BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — As he stood at the podium dissecting the latest win, Tom Brady had to remind himself of the final score, and that the Patriots left Buffalo with a handy 23-3 victory, the team’s eighth in a row.
“Any time you win on the road against a division opponent, it’s a good win,” Brady said. “It was a great win for our team. We needed it.”
Brady was finally able to crack a few smiles about an hour after the game. But Sunday’s win was surprisingly frustrating for the Patriots’ offense.
After the first series, which ended with a 50-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, Brady exploded at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the sideline. McDaniels appeared to mouth the words “wide open,” a reference to the receiver on the left side of the field that Brady didn’t see on third down. That comment set Brady off, requiring team chaplain Jack Easterby to step in and separate Brady from McDaniels.
“It’s just football,” Brady said. “We’ve been around each other a lot. I love Josh.”
The outburst was reminiscent of the one Brady had with former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in 2011.
“Just two competitive people, and that’s the way it goes,” Brady said. “I wish we’d score every time we touched the ball and score touchdowns on every possession.”
Brady regained his composure, but the offense still had trouble clicking. The Patriots were held without a touchdown in the first half for the first time all season, settling for three field goals.
And the passing game struggled for much of the day, with Brady throwing for a modest 258 yards. He was sacked three times, threw a bad interception late in the game, and was held without a touchdown pass for only the second time this season. Brady looked dour on the sideline, huddled up in that oversized jacket.
Brady wasn’t the only Patriot to lose his cool in Sunday’s win, either. Rob Gronkowski was frustrated with the officiating all day, and he finally erupted with 4:50 left in the game, diving at an unprotected Tre’Davious White and landing a flying forearm to the back of White’s head that sent him into the concussion protocol. Gronkowski was given an unnecessary roughness penalty, his fourth penalty of the day.
“I was just really frustrated at that moment,” Gronkowski said. “Definitely got to keep your cool.”
Fortunately, the Patriots have discovered a new element of their offense the last two weeks — the running game.
The Patriots ran for 191 yards against the Bills, and 196 yards against the Dolphins last week. It marks just the second time in the 18-year Brady/Bill Belichick era that the Patriots rushed for 190-plus yards in consecutive games (the first came in 2012).
Take out Brian Hoyer’s two kneeldowns at the end, and the Patriots rushed for 193 yards on 33 carries for a spectacular 5.85 average.
Dion Lewis was fantastic again, gaining 92 yards on 15 carries and posting a career-long 44-yard rush in the second quarter.
And Rex Burkhead again ran hard between the tackles, rushing 12 times for 78 yards and adding two hard-nosed touchdown runs in the second half to break the game open.
As frustrating as the passing game was — from Brady’s timing to his receivers not getting separation to the offensive line not protecting well — the rushing game was equally impressive.
“It’s been a huge thing for our offense,” Brady said of the reemergence of the run game. “I don’t think you can just count on us dropping back 50-60 times to throw the ball. I think you really have to defend the running game and our play-action’s coming off that. We had a lot of big plays off play-action today.”
The passing game wasn’t all bad, of course. Gronkowski bailed out the Patriots several times in the second half en route to nine catches for 147 yards. It was Gronk’s fifth 100-yard game in seven appearances in his hometown. Gronkowski had just two catches for 28 yards by halftime, and seven catches for 119 yards in the second half.
“I wouldn’t say it was an adjustment,” Belichick said. “Rob’s a big target. He’s a hard guy to defend.”
The biggest takeaway from Sunday’s win is that the Patriots are well-rounded enough to win any type of game. They can obviously win a shootout with Brady, but they can also win an AFC East slugfest. They had that type of balance in the 2014 and 2016 Super Bowl seasons, and didn’t in 2015, when they petered out in the AFC Championship game.
Of course, Belichick won’t admit the importance of establishing the run and staying balanced on offense.
“As I’ve said many times, we try to go out there and score points and run the offense, and win games,” he said. “So, if we run it, we run it. If we throw it, we throw it. If we drop-kick it, we drop-kick it. Whatever we can do to move the ball and score points, that’s good. I’m not trying to create a bunch of stats. We are trying to win.”
But on a day when Brady and the passing game were frustrated, the Patriots were still able to come away with a 20-point victory thanks to the run game.
“You know, it just wasn’t as good as it was capable of being,” Brady said of the offense. “But it was good enough today.”
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