ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The misses loomed large in the first half, two Stephen Gostkowski field goal attempts — one wide right and one wide left. They were part of the reason the Patriots trailed, 14-7, at the half on Sunday.
And though the Patriots scored 35 straight points in one second-half stretch, there remains the fact that Gostkowski has missed three field goals this season, including what would have been the winning points against the Cardinals in Week 2.
Gostkowski missed five in all of 2011.
The two misses against Buffalo came in the second quarter, the first a 49-yard attempt, the second a 42-yarder.
“I don’t know,” coach Bill Belichick said, of what went wrong for Gostkowski. “I’d have to take a look at it. They were both fairly close. We’ve got to make those kicks. But it’s the whole group — it’s the snap, it’s the hold, it’s the kick, it’s everything.”
Gostkowski did come back to hit his final attempt, a 30-yarder that capped the scoring with 1:56 left in the game.
“Just felt like it was another opportunity for us to kick under pressure,” Belichick said.
Gostkowski did not speak to the media after the game.
After Rob Ninkovich had just seven tackles through the first three games — including an 0-fer in the opener against Tennessee — there were some questions about whether he was struggling and if he was having a hard time handling being a full-time defensive end.
Turns out, Ninkovich wasn’t happy with his play, either.
“You know, I hold myself accountable,” he said. “The previous couple of games I didn’t feel I was active enough and just changing things up on the offense. I was able to go out there and change up my rush styles, change up inside-outside moves, just kind of get back to being more energetic, I guess. Just getting after the ball — that was my mentality in this game and that will be my mentality moving forward.”
Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes were each credited with seven tackles Sunday, leading the team. Ninkovich also had a sack late in the third quarter on third and long, pushing right tackle Erik Pears back, then shedding Pears and taking down Ryan Fitzpatrick for a 5-yard loss.
Fitzpatrick fumbled on the play, but he was able to recover.
Devin McCourty, who received his share of criticism after the Ravens game, when he let two interceptions go through his hands and was called for a pass-interference penalty on Baltimore’s last possession, had a strong game, pulling in his first two interceptions of the season. The Patriots improved to 9-0 when McCourty has at least one interception.
McCourty, who spent some extra time catching balls last week, came down with a pass intended for T.J. Graham that was a touch short, and got his second in the fourth quarter.
On that play, McCourty picked off a pass intended for Stevie Johnson and returned it 34 yards. He looked to be headed for the end zone before running out of space on the sideline and getting pushed out of bounds at the 12.
McCourty declined to comment on his performance, so it was left to his good friend and fellow corner Kyle Arrington.
“It was great to see him go out there and make plays,” Arrington said. “We’re each other’s biggest fans — he’s mine and I’m his — and that’s really everybody on defense.”
Gronkowski fights back
Rob Gronkowski didn’t play a big role in the game against Baltimore, but he played a part early and often against the Bills — though his outing wasn’t without a hiccup.
The tight end, who appeared on the injury report Friday with a hip ailment, had a 41-yard fingertip reception on New England’s second possession to set up a Stevan Ridley touchdown, with he and Daniel Fells leading the way for the running back.
But later in the opening half, Gronkowski pulled in a pass over the middle and had the ball knocked loose by safety Jairus Byrd, who recovered the fumble. Gronkowski also had his hands on a ball near the goal line on the Patriots’ first drive of the third quarter, but it was knocked out by rookie Stephon Gilmore.
Despite the turnover, Tom Brady kept targeting Gronkowski, and he ended up with five receptions for 104 yards and the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth in front of family and friends — he grew up in nearby Williamsville.
“He really fought back after some tough plays there,” Belichick said.
Gronkowski was happy to bounce back after his early miscue.
“I had a fumble, a couple of drops, and I’ve just got to execute those plays. We can’t be having that,” Gronkowski said. “It hurts the team a lot and I’ve got to be protecting the ball better, no doubt about that. It’s awesome that Tom came back to me, trusted in my abilities, trusted in me throughout the whole game.”
Toeing the line
There was significant concern about how the Patriots’ offensive line would perform when it was learned that Logan Mankins would not make the trip. But the group was impressive, even against the Bills’ two very good tackles, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. “The offensive line did a great job,” Belichick said. “Buffalo is a good front. It was a good group effort. In the run game, it’s not about just one guy.” The Patriots managed to gain 247 yards on the ground after having been stymied in their last two games. “Our offensive line did an exceptional job,” Ridley said. “And really it wouldn’t have been done without them. It takes a team effort. It took 10 other players out there to do what we did on the ground.” The Bills were frustrated by their inability to stop the run. “The most discouraging thing about it is that they literally ran three running plays,’’ said Williams. “They ran the same thing over and over and over.”
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower left during the Bills’ second possession after sacking Fitzpatrick. He did not return. The injury was believed to be to his hamstring. The sack was the first in the rookie’s career . . . Though Wes Welker made nine catches for 129 yards, one week after he had 142 yards against the Ravens, it wasn’t all good for the wide receiver. Welker fumbled at the end of the second quarter, a mistake that left the Bills with a first down at the New England 21. But the defense bailed him out, with Vince Wilfork recovering a fumble on the 1-yard line. “That was huge,” Welker said. “Hats off to the defense for making that big play. It really put us in a good position going into halftime, and being able to fight back going into the second half.” . . . Welker, who has at least one reception in 81 straight regular-season games, passed Troy Brown to move into second place on the team’s all-time receiving list with 6,485 yards. He has a ways to go to catch Stanley Morgan (10,352).
Kraft is honored
Patriots owner Robert Kraft received the Halas Award from the Professional Football Writers of America before Sunday’s game. The award is given annually to the NFL person who has performed with abandon despite personal challenges off the field . . . Belichick moved past Chuck Knox into sole possession of eighth place on the NFL victory list with 194. Dan Reeves is next with 201 . . . With Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Welker, and Gronkowski each going over 100 yards, it marked only the second time in NFL history that a team had two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers in the same game. Green Bay did it Dec. 28, 2008, when Ryan Grant and DeShawn Wynn had 100 yards on the ground and Donald Driver and Greg Jennings had 100 in the air . . . The Patriots save their best rushing performances for games against the Bills, as they topped 200 yards on the ground (247) for the first time since 2010, when they did it twice in wins against Buffalo . . . The Patriots haven’t lost three straight games since 2002, a streak of 157 games . . . The Patriots scored 30 or more points against the Bills for the fifth straight game . . . Brady (41,206 passing yards) moved past Kerry Collins (40,922) into 11th place all time, and moved past Collins into 10th place in career completions (3,498).Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com.