The worst thing about getting graded in the NFL for a player was not the report cards from the various media outlets. The worst thing was that each player would get graded from the coaches.
Coaches, in general, were ruthless graders. They would downgrade you for even the smallest mis-step while giving you minimal credit for something that would qualify on any scale as “extra credit.” Having been on the receiving end of way too many poor grades during my 12 years in the league, I am probably going to be a little more forgiving than most of the coaches. But nobody gets a free pass. I also will use the Olympic system known as “degree of difficulty.” A play made vs. the Detroit Lions will not carry the same weight as that play being made against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Feel free to agree or disagree, but if you think I am wrong about a grade, bring some facts, because, as you know from my time on “The Big Show,” I am not always right, but I always think I am. And remember, Dakota, if you disagree with me that will only confirm how right I am to the rest of the WEEI listeners!!
Against what will turn out to be a below-average Buffalo offense at the end of the season, the Patriots defense was just average on the night.
The Patriots did a good job on the best part of the Buffalo offense, the wide receivers, holding T.O. to a useless two catches for 46 yards and Lee Evans to three for 25. A good job but, then, Trent Edwards is an average QB at best.
The biggest problem was Fred Jackson. Buffalo's backup running back was reasonably effective in the running game but very good in the passing game. Jackson amassed 140 yards on 20 touches. The front seven had trouble with some counter plays and especially with what the Patriots call the “flash” play where an H-back (usually a tight end) comes from either end of the line of scrimmage to execute a trap-style block on an interior lineman. Jackson's real damage was done on the screens and dump-offs. There was one screen in particular, on third-and-15, that Jackson converted late in the game that could have been as bad as the third-and-15 that Brett Favre pulled off late in the 2008 game vs. the Jets. Were it not for the Patriots' last-minute heroics, that play would have been a killer.
Gary Guyton filled in for the injured Jerod Mayo, but there was a noticeable dropoff, as one would expect. Tully Banta-Cain had two big sacks, but in all, the linebackers group was only OK.
Brandon Meriweather played well, delivering some solid hits. Overall, the defensive backs were good, but I refuse to give too much credit to that Buffalo offense.
The defensive line was just decent. There were a few plays that stood out, but when you take into account the totally revamped and inexperienced Buffalo offensive line (two rookies and a first-time starter at left tackle). I just expected more production even without Seymour.
The roughing penalty on Wilfork was a joke. The same penalty on Adalius Thomas was a good call. I know it is difficult to slow down in that situation, but the rules are the rules. The refs will call the Thomas penalty 99 times out of 100. You can rail against the rules, or do what good teams do and figure out how to win knowing the stupidity of some of the QB protection rules.
Given the absence of Marshawn Lynch, given Edwards at QB and given an offensive line that had a grand total of 57 NFL starts (none between the two guards and the left tackle), I expected better production from the New England defense. No forced turnovers, either.
The best thing the offense did against Buffalo is something we have come to expect from the Patriots. They made the plays when they had to. But had you told me that Brady was going to put up those numbers (39-for-53 for 378 yards) and that the offense would dominate the time of possession (37 minutes to Buffalo's 23) I would have told you the offense was going to score at least 35 points.
The offense looked out of sync in the first half, scoring only 10 points and throwing an interception for a touchdown. The Pats were unable to take advantage of great opening field position after the kickoff return team gave them the ball at the Buffalo 49. Brady looked like he was just a bit off in his timing and his footwork. There also were a few drops in the first half by the intended receivers.
The offensive line was allowing too much pressure on Brady in the first half. Brady was hurried, hit or sacked way too much early on. This pressure by Buffalo was responsible, in part, for the Aaron Schobel interception and return for a TD.
The brightest spot of the first half was watching Laurence Maroney run. He put up 36 yards on five carries, but more importantly was running hard with minimal dancing
In the second half there was much less pressure on Brady, probably for a number of reasons — better play by the O-line, the injury to Buffalo defensive end Chris Kelsay and the Patriots wearing down the Bills defense with an incredible advantage in time of possession.
Brady was much better in the second half, completing 26-of-31 for 219 yards with two TDs. Numbers aside, he just looked more comfortable in the pocket, especially on the two TD drives.
Overall, you would expect more points if you just looked at the stats. There were two unsuccessful fourth-down attempts. There was the interception to Schobel, and Gostkowski uncharacteristically missed an easy 41-yard attempt. That's four drives with nothing to show for the effort.
Two guys on offense who many people said would not even make the roster played big roles in the victory. Maroney played well and Ben Watson was huge with six catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns. Watson even bounced back from a late drop in the fourth quarter.
Randy Moss and Wes Welker were solid as always. Welker may be the only wide receiver in the NFL who can have 12 catches in the game and people just accept it as somewhat normal.
The Patriots should not need heroics to beat the Bills. But I have to give the offense extra credit for the phenomenal finish.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
The only reason this was not an 'A' was because of the missed field goal. The special teams should have been an advantage for Buffalo, but the Patriots special teams took it to the Bills right from the start when Maroney began the game with a 52-yard kickoff return.
The biggest play of the game came when Meriweather blasted Leodis McKelvin on the kickoff after the first Watson TD. Pierre Woods came in for the strip and even Gostkowski got involved when he burrowed in to recover the fumble.
The Pats had better kick coverage and better returns against a Bills special team unit that has been very good in the past.
COACHING: B -
Nothing dramatic one way or another for the Patriots coaching staff. The coaches showed patience with the offense when Buffalo was adamant about taking away the deep ball, and they called the plays to take what Buffalo was giving them.
On the other side of the ball they were and will be hampered by the new faces on defense. They will not have access to everything in the defensive playbook because of the inexperience or unfamiliarity of many defensive players. They were very “vanilla” against Buffalo.
The biggest blunder in the coaching ranks came from the Bills. To allow McKelvin to bring that ball out of the end zone was ridiculous. Tape a note to his facemask if you have to, but do not let him even consider bringing it out. Especially when the “hands” team (anticipating an onside kick) is out on the field.
OVERALL GRADE: C+
Remember, I am not commenting on how nice it was to win this game. I am commenting on the level of play for the entire team, coaches included. The Patriots are a far better team than Buffalo. There may have been some opening day jitters or rust.
The Patriots played three quarters of below-average football and one quarter of very good football. Fortunately, they were playing Buffalo. That level of play vs. the Jets will get the Pats their first loss.