By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — That game had no alibi.

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It was ugly.

Real ugly.

But, of course, it counts, and the Patriots are 10-0, owning a two-game cushion atop the AFC and poised to clinch a division title in the coming week or two. By that measure, all is good in the world of the Patriots.

Yet after watching Monday night’s game play out, it’d be rather difficult to say the New England team that took the field against the Bills is the same one that looked like a juggernaut through the first half of the year. In fact, it’s fair to say that going forward, sustaining the type of success they enjoyed from September through November will be a mighty challenge in December and January.

The offense, without Julian Edelman, was out of sorts. The offensive line was actually as healthy as it’s been in about three weeks, yet time after time the offensive line let a Bills defender rush the quarterback untouched. Danny Amendola performed well, but, as tends to happen with Danny Amendola, he got hurt. So did Aaron Dobson. Scott Chandler was asked to run block. Michael Williams was running routes. Everything was … strange.

They made it work — barely — squeaking out 20 points against a Bills team that allowed 34 points to the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the Patriots, it was not an ideal night.

But on the positive side, the defense came up with some big plays — most notably stopping Karlos Williams for a one-yard loss on a third-and-1 near midfield with just under 11 minutes to play and the Patriots leading by 10.

Yes, the defense has its weaknesses — Patrick Chung was forced to serve as the team’s third cornerback, a week after Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman failed to succeed in New York — but it also should be getting Jamie Collins back. If the Patriots are to really win 16 games (or even 14 games, really) this season, and if they hope to win three in the playoffs, then they’re going to have to win a few where the defense looks better than the offense.

That’s not to say that the defense hasn’t played well to this point or hasn’t played major roles in winning games. In fact, the Patriots now boast the No. 1 scoring defense, allowing 18.2 points per game. They rank second in sacks (32), and they look to have actually improved on defense despite the departures of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner — a notion that would have inspired laughter and derision had you made it in August.

It is, simply, a reality check that with the options on offense dwindling by the week, and with the frigid air starting to fill stadiums around the country, the pressure is now on for the defense to take the reins.

That’s the main takeaway from a not-so-pretty and mostly-difficult-to-watch 20-13 Patriots win, but there are many more leftover thoughts. Let’s boogie.

–The Inadvertent Whistle. OK. We’ll start there.

I’ll begin by saying that Gene Steratore is a nice man for covering for his co-worker, Gary Arthur. But I will add that Gary Arthur has two first names and cannot be trusted. According to Steratore, the line judge blew his whistle when he lost sight of the football. Now, can you imagine if every on-field official blew his whistle upon losing sight of the football? There would be whistles galore. Plays would never reach completion. Whistles all over the place.

That was the dumbest excuse I’ve ever heard … until I saw Steratore try to explain why the clock ran on Sammy Watkins’ catch on what turned out to be the final play of the game. Watkins caught the ball and got himself out of bounds with two seconds remaining on the clock. Period. Yet Steratore said that Watkins “gave himself up voluntarily in the field of play.” This is poppycock.

And that’s just a sampling of the awful officiating that we saw throughout the night. How about a four-minute replay review of a pass that was clearly caught by Brandon LaFell and never once came close to touching the ground? How about a clear catch by Watkins along the sideline on a fourth-and-6 that was initially ruled incomplete and required a replay review to overturn?

People paid as much as $500 (or probably more) to attend that game, and millions more dedicated their entire evenings to watching it, yet that was the effort given by the league-employed officials? That’s just not acceptable.

The good news is, they all have a hard-as-hell boss who holds them accountable ohhhhh wait it’s Dean Blandino who just makes excuses for them. Never mind.

–I will say this though: The people who exclaimed that the inadvertent whistle cost the Patriots an obvious touchdown are wrong. While the aerial view made it look like Amendola was free to take off for a 69-yard catch-and-run …

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… what that image doesn’t show is that Bills cornerback Ronald Darby was right behind Amendola and was in position to wrap him up. When the whistle blew, though, Darby stopped playing, allowing Amendola to create that space. Here’s where Darby was even after starting to let up after the whistle had blown.

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Darby recovered well from Amendola’s late spin move, and as you can see, the Bills defensive back was a yard upfield and in position to tackle Amendola. Could Amendola have slipped the tackle and taken off? Sure, that’s a possibility, and the Patriots were robbed off that opportunity. But don’t try to say they were robbed of a certain touchdown. That was just not the case.

Really, if the officials played it by the book, the down should have been replayed, because that whistle blew well before Amendola caught the ball. But the officials allowed common sense to prevail by letting the catch stand. And then the Patriots benefited from getting 15 free yards for the penalty on Rex Ryan, which was not called on the field until the officials felt they needed to do something to atone for their mistakes.

In that sense, the Patriots really benefited from Gary Arthur getting whistle-happy on the sideline for no reason. But given the needlessness of that mistake in the first place, compounded by the fact that Steratore detoured the rulebook in trying to make up for that error, it was a terrible look for the officials and the NFL once again on a Monday night broadcast.

–One thing about Amendola: He’s kind of a physical monster, and he’s tough as nails. Nobody should question that. But … he tends to get hurt. After the Patriots signed him in March of 2013, his name unofficially became “Danny Amendola, If He Can Stay Healthy.” And really, he couldn’t. He tore his groin in his first game as a member of the Patriots (a game against the Bills in which he was New England’s best player), and he was essentially stored in bubble-wrap last year until late December, when he showed up in a big way down the stretch and through the playoffs to help the Patriots to a Super Bowl title.

There’s no doubt that when he plays, he’s incredibly useful. But even with Julian Edelman gone, the Patriots have to do more to keep Amendola healthy. And having him return punts just seems so counter-productive in that effort.

It’s impossible to tell when or how exactly Amendola got hurt, but on the punt return play that finally ended his night, he appeared to rub the side of his thigh more than his knee. That would seem to perhaps be good news, but we won’t know the extent for a few days, if at all.

The point is this: If the Patriots dodge a bullet and end up getting Amendola back as soon as Sunday night in Denver, they should not have him returning punts anymore. As Brady’s go-to receiver when getting blitzed, he’s much more important to the offense. Absorbing an extra three or four high-impact hits in order to boost field position by a few yards isn’t worth it.

–Speaking of taking some heavy hits, Tom Brady got absolutely pummeled all night long. What I found most interesting, beyond the fact that the Bills had an all-access pass to the A gap for most of the evening, was Brady’s ability to let his body go limp while in mid-air. He talked in his GQ fashion shoot video last week about his desire to keep his muscles pliable, so that when he hits the ground he doesn’t suffer injuries.

But man, it’s pretty incredible to be throwing a pass and then one split-second later being able to shut your body off and hit the ground like a crash test dummy.

He’s really good at it, and it’s something that you’d think would require practice. But where does one even practice such a thing? Did Brady rent a bouncy castle this summer and let his family take free shots at him all afternoon?

Whatever he did to learn it, it’s probably a good thing that he did. It might have kept him alive on Monday night.

–A new, fun game I play whenever watching an NFL game is called “Guess The Penalty.” Seemingly every third or fourth play, the game is stopped so that we can see the referee step into the spotlight and announce to us the minor infraction that was committed. My go-to picks are always illegal formation or illegal contact. I just love seeing the game interrupted because a tackle was an extra foot too far off the line, or because a defensive back got in a hand-fight with a receiver. I truly hate to see these great athletes actually be given an arena to compete; I much prefer to see flags fly. What a sport!

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–It was an off night for Rob Gronkowski, who didn’t quite look like the overpowering freak that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. But if the offensive line had held up just a little bit on the Patriots’ final play of the first quarter, I would have had my gift “Cover Rob Gronkowski Graphic.”

Alas, Brady got walloped, and so my fun has been spoiled. But I’m still going to make the damn graphic.

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–Not to sound too many alarms, but the Patriots potentially head into Denver, a place that’s been the most difficult venue for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, with a wide receiving corps that consists of Brandon LaFell, Chris Harper, and … Matthew Slater. For old time’s sake, maybe the Patriots can get Austin Collie and Matthew Mulligan back into the mix, and maybe Brady can throw some deep balls to Slater to bring back lovely Patriots memories from the 2013 AFC Championship Game.

–Edelman may be gone, and Amendola may be at least temporarily injured, but the #FerociousJuke lived to fight another day.

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Sorry, Stephon Gilmore. You just got juked. Ferociously.

–James White did a very nice job in what was for sure his best game as a pro. His numbers were almost nonexistent (14 rushing yards, 32 receiving yards), but he was the only Patriot to find his way into the end zone all night. On his touchdown catch in the second quarter, he made everyone in New England say “oh it’s James White” to “JAMES WHITE, GET OUT OF BOUNDS!!” to “Oh … James White scored.”

You can’t say that he’s “arrived” or anything like that, but for the first time in a regular-season game, we got a glimpse of how White was able to rush for 4,000 yards and 45 touchdowns at Wisconsin.

Nice little stiff-arm, too.

Patriots running back James White breaks a tackle on a touchdown reception against the Buffalo Bills. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Patriots running back James White breaks a tackle on a touchdown reception against the Buffalo Bills. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)


A Patriots fan holds a sign mocking Rex Ryan. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

A Patriots fan holds a sign mocking Rex Ryan. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

No. Just. No.

–Tyrod Taylor is one tough fellow. After clearly injuring his shoulder while toppling to the turf late in the game, Taylor looked to be grabbing the front of his shoulder pads between every snap, sort of as a de facto sling to keep his throwing arm from hanging. Yet he stayed in the game and kept on slinging, right down to the very last second.

It’s commendable. But I have to wonder if Rex Ryan and/or the Bills training staff cares much about Taylor’s well-being. The kid clearly had an injury yet was allowed to stay in the game and keep taking hits. But it’s fine, because according to Rex, Tyrod said he was all right. As we all know, tough athletes are always quick to be open and honest about their injuries and they never hesitate to take themselves out of games as a precaution, and therefore they don’t need anybody to look after their health from the sideline.

Perhaps it’s just sticking out a bit more than usual because it came a day after Case Keenum suffered an obvious concussion in the middle of the field and was essentially left out there to bleed by Jeff Fisher and the Rams staff.

Player safety, though. Oh, and integrity, too. But mostly, air pressure in footballs. That’s what’s important.

–Tavon Wilson is this week’s winner of the “Decleating People On Special Teams Blocks Is Just So Much Fun” award.

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–Maybe Leodis McKelvin is a great person and maybe he’s a great football player. I won’t sit here and try to tell you that he’s neither of those things.

But maybe Leodis McKelvin should fake a flu the next time he’s scheduled to play in Foxboro. It is just not his place.

–Jerry Hughes was, obviously, a half-mile offside when the Patriots rushed to the line after seeing the Bills substituting players. But the linebacker still had a chance to tackle White, thereby preventing a touchdown and setting up a second-and-goal from the 3-yard line. Instead, as he approached White at full speed … he let up, made no attempt to tackle the ball carrier, turned around and raised his arms at his sideline.

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If you’re literally 25 yards offside at the snap, you might as well at least take advantage of it. That’s not great situational football all-around, but if I expected that out of a Rex Ryan team, then that’s my fault.

–Who is this guy taunting Tom Brady?

If that was my employee I’d smack him in the jowls and say hey [poop] brick. Don’t taunt the opposing team’s quarterback after we got lucky with an offensive holding penalty.

But Rex? Well, Rex isn’t that type of coach. Rex is right there with ya.

–Rob Gronkowski made a rather impressive catch up the left sideline early in the fourth quarter. After Gronkowski secured the ball, Bacarri Rambo popped up and signaled incomplete … after a clear, obvious catch.

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I was kind of surprised that Roger Goodell didn’t magically appear to offer Rambo a 10-year contract to be an NFL referee.

–Short week. Denver. Thanksgiving. Injuries to Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson. The NFL’s No. 1 pass defense waiting for Brady.

Certainly, some obstacles lie ahead. If the Patriots lose Sunday night, there really will be no shame in it. But if they manage to figure out a way to win … that could really be a moment that defines this team’s character. We learned all about the character of the ’14 team, from the “on to Cincinnati” game following the Kansas City embarrassment, to the two 14-point comebacks vs. Baltimore in the divisional round, to the remarkable fourth-quarter comeback against Seattle in the Super Bowl. That team, quite obviously, had some serious guts.

What is the 2015 team made of? We’ll get a good idea on Sunday night in Denver.

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Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here. You can email him or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.