at 29.8. (Brad Smith also has an 89-yard kick return for a touchdown this season.)
But McKelvin had zero impact on the return game Sunday, thanks in part to the strong right leg of Gostkowski. The kicker put all eight of his kickoffs into the end zone, with six of them going for touchbacks. McKelvin had one return for 21 yards, while Smith added one for 13 yards. (It also helped that punter Zoltan Mesko did his level best to take McKelvin out of the game -- he averaged 34.5 yards on his two punts, and dropped one of them inside the 20. On those, McKelvin had one fair catch and the other was downed.)
“We always work a lot of every aspect of the game -- we especially pay a little closer attention to the team when they have an explosive returner like Leodis McKelvin, and even their backup returner Brad Smith. They’re just so explosive and so good,” Gostkowski said. “But everybody’s good in this league. It’s just I don’t think we leave any stone unturned when it comes to special teams, and you can’t take any team for granted, especially one as good as the Bills.”
Gostkowski also had a good afternoon when it came to scoring, connecting on all three field goal attempts (from 43, 48 and 27 yards), as well as all four of his extra-point attempts. Since his brief series of struggles early in the season -- when he missed a potential game-winner against the Cardinals as well as a couple of field goal attempts against the Bills in Buffalo -- he’s been as accurate as any kicker in the league.
Despite those early problems, he said his confidence hasn’t wavered this season.
“I wouldn’t be on the team if the coaches and players didn’t have confidence in me,” he said. “I have confidence in myself, and I just try to practice well -- and then if you practice well and consistently practice well, it’s going to carry over into the game consistently.
“Everybody makes mistakes, has bad plays and has bad kicks, so if that happens to me, I just think about all the ones I’ve done well. I don’t overthink it and I don’t try to overanalyze it -- guys miss every week. A lot of it’s about timing,” he added. “It’s just good to come through and get on a roll and get a little streak going and win a couple games. It’s a lot more fun that way.”
TOM BRADY WASN’T HAPPY AFTER THE GAME
Despite the fact that he led an offense to 37 points -- marking the sixth time New England surpassed the 30-point plateau on the season -- quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t all that chatty after the game. Brady, who finished 23-for-38 for 237 yards and two touchdowns, limited his postgame Q&A to five questions, and was blunt in his assessment of how things went.
“Well, it was tight today,” said Brady, who connected with Woodhead and Rob Gronkowski on touchdown passes in the win, the third straight for the Patriots. “I’m glad we came away with the win. We fought hard; we certainly had more opportunities out there to score more points, but we didn’t and the defense made a couple great plays there at the end.”
Brady and the offense were living dangerously in the early going. On the Patriots’ first drive, the Bills nearly forced a turnover when Marcel Dareus batted a Brady pass in the air, but Buffalo’s Bryan Scott couldn’t corral the loose ball. Later on the same drive, McKelvin almost came away with a loose ball after knocking a pass away from Branch.
But things sharpened up quickly for New England, and the offense had its best sequence of the afternoon midway through the second quarter. It was an eight-play, 83-yard sequence that took 2:58, with Woodhead picking up 37 yards on the series and ending when Woodhead scooted in from 15 yards out to make it 17-3 midway through the second.
However, those type of seamless stretches were few and far between in the second half. There was one instance of a rather animated Brady appearing to chew out one of his teammates on the sideline after he was sacked. (At the end of the game, after McCourty’s interception allowed everyone on the New England sideline to breathe again, there was the humorous sight of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels going to give Brady a fist pound/low-five, but getting blown off by the quarterback.)
It was one of several occasions where the New England offense was a little rusty -- in the second half, the Patriots had six possessions and could only find the end zone once. (Included in that second half was one three-and-out, just the eighth one of the season for New England.)
Admittedly, the bar is set awfully high for the Patriots’ offense -- thanks in large part to the expectation level of the quarterback -- but those expectations were not met for a handful of second-half possessions, and it left the quarterback with a sour taste.
“It’s frustrating when we don’t play as well as we’re capable of,” Brady said. “But that’s part of the game and part of the mental toughness of the game is to put those things behind you and to keep playing hard. We did that and that’s why we won.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE IN COMMAND OF THE AFC EAST
The win wasn’t pretty, but on a day where the three other AFC East teams all lost, it was enough to give the Patriots some real separation in the division. With the victory, New England moves to 6-3 on the season, while the Dolphins slipped to 4-5 with an ugly home loss to the Titans. In addition, the Jets (who were beaten in Seattle by the Seahawks) and Bills now sit at 3-6. New England needs to take care of business next week at home against the Colts, but if the Patriots can beat New York on Thanksgiving and the Dolphins on Dec. 2 in Miami, it would make it almost impossible for them not to have things wrapped up by Christmas.