ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Tom Brady and the Patriots have often come to New Era Field and been horrible football house guests. They take what they want and do what they want while visiting the Buffalo Bills with little regard for their hosts. Brady has toyed with the Bills throughout his career in many games here. This wasn’t one of those games.
On a blustery night in Buffalo — that feels redundant — the Patriots were considerate guests and had considerable difficulty getting the ball into the end zone on offense.
Blame it on a World Series hangover — coach Bill Belichick started his postgame presser by congratulating the Red Sox — but a Patriots offense that had scored 38 or more points in four straight games scuffled in Buffalo. A team that Brady has treated as his personal football foil actually foiled Brady’s offense for most of the night. The Patriots offense ended up with as many touchdowns as their defense (one), and the Fightin’ Belichicks got out of town with an underwhelming 25-6 victory. The Patriots can only hope that the afterglow of the Best Red Sox Team Ever distracted fans from this “Monday Night Football” clunker.
This is one of those games that will look better in the box score than it did in reality. The Patriots fifth consecutive win was frustrating, but they’ll take it. A team that started 1-2 is now 6-2 and on track at the halfway mark of the season.
There was an air of resignation in Western New York about this game and the presence of Buffalo’s personal pigskin tormentor, Brady. TB12 entered the game with a 28-3 record all-time against the Bills, the most wins by any quarterback against an opponent in NFL history. The Bills are in the midst of a reset season after snapping their 17-year playoff drought last year. They were playing without rookie quarterback Josh Allen (elbow), the latest heir to a franchise quarterback throne that has remained in abeyance since Jim Kelly retired, and employed journeyman Derek Anderson to lead what you could generously call their offense.
That’s why it was odd for Brady and the Patriots to find themselves in a rock fight with the Bills, only leading, 12-6, at the start of the fourth quarter. Luckily, for the Patriots, Buffalo came in only averaging 11.6 points per game, the lowest in the NFL.
The Patriots moved the ball against the Bills, racking up 387 yards of offense, but in a rarity on trips up here they couldn’t find the end zone. The Patriots had to settle for four Stephen Gostkowski field goals, three in the first half that gave them a 9-3 halftime lead. Where was Red Sox slugger Steve Pearce when you needed him to break a game wide open?
The Patriots finally broke through on their first drive of the fourth quarter, marching 85 yards in 10 plays.
They had been just 3 of 11 on third down through three quarters, but converted when it counted on their first possession of the fourth quarter.
Brady hit Julian Edelman for 26 yards on a third-and-6 from the New England 19 and James White (10 catches for 79 yards) followed with another third-down conversion on third and 8. A back-shoulder throw from Brady to Chris Hogan for 20 yards moved the ball to the Buffalo 1. White squeezed in from a yard out with 9:58 to play. We finally had a touchdown in this mediocre Monday night affair. But on cue with the theme of the night, Brady’s 2-point conversion pass was intercepted and the Patriots led 18-6.
“They don’t give up any big plays. So, we were just kind of moving it down the field and we got into the red area and we just couldn’t get into the end zone,” said Brady, who finished 29 of 45 for 324 yards. “There were just not enough positive plays down there. We had a couple of opportunities that we took advantage of. I think if we score those touchdowns we would feel a lot better. But they’ve been playing good all year. They haven’t given up many yards, but we hung in there. We grinded it out, some tough conditions, but we found a way to win. “
The Patriots are going to have to put up a lot more points next week against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to extend their winning streak. The method was unusual, but the result wasn’t.
Brady’s 15th career win at New Era Stadium/Ralph Wilson Stadium made him the third-winningest quarterback at the stadium regardless of team affiliation, trailing only Buffalo Bills QBs Jim Kelly (59) and Joe Ferguson (46).
Honestly, this wasn’t really a fair fight. The offensively inept Bills, led by former Patriots offensive assistant Brian Daboll, dug deep into their bag of tricks to try to generate offense. The Bills came out in the Wildcat and ran a reverse flea-flicker pass on their first possession. The Bills were hopelessly outgunned with Anderson at quarterback
In the first half, the Patriots outgained the Bills, 221 yards to 99, and only punted once. Brady was 20 of 31 for 202 yards, but it felt as if the Patriots were driving their offense with the emergency brake still engaged. They just couldn’t get where they wanted to go. Even Buffalo homeboy Rob Gronkowski, who normally dominates his childhood team when he comes home, had a quiet evening with three grabs for 43 yards.
“We got to put some touchdowns up. You can’t just come away with field goals all day,” said Gronkowski, who returned to action after missing last week’s game against the Bears. “It just comes down to execution, getting more open so Tom has more room to throw the ball. Just got to execute better down there for sure.”
The Patriots found themselves only leading by 3 points midway through the third quarter. After a Patriots three-and-out, Buffalo’s Micah Hyde ripped off a 31-yard punt return to the New England 35. The Bills then engineered your classic four-play, 2-yard drive, concluded with a 51-yard field goal with the wind by Stephen Hauschka that made the score 9-6 with 7:39 to go.
The New England defense put the offense in perfect position to finally penetrate the end zone after a Kyle Van Noy strip-sack was recovered by Patrick Chung at the Buffalo 29. But they had to settle for a 25-yard field goal and a 12-6 lead.
It wasn’t just Buffalo’s defense that gave Brady and Co. fits. The windy conditions in Orchard Park, N.Y., produced what Brady called a knuckle ball effect with some passes.
“It was pretty windy. It was weird. The ball was moving weird,” he said.
The whole game felt like a curveball considering how potent the Patriots offense had been in its previous four games and the fact the Patriots were so depleted at running back they used wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.
The good news for the Patriots was that they didn’t turn the ball over against Buffalo. That marked the first time all year that the Patriots offense didn’t commit a turnover. Belichick was pleased about that.
Not turning the ball over was about the best you could say about the Patriots offense on this night, but it was enough.