BOSTON (CBS) — Prepare for at least one full week of Patriots panic in New England.
In this case, it just may be warranted, as the New England defense played extremely poorly for much of the afternoon on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. However, thanks to a couple of huge forced turnovers around the goal line, the defense played well enough — barely — to walk away with a 37-31 victory.
In the win, there were plenty of positives and negatives, so let’s get into the Four Ups and Four Downs from the New England win.
While the awful defensive showing will dominate most of the discussion this week, don’t forget Tom Brady’s play. It wasn’t the greatest performance of his career, but he led an offense that came close to putting together a perfect showing for essentially three full quarters of football. Excluding a two-play drive before halftime, the Patriots’ first seven drives ended like this: field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, field goal. And as it turned out, the Patriots ended up needing every single one of their 37 points.
Brady himself went 23-for-38 for 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but most importantly he threw zero interceptions. In this game, with the New England defense playing so poorly, any turnover would have been absolutely crushing. Brady limited his mistakes, knew when to throw the ball away, and took just one sack despite facing a decent amount of pressure for much of the game.
It was the type of Brady performance that tends to get taken for granted at times in New England. I’d argue that this week, it shouldn’t.
Another performance that should not get overlooked is that of Stephen Gostkowski. Often, if a kicker isn’t out there making a last-second field goal, his afternoon can get overlooked, but had Gostkowski not had the day he had, this very well could have been a loss for New England.
He was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, including a 43-yarder to give the Pats a 3-0 lead and later a 48-yarder to give the Patriots a two-possession lead in the fourth quarter. Had he missed that 48-yarder, the Bills would have taken over near midfield trailing by just a touchdown. Considering the Bills drove 93 yards on the drive that followed that kick, it’s very likely the game would have been tied at some point in the fourth quarter. Thanks to Gostkowski, that never happened.
And while his third kick may have been just a chip shot, it nevertheless gave the Patriots a much-needed cushion, thereby forcing the Bills to play for a touchdown rather than a field goal.
“Little” Danny Woodhead, as he’s unofficially known to seemingly every announcer in the world, had just two touchdowns on the season, but he found the end zone twice on Sunday for the first time in his career.
His only carry was a big one, as he exploded through a hole for a 15-yard touchdown run.
Averaging 2.4 receptions for 25 yards per game this season, Woodhead stepped up in Aaron Hernandez’s absence with four catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. The scoring play was a beautiful one, as he burned his man (linebacker Nick Barnett) and juked Jarius Byrd near the 3-yard line before diving across the goal line for the score.
It was the type of extra effort that defines Woodhead as an NFL player, and it was a major reason why the Patriots came out on top in this one.
It wasn’t quite the 106-yard, two-touchdown performance that Ridley had earlier in the year against Buffalo, but it was close. The second-year running back looked awfully refreshed coming off the bye week, as he finished with 98 rushing yards and a score for the home team.
He played a major role in the Patriots sustaining long scoring drives, which was crucial considering the Bills’ offense could drive the ball at will.
It’s a common saying from Bill Belichick: We have to play better and we have to coach better. Nothing better sums up this game than that saying right there.
Matt Patricia watched all afternoon as rookie Alfonzo Dennard chased Stevie Johnson in vain, to the effect of Johnson catching six passes for 86 yards. Yet no noticeable changes were made to the defensive assignments. For that matter, the entire middle of the field was wide open for Ryan Fitzpatrick all day long, and he probably hasn’t thrown two easier touchdown passes since he was facing Brown University back in ’03.
You can pick on individual performances all you want, and that’s fair, but the Patriots’ defensive woes can’t be attributed to any one person, be it a player or a coach. There’s a lot of work to be done if this team wants to really compete for a championship. Getting 148 penalty yards and three somewhat gift-wrapped turnovers and still only beating the Bills by six points just isn’t going to cut it.
The Patriots’ defense didn’t need to give the Buffalo offense any extra yards, yet three mental mistakes proved costly.
Dennard took a dive at Fitzpatrick’s legs after the quarterback scrambled out of bounds, giving the Bills a free 15 yards and getting them to the edge of the red zone. Three plays later, Fitzpatrick connected with Scott Chandler for a touchdown to cut the Patriots’ lead in half just before halftime.
Brandon Spikes made the next mental mistake, going helmet-to-facemask on Fitzpatrick on a second-down incompletion early in the fourth quarter. Instead of a third-and-8 from their own 47, the Bills had a first-and-10 from the New England 38. While the Patriots did force a turnover at the goal line, the offense couldn’t do anything with that field position and punted the ball right back to the Bills, who scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
But on the first play of that ensuing drive, it was Jerod Mayo with the unnecessary late hit out of bounds on C.J. Spiller. The penalty took the Bills from the Pats’ 31-yard line to the 16-yard line, and sure enough the Bills were in the end zone three plays later.
The defense is simply not talented enough to be making these types of errors, and it nearly cost them a win on Sunday.
And while Buffalo had an absurdly high number of penalties, the Patriots’ seven penalties for 73 yards were far too many. Ridley’s false start on second-and-goal from the 4-yard line was chief among them, as it may have turned a touchdown drive into a field goal drive.
Seven points turned into three points on the Patriots’ opening drive due to Wes Welker’s dropping a surefire touchdown. On the same drive, Deion Branch dropped a would-be first down when he let a pass from Brady bounce off his stomach. That ball very well should have been picked off, but Branch was alert enough to rip the ball out of the defensive back’s hands.
Julian Edelman later let a long bomb from Brady sail through his arms, though he was bailed out by a penalty on Buffalo away from the play. Later, with the Patriots trying to drive from their own 1-yard line, Welker had another big drip over the middle on what should have moved the chains. Instead, the Patriots were forced to punt two plays later, and the Bills scored on the ensuing drive to cut the lead to just a field goal in the fourth quarter.
If Welker can squeeze those passes, this game very well could have looked a lot different than it did. Of course, Welker’s six catches for 74 yards shouldn’t be dismissed, but his drops provide an example of the Patriots’ inner drive to always improve and always believe they can be better.
For all the Patriots’ defensive faults, one or two more stops on third (or fourth) down would have made a big impact. The Bills were able to convert seven of their 11 third-down attempts, and they also went 1-for-1 on fourth-down conversions. This inability for the defense to get off the field was the biggest culprit for the Patriots’ being unable to build an insurmountable lead and ultimately losing the time of possession battle by nearly eight minutes.
As was mentioned with the blaming of “Everything” earlier, this issue can’t be pinned on any one person, but it’s going to be rather difficult to beat good teams and will be darn near impossible to win playoff games if this defense can’t make more plays, force punts, and keep the ball in Brady’s hands.