The Patriots’ 37-16 win over the Bills on Sunday is one of those games where the stat sheet obfuscates the truth.
The Patriots gained 411 yards, scored 37 points, and won going away, so everything should be hunky-dory.
But this win did not come easy for the Patriots’ offense. As the regular season comes to an end, the Patriots are struggling with injuries and becoming far too dependent on two players.
Thank goodness for Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis. They are the Patriots’ only skill players who can consistently create separation and gain extra yards, especially with Chris Hogan, Rex Burkhead, and James White all out with injuries.
And with not much of a supporting cast, the Patriots are resorting to gimmicks and trickery to move the ball.
When the Patriots got into the red zone, they broke out a jet sweep to third-string tight end Jacob Hollister, who gained 5 yards but maybe could’ve had a touchdown if he kicked it outside.
Of Tom Brady’s 28 passes, he had three screen passes and 10 play-action passes. Brady was 5 of 8 for 72 yards, a sack, and a 44-yard pass interference on play-action. But when you’re calling it that much, it’s because the receivers can’t create separation on their own.
And in the third quarter, the Patriots had to resort to the no-huddle offense to move the ball. It gained them yards between the 20s, but they had to settle for a field goal.
Brandin Cooks was nonexistent again, catching two of five passes for 19 yards. The Bills took away the middle of the field from Danny Amendola, and Brady’s only other option was a check-down throw to Lewis or Dwayne Allen.
The Patriots survived a scare from the Bills, pouring on 21 points and 133 yards in the final 16 minutes after the Bills emotionally let up. And they locked up the first-round bye for the eighth straight year.
The bye looks even more important this year, as it gives Hogan, Burkhead, and White an extra week to get healthy.
The Patriots badly need them back because the offense doesn’t have much firepower right now.
Other observations after rewatching the tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Brady’s pick-6 to Jordan Poyer was strikingly similar to the one he threw to Robert Alford in last February’s Super Bowl. The Bills came out in a two-deep safety look with Micah Hyde and Poyer, but Poyer crept toward the line of scrimmage before the snap. Kenny Britt ran a slant pass underneath, Poyer made a great jump on the ball, and Brady never saw him.
■ The Bills didn’t blitz Brady once all day, and seemed to fluster him with a good mix of man and zone coverage, and flooding the middle of the field with linebackers to take away the short stuff to Amendola and Gronk. Brady had several uncharacteristically bad throws — throwing way behind a wide-open Gronkowski on a play-action pass over the middle; missing Cooks by 5 yards on a deep ball; almost getting Hollister killed on a post route by throwing wide and leading the tight end into the defender. Brady was not smiling on the bench in the fourth quarter, even with his team up big.
■ Brady may taketh away, but he also giveth. He had two beautiful throws to Gronkowski in stride over the middle, and another perfect ball to Amendola on a crossing route for a first down. Plus Brady’s 17-yard touchdown throw to Gronkowski was incredible. Brady noticed the man-to-man coverage and a 6-inch height difference between Gronk and Hyde, and lobbed an absolutely perfect back-shoulder throw that only Gronkowski could reach. Gronk did the rest with a highlight-reel, one-handed catch.
And you’ve got to love that after the pick-6, the Patriots went: touchdown, field goal, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.
■ The run blocking was mostly excellent, though they still struggled in short-yardage situations, getting stuffed on a third-and-2 and only converting a fourth-and-1 thanks to a second effort by Lewis.
Early in the first quarter, Lewis got dropped for just 2 yards on a toss sweep when center David Andrews whiffed on a block on Bills linebacker Matt Milano on the second level. But on the next series, the Patriots came back with the same toss sweep, Andrews executed the block this time, and it sprung Lewis for a 13-yard gain. Andrews also did a great job on second-level blocks on two nice runs for Mike Gillislee (6 and 12 yards).
Allen also had a terrific seal block on that 13-yard run by Lewis. And Shaq Mason once again showed impressive athleticism in pulling around the edge.
■ The offensive line was great, in general. The Bills’ pass rush didn’t test them much, but the Patriots allowed just two hits on 32 dropbacks, both sacks. Nate Solder allowed the one true sack of the day when he didn’t pick up Kyle Williams stunting around the end and sacking Brady on a key third-down play in the red zone. Otherwise, Brady had a ton of time in the pocket and was able to find most of his check-down receivers.
■ Lewis is such a fun player to watch and such a tough matchup for defenses. We didn’t calculate his yards after contact, but there are few better in the league at gaining extra yardage.
The fourth-and-1 lunge was obviously a huge play, and on another run, Lewis was hit at the line of scrimmage but still churned out 6 yards. His patience on his 12-yard screen pass touchdown was phenomenal — watch him stutter step a couple of times to give Solder and Mason enough time to set up their blocks — and on his 4-yard touchdown run, he was hit at the 2 but still crossed the goal line. Most impressively, Lewis rushed for 46 yards and a touchdown on 7.7 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, when everyone in the building knew he was getting the ball.
Even with Burkhead and White out, Gillislee could only get 15 snaps because Lewis, who played 51, was running so well.
■ Speaking of Gillislee, he ran hard on his seven touches, gaining 43 total yards. And he looked good on that 15-yard screen pass. But he also seemed to miss the correct lane a few times and doesn’t have Lewis’s vision or feel.
When the Bills had the ball
■ This was a solid game by the Patriots’ run defense, especially when considering injuries to Kyle Van Noy and Alan Branch. But after allowing 183 rushing yards to the Bills in the first matchup, the Patriots allowed just 84 on 3.5 yards per carry this time. Their discipline up front was excellent — Lawrence Guy and Marquis Flowers getting outside their blockers to set the edge, Eric Lee patiently defending the backside, and Ricky Jean Francois holding his ground and fighting off his block to stuff LeSean McCoy for 1 yard.
We counted six “stuffs” (a run of 1 yard or fewer) on six of the Bills’ 21 run plays — two by Trey Flowers and one each by Marquis Flowers, Malcom Brown, Guy, and Jean Francois. Guy has been a force in the middle of the Patriots defense all season and has been an excellent free agent pickup.
■ The Patriots also did a great job of not biting on play-action bootlegs, keeping Tyrod Taylor contained in the pocket and covering the running back out of the backfield.
■ The secondary certainly had its struggles. The Patriots played Cover 1 for most of the game, bringing an extra run defender into the box and daring Taylor to beat them on the outside. And more than a few times, Taylor did. He twice beat Malcolm Butler for big completions to Deonte Thompson, and Stephon Gilmore couldn’t cover Kelvin Benjamin, allowing five catches on seven targets for 70 yards. Benjamin was playing with a bad foot, but Gilmore couldn’t stop him on the hitch and comeback routes, and let Benjamin even break free one time for a 35-yard catch-and-run.
■ Of course, Taylor is still a terrible pocket passer, and eventually he self-destructed. He missed Charles Clay streaking wide open over the middle, threw out of bounds on a deep shot to Thompson, and took six killer sacks. Jordan Richards did a nice job of spying on Taylor.
■ Brown’s 15-yard sack in the third quarter was an unheralded play of the game. The Patriots had just tied the score at 16, and the big sack on first down put the Bills way behind the chains and forced a key three and out.
■ Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison had a few impressive play designs. The 46-yarder to Thompson was especially nice. Taylor ran a play-action bootleg to his right, with Thompson heading toward the sideline and Butler playing underneath coverage. But Taylor stopped abruptly in the pocket, and Thompson reversed field and circled back to the left sideline, where he was wide open.
And some play designs were . . . not so impressive. The Bills reached the Patriots’ 10 on the opening drive of the third quarter, then called a convoluted throwback screen pass to fullback Patrick DiMarco that the Patriots sniffed out for an 8-yard loss. Taylor never saw Mike Tolbert streak open in the flat for a potential touchdown, and the big loss sabotaged an important drive.
■ Another way the stats lie — the Patriots had six sacks, but their pass rush is an issue. Marquis Flowers did a great job of tracking down Taylor for 2½ sacks, while Deatrich Wise picked up 1½ coverage sacks and Butler earned his first sack of the season on a well-timed blitz. But other than Trey Flowers, the Patriots don’t have anyone up front who can consistently win 1-on-1 matchups. Not surprisingly, the Patriots have forced just one turnover in their last three games, the fluky interception at the end of the Pittsburgh game. When they face good quarterbacks in the playoffs, they will struggle (like they did for much of the Steelers game) if they don’t get more pressure up front.
■ David Harris didn’t play a snap, as the Patriots went with more speed against Taylor and McCoy. And for the second straight game, Eric Rowe (51 snaps) played ahead of Jonathan Jones (zero snaps). The Bills had bigger receivers, and Rowe has much better size than Jones.