FOXBOROUGH — The majority of the Patriots’ 17-9 loss to the Bills in their regular-season finale Sunday was filled with uninspiring football from the home team.
If there was even any excitement going into a game in which the Patriots had already locked up home field for the AFC playoffs and Buffalo was eliminated from playoff contention, it was deflated when Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman headlined the Patriots’ list of inactives, foreshadowing what was expected — a game filled with backups on both sides of the ball.
It was quiet in the parking lots before the game and seemed even quieter inside Gillette Stadium.
Yet the crowd of 68,756 — or what was left of it — had something to cheer when backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo relieved Tom Brady for the second half.
“It was a good experience,” Garoppolo said. “Getting out there and actually getting some live reps will only help going forward.
“There’s plenty of room for improvement – there’s some good things, bad things, and things to learn from.”
Garoppolo, who had played 34 snaps in his rookie season entering Sunday, completed 10 of 17 passes for 90 yards, but it was his scrambles out of the pocket that got the crowd and the Patriots’ sideline fired up.
In the fourth quarter, on first and 10 at the Patriots’ 31, Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes was headed straight for a sack but Garoppolo spun away from him and evaded a couple more tackles on the way to a laboring 4-yard gain.
After an incomplete pass to running back Brandon Bolden, Hughes had the rookie for what should have been another sack on third and 6, but Jukin’ Jimmy spun away once more, diving for a first down with a 9-yard gain.
Garoppolo finished with 16 rushing yards on four attempts, but it appeared to be much more as he ran every which way to avoid Buffalo’s front line.
“If I have to do it, you have to do it. It’s one of those things, you never know on a play if you’re going to have to [run] or not, so you just have to be ready,” Garoppolo said.
“It’s kind of instinct. It’s something that just kind of kicks in during the game. If you think about it, you’re going to get hit.”
Garoppolo’s teammates were jacked up on the sideline after he dived for the first down, most notably special teams captain Matthew Slater and defensive back Tavon Wilson.
“You always like to see a young guy get in there and get himself an opportunity, and there’s one thing about Jimmy, he’s a competitor and he loves the game of football and was able to get out there and make some plays with his feet,” Slater said. “You always want to see your teammates do well, especially a guy that has worked hard in the role he’s been asked to perform in. It’s not the easiest of roles, and for him to take advantage, we’re pumped for him.”
“He was extending plays, so I was trying to bring energy the best I can and be excited for my teammate,” Wilson added.
Garoppolo made some exciting plays with his feet, but he took his share of hits, too. On the second play of his first possession, Jarius Wynn crunched him for a 3-yard sack.
“I don’t get hit in practice, so that was a little different,” said Garoppolo, whose only other appearance came in Week 4, when Brady was pulled in the fourth quarter of a 41-14 loss at Kansas City.
“[Buffalo has] a good front four and a good pass rush. Always good to get that first hit out of the way, but the less, the better.”
On the next drive, Mario Williams sacked him for a 1-yard loss, then Hughes dropped him for a 3-yard loss, but the Bills were called for defensive holding.
Two plays later, facing third and 1, Garoppolo ran an option for 4 yards and the first down. The drive ended when the Patriots tried a similar call on fourth and 1. Garoppolo lowered his forearm into cornerback Ron Brooks and knocked off Brooks’s helmet, but he was stopped for a 1-yard loss.
“He might be a little bit sore tomorrow,” Slater joked. “We were happy to see him get up after every hit and bouncing around and continuing to compete, but hopefully he gets some ice on that body.”