FOXBOROUGH — It’s only human nature that the Patriots would not have had the same type of intensity preparing for their regular-season finale, a game essentially meaningless, given they already had clinched the top seed in the AFC playoffs and their opponent, the Bills, had been eliminated from contention.
Bill Belichick talked up Buffalo all week, and also voiced his displeasure with the performance of the New England defense against the Jets last Sunday, trying to prod his team into a strong finish.
On Sunday, however, human nature won out as the Patriots looked lackluster in a 17-9 loss to the Bills, who won their first-ever game at Gillette Stadium.
After the game, the Patriots mostly expressed frustration with the way they’d played, knowing it wasn’t their best effort.
“I think we’re all disappointed with the way we played today, with all three phases of the game,” captain Matthew Slater said. “We wanted to come out and compete and play well against these guys; it wasn’t one of those things where, ‘Hey, we’re just going to roll out there.’ We don’t do that here; Coach [Bill Belichick] doesn’t do that. We’re disappointed with today, but now we have to turn the page and focus on improving ourselves this week and then preparing for our opponents from there.”
The Bills were eliminated from playoff contention with a Week 16 loss at Oakland, but Sunday’s win gave them their first winning season since 2004, when they were quarterbacked by a man named Drew Bledsoe.
The Patriots rested starters Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer, Dan Connolly, Brandon Browner, and Dont’a Hightower. Unlike the others, however, Gronkowski was not on this week’s injury report – the team simply did not want to take the chance that its most important offensive player not named Tom Brady would get injured.
Gronkowski has been hurt or unavailable for some or all of the postseason in each of the last three years. It was a surprising move by Belichick, but it made sense.
“We had some guys that have played a lot of football for us; we felt like today would be an opportunity to have some guys who haven’t played as much to get an opportunity to play,” Belichick said when asked about sitting Gronkowski. “That’s kind of the way we managed the team. We tried to create opportunities for some guys that the experience will benefit them going forward.”
Belichick did a conference call about 90 minutes after the game rather than his usual news conference at a podium; he spent some time with team trainers and medical staff for an undisclosed issue. Belichick wouldn’t provide details, saying, “It’s no big deal . . . I’ll be all right.”
Despite missing two of five starters on the offensive line and his two most-targeted receivers, Brady played the entire first half. He completed just 8 of 16 passes for 80 yards, and the Patriots scored just 6 points with him running the offense.
The offense has had its share of struggles recently. Against the Jets and Bills, they totaled fewer than 500 yards of offense; the 231 yards in New York last Sunday was a season low, with Sunday’s 260 the second-lowest this season.
Belichick said the unit “just couldn’t make enough plays.” Receiver Brandon LaFell said the offense “did a little bit . . . but also we left a lot of plays out there.” Offensive lineman Ryan Wendell said he’s happy the Patriots will have plenty of practice time before their first playoff game.
But Brady took a different tone.
“We have a lot of confidence as an offense,” he said. “We’ve been able to score points against a lot of good teams, a lot of good defenses. Nothing that we’ve done this past season is going to help two weeks from now.
“What’s going to matter is how well we prepare this week and how well we prepare next week and how ready we are to go whenever we play. I’m not worried about us lacking confidence going out there and executing. We’ve got a lot of good players.”
The Bills moved the ball with ease on their opening drive, going 80 yards in just six plays against most of the Patriots’ starting defense.
The big play was a 43-yard catch-and-run by rookie Sammy Watkins. Darrelle Revis tried to break up the pass but whiffed.
Devin McCourty saved a touchdown, though Buffalo would get it two plays later, on a 6-yard pass from Kyle Orton (16 of 23 for 176 yards, touchdown) to Robert Woods.
Buffalo’s second touchdown came in the second quarter, on a 13-play drive that took more than seven minutes. The Bills again scored from inside the red zone, becoming the first team since the Colts on Nov. 16 to score more than one red-zone touchdown against the Patriots.
The Patriots had allowed just one touchdown over their previous 12 red-zone opportunities, spanning five games.
The Bills were the first AFC team to win at Gillette Stadium since 2008, and got just their third win over New England in the Belichick/Brady era. Bills coach Doug Marrone and Orton were happy the team ended the season on a high note.
McCourty expected nothing less than the effort by Buffalo.
“We knew they were going to come here and play hard,’’ he said. “If you put us in the same situation, we’d go out there and try to get a win too.
“Obviously we didn’t play as well as we wanted to, but I think right now it’s all about focus on going forward, see what we need to do from the film as far as X’s and O’s and how we can get better. Anytime you come out here in a performance, there’s things you’re going to do well and there’s things that probably in the game we haven’t done well in the last couple games, so it will still be a focus of ours and also understanding the mistakes we made today, you can’t afford it because it will be the end of your season.”
Rookie Jimmy Garoppolo played the second half for the Patriots, but with Nate Solder leaving before the half with a knee injury, Garoppolo was playing behind a shaky offensive line and he was on the run quite a bit.
Garoppolo finished 10 of 17 passing for 90 yards.
More coverage:Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.