By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — For the past few weeks, it became more and more clear that Saturday’s meeting between the Bills and Patriots was going to be a heavyweight fight.
The game lived up to the hype. And then some.
Considering two of the best defenses in the NFL would be taking the field, both offenses performed a lot better than most people would have expected entering the game. The Patriots surprisingly lost the turnover battle and had a fourth-down decision come back to bite them, while having a pair of coverage busts for big plays. Nick Folk was steady from 50-plus. And in the end, a red zone defensive stand was needed to seal the 24-17 win.
It was a game that could have gone either way, but it was also a game where the Patriots proved they were good enough to earn the win and the AFC East crown that came with it.
As is almost always the case, the Patriots had their fair share of Ups and Downs.
Lots of folks have spent the past few weeks wondering if this is the end for Tom Brady in New England. The 42-year-old quarterback put forth a fairly convincing case that the time for his departure has not quite arrived.
Brady started the game completing his first 10 passes, gaining 96 yards and throwing a touchdown in the process. He’d finish the game with 26 completions on 33 attempts, good for his best completion percentage of the season. His 111.0 passer rating was his third-best mark of the season, and he engineered an offense that gained 143 rushing yards as well.
In a must-win game against a great defense, Brady was at his best. Nobody should have been surprised.
Lawrence Guy and J.C. Jackson
It might be wrong to spotlight just two defensive players in a game where the defense played reasonably well on the whole, minus two notably bad plays. But the three-play sequence put forth by Lawrence Guy and J.C. Jackson was too impressive to ignore.
It came late in the second quarter, just after the Patriots took a 10-3 lead. On first down, Devin Singletary took an inside handoff and thought he had room. He did have room. That was, until Lawrence Guy completely discarded tackle Cody Ford and then grabbed Singletary with one arm and stopped him in his tracks for just a one-yard gain.
On the next play, Josh Allen hit Isiah McKenzie on a crossing pattern, and the receiver — like Singletary — believed he might have had some space to operate.But Jackson read the play perfectly and grabbed the receiver’s leg, tripping him up to limit him for a gain of three.
On third down, Allen threw to the right sideline for Cole Beasley on a comeback, but Jackson read the play and burst toward the receiver, arriving at the same time as the ball for a third-down pass breakup that forced a punt.
Jackson also had a pass breakup on the final play of the game, a fourth-down prayer into the end zone by Allen, and he finished with a team-high six solo tackles. And Guy had six total tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits.
Ever since losing Stephen Gostkowski, Bill Belichick has shown hesitancy to attempt long field goals. Whether it was Mike Nugent, or Nick Folk, or Kai Forbath, the Patriots have either punted or attempted to convert fourth downs instead of trying kicks of more than 40 yards.
That philosophy changed on Saturday, when points were at a premium. And Nick Folk rewarded the coaching staff’s faith by drilling a 51-yard field goal in the third quarter to give the Patriots a 13-10 lead.
Folk also connected on a 36-yard field goal and a 20-yard chip shot, while also going 2-for-2 on PATs. Without a perfect day from the kicker, it’s no doubt a different story coming out of Foxboro on Saturday.
The man is a baller. The man is tough.
Much more can be said — and has been said — about his performance on Saturday. But his 30-yard catch-and-run to kick off the game-winning drive was quintessential Edelman. It was the type of performance that’s become common for the receiver, but it ought not be taken for granted.
BONUS: Sony Michel
There was a lot to like about Sony Michel’s game on Saturday. He was decisive, he was quick, he was willing and able to drop a shoulder and fall forward when necessary, and he was able to break free for a 25-yard run. In all, he had 96 yards on 21 carries on what was a productive day for the run game.
Special credit to Rex Burkhead for shaking off a goal-line tackle attempt from Lorenzo Alexander to score the game-winning touchdown.
BONUS: Dont’a Hightower
Dont’a Hightower was a problem for the Bills on this day. He had 1.5 sacks — combining for a sack with Adam Butler on third-and-goal on Buffalo’s final drive — and five total tackles. He was a problem.
Rex Burkhead’s Fumblerooski
The Patriots’ opening drive was looking promising, after Brady and Edelman hooked up to convert a third-and-3. On the next play, Brady patiently waited for Burkhead to free himself on a screen pass, and Burkhead was off for a big gain. Burkhead, though, didn’t know Jordan Poyer was pursuing him from behind, and the Buffalo safety punched the ball free.
Micah Hyde returned the fumble 31 yards, setting up the Bills for a field goal to grab an early 3-0 lead. Burkhead would of course make up for his error in a big way, gaining 77 yards on four receptions and also rushing for 20 yards and the game-winning touchdown on five carries. But it was not the start the Patriots needed.
Early in the first half, Patrick Chung got burned by Dawson Knox on a third-and-7. Chung was bailed out on that play by a bad overthrow by Allen. Later in the first half, Chung was once again burned by Knox. This time, Allen threw the perfect pass, leading to a 33-yard catch that set up the Bills’ game-tying touchdown before halftime. (Knox’s catch was initially ruled a touchdown, but replay review showed that he was down at the 1-yard line.)
The Patriots took a 13-10 lead in the third quarter and were looking to force another Buffalo punt. It looked like the pass rush was going to swallow up Allen, and Devin McCourty might have gotten a false sense of security from that rush closing in on the QB. Whether that was the case or not, McCourty was caught standing flat-footed as John Brown burned past him deep over the middle. Allen was able to put his rocket arm to good use, throwing a back-foot deep chuck up the field and hitting Brown, who was several yards behind McCourty.
Brown ran in for the game-changing 53-yard touchdown strike that gave Buffalo a 17-13 lead midway through the third.
Without knowing the coverage, it’s possible that Stephon Gilmore bears some responsibility for the score. But it did appear that Gilmore expected McCourty to be able to pick up Brown.
Just as the offensive line was getting into a groove, Marcus Cannon went down in the second quarter. He didn’t return.
It didn’t look good when Cannon went down, though to be fair, it never looks good when a 300-plus-pound player bends any limb the wrong way. Cannon was able to eventually walk off the field, which would suggest his ankle injury is not catastrophic. But the Patriots have to hope he can heal in time for January, as the team knows that Marshall Newhouse is not the world’s most reliable tackle.
BONUS: Mohamed Sanu
It’s not that Sanu had a bad game, it’s that he’s been struggling to make an impact on the offense, ever since his 10-catch game in Baltimore. He caught three passes for 24 yards in this one, including a catch on a third-and-5 before halftime where he didn’t get to the sticks and didn’t extend the ball before getting tackled. The Patriots ended up unsuccessfully going for it on the resulting fourth-and-1, on which Sanu appeared to have whiffed on a block, resulting in N’Keal Harry getting flipped behind the line of scrimmage. The Bills then scored a touchdown to tie the game.