By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It says a lot about the Patriots that on a day when they weren’t nearly at their best, they still managed to win by 20 points.
It took a while for the Patriots to get going on Sunday in Buffalo, and they likely don’t feel great about the entirety of their 60-minute effort. But they earned a divisional win on the road, something that’s always celebrated in the NFL.
The game won’t go down as one of the most memorable in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, but for the sake of record-keeping, here’s our stock of the ups and downs from the 23-3 win.
Sunday was one of those afternoons where No. 87 looked like a fully grown adult playing against children in a Pop Warner game. He was simply unstoppable, catching nine passes for 147 yards.
Gronkowski overcame a bogus offensive pass interference penalty in the third quarter by coming up with a 19-yard reception three plays later to keep a drive moving. That drive ended with the Patriots’ first touchdown of the day.
As is always the case, Gronkowski was great in his return to his hometown.
However, it wasn’t a perfect day, and we’ll cover that in the Downs.
Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis
On a day when Tom Brady was not excellent, his two best running backs shouldered the load.
Lewis broke off a 44-yard run as part of a 92-yard day on the ground on 15 carries. Burkhead, meanwhile, scored the Patriots’ only two touchdowns of the game, both on the ground. Burkhead ran for 78 yards on 12 carries and also caught three passes for 25 yards. That comes a week after Burkhead had a rushing TD and a receiving TD against the Dolphins.
In all, the duo accounted for 195 yards from scrimmage. By comparison, the Bills as a team gained just 268 yards in the game.
The Patriots signed defensive lineman Eric Lee off the Bills practice squad in late November. The Bills likely regret that transaction.
Lee was in the right place at the right time to pick off a Tyrod Taylor pass on the opening drive of the game, a 66-yard drive that chewed up more than seven minutes and ended up resulting in zero points. (An assist goes to Alan Branch for pushing an offensive lineman into Taylor to disrupt the pass.)
On the next Buffalo drive, Lee started things off with a sack of Taylor. Early in the fourth quarter, Lee burst up the middle of the line and delivered a shot to Taylor to force an incompletion. And on the Bills’ final drive, Lee added another sack on first down and another tackle on second down.
It was quite the impactful game for the first-year linebacker out of South Florida.
The cornerback certainly made a few enemies in Buffalo when he stated a simple fact after signing with the Patriots. So there were 50,000 or so folks who were hoping Gilmore would fail on Sunday. But, well, he didn’t.
And the best picture of Gilmore’s day came in the fourth quarter, when Nathan Peterman (in for the injured Taylor) improbably led a long drive and threatened to get the Bills into the end zone for the only time all day. But on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Gilmore stood tall in man coverage on Zay Jones, breaking up the pass and forcing a turnover on downs. It was the second pass breakup in the end zone for Gilmore on that drive.
BONUS: Shaq Mason
We obviously don’t have easy stats for offensive linemen, but we do have this: The CBS broadcast dedicated an entire highlight package to Shaq Mason early in the third quarter. That tells you what kind of day he had as a run blocker.
BONUS: Stephen Gostkowski
The kicker was perfect, going 3-for-3 on field goals and 2-for-2 on PATs. But it was his 50-yarder to open the scoring that was the biggest, as it got the Patriots out to a lead which they would never relinquish.
Red Zone Offense
For the first time since Week 1’s loss to the Chiefs, Tom Brady did not throw a touchdown. That was in large part due to the offense as a whole sputtering in the red zone.
The offense ended up going 2-for-5 in terms of touchdowns on red zone trips, but against a better opponent, that’s just not going to cut it. It’s been an issue all year, but it was particularly evident on this day.
Nate Solder And Malcolm Butler
Despite Brady taking three sacks, the offensive line protected him pretty well. But Nate Solder took some unfortunate penalties, including a completely unnecessary block in the back to wipe out most of Brandin Cooks’ 11-yard run, and a false start that stretched a third-and-13 into a third-and-18.
Malcolm Butler, too, played generally well, but he took a penalty at a most inopportune time. With the Bills facing a third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter, the defensive line collapsed on Peterman for a sack. But instead of a Buffalo punt, the Bills were gifted a free first down from Butler’s hold on a receiver up the field. The Bills ended up driving for three-and-a-half more minutes before ultimately getting stopped on the 1-yard line, so it didn’t cost the Patriots any points. But, again, against a better opponent, that’s a potentially game-changing penalty.
As has been mentioned in the Ups, Gronkowski’s day wasn’t perfect. With just under five minutes left to play, Gronkowski fought through a couple of holds by Tre’Davious White on a pass that ended up being picked off by White. The defensive back fell out of bounds and was sitting with his back to Gronkowski when the hulking tight end decided to take out his frustrations with officials on White. Gronkowski dive-bombed the downed player long after the play was over, drawing a penalty for unnecessary roughness.
While nobody can deny that the officials did a poor job on Gronkowski all day — the offensive pass interference penalty called on Gronkowski earlier in the game was completely bogus, and the officials missed at least two holding penalties committed by defensive backs on Gronkowski — that doesn’t excuse the kind of late hit that Gronkowski delivered on an unsuspecting opponent. Certainly, if the roles were reversed and it was Gronkowski who was the recipient of a cheap shot from a safety after officials made some bad calls against that safety, there wouldn’t be many football fans in New England absolving the player of the hit.
Tony Romo suggested on the broadcast that it could result in a suspension, but that is very unlikely. So, it ended up being just a bad piece of film for Gronkowski, as nobody in the country will be very interested to know the root of his frustration and instead will only see replays of the cheap shot.
Kyle Van Noy, Patrick Chung
Kyle Van Noy entered the game with a calf injury that was deemed mild. After he sacked Taylor for a 20-yard loss early in the third quarter, his day was finished. Van Noy is an important member of that defense — though, credit to Lee and David Harris for stepping up on Sunday in Buffalo — and so that’s a situation that warrants monitoring. Doug Kyed of NESN reported that Van Noy was limping in the locker room after the game.
Chung suffered what looked to be either a hand or finger injury in the fourth quarter. He received some treatment in the medical tent and returned to the game, so it’s probably nothing serious. Still, given his significance on the defense, it’s another injury to keep an eye on in the coming days.