FOXBOROUGH — Nothing has come easy for Tom Brady this season, including a 10th straight AFC East division title. Brady and the Patriots finally got those celebratory hats and T-shirts out of the boxes and into their lockers Sunday on the third try. But the way they did it — a slow, unrecognizable grind — was a microcosm of their season.
This hasn’t been a vintage Patriots team, and Sunday wasn’t a vintage Brady performance.
With Josh Gordon suspended, Rob Gronkowski diminished, and Chris Hogan still hovering outside Brady’s Circle of Trust, Brady’s options are more limited than usual, and so is the Patriots passing attack. Quarterbacks on the other side of 40 need more assistance, not less. Brady isn’t receiving it, at least not from this collection of receivers.
The sum of a series of unfortunate events and unfortunate player personnel evaluations relegated Brady to the role of game manager and handoff hero in a 24-12 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium.
This was a bottom-line game for the Patriots. In soccer terms, they just needed to get the result. They did, but it wasn’t pretty or reassuring. It was adequate, so was Brady’s performance. He finished 13 of 24 for 126 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions and a QB rating (48.3) that was the only thing lower than the buzz factor for the penultimate game of the regular season.
You have go back to 2006 and a four-interception performance against the Indianapolis Colts to find the last time Brady had a lower quarterback rating. That night it was 34.0. Tom Terrific accumulated his fewest passing yards (in a meaningful game) in five years; he threw for 122 yards in a 34-20 win over the Bills on Dec. 29, 2013.
In what felt like a holiday getaway game that everyone just wanted to get over with, the Patriots’ preferred method of moving the ball wasn’t via Brady’s gilded arm. Save for a 32-yard touchdown strike to Julian Edelman on fourth down in the third quarter, Brady’s best plays were handoffs.
Facing the NFL’s top-rated pass defense, the Patriots took the path of least resistance, the ground. Led by rookie Sony Michel (18 carries for 116 yards and a score), they rushed for 273 yards on 47 carries, their highest rushing output since posting 277 yards against the Oakland Raiders in 2008.
After this performance, Brady is going to be hard-pressed to earn any of the $1 million incentives the Patriots added to his contract for finishing in the top five in certain categories, save for passing yards. Give him credit. He stuck with what worked Sunday, and it wasn’t him.
“He is the type of player that is willing to do whatever it takes to win,” said Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who intercepted Brady in the second quarter.
“He’s not all about his stats. He’s about W’s and championships. Today, they obviously didn’t have it in the passing game, but he just started running it and said, ‘We can run it, well, let’s just run it every play.’ That’s the sign of a great player. He is all about that winning versus what his stat line looks like.”
True, and Brady almost always wins against the Bills. They are his personal Washington Generals. Brady is now 30-3 against Buffalo, and one of those losses on his ledger came in the 2014 regular-season finale, when he exited the game at the half.
Beating the offensively challenged Bills and their callow rookie quarterback Josh Allen, who looked as if he was seeing algebra equations for the first time when confronted by the defensive looks that Bill Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores cooked up, with a ground-and-pound plan is one thing. Keeping up with the Kansas City Chiefs or the Los Angeles Chargers with the same one-dimensional plan of attack would prove more challenging.
The Patriots usually go as far as Brady can take them, and that’s not the Super Bowl when his aerial munitions are mediocre. See 2006, 2009, and 2013. Belichick hasn’t exactly supplied Brady with a bounty of riches or reliability at receiver. However, it was Brady who went to bat to keep Gronk. The Big Guy had another silent Sunday with zero catches on three targets against a team he has historically dominated. On the first play from scrimmage of the second half, Brady’s pass clanged off the hands of Gronk and into the arms of Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer. At that point, Brady was 7 of 14 for 40 yards with two picks, while Allen was 7 of 16 for 48 yards with one interception.
Outside of Edelman, Cordarrelle Patterson was the only wideout to record a catch Sunday; he had one for 3 yards. Like the Patriots, Patterson did more damage on the ground with 66 yards on four carries. He also departed the game in the third quarter with a knee injury.
If Brady was concerned by the appearance of the aerial attack sans Gordon and what it could portend for the playoff run, he wasn’t letting on.
“You know this time of year I think whatever it takes to win, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Brady said. “We did a great job in the run game, and that was great to dominate all the way around. We stopped them in the run game too, and made it tough on them.
“Yeah, we didn’t have our best game in the pass game, but we won. So, I think everyone’s feeling pretty good about winning.”
It certainly beats the alternative of the last two weeks, back-to-back losses to the Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brady and Belichick shared a hearty handshake as the final seconds ticked down on the Patriots’ 10th win of the season, an acknowledgment of a difficult achievement in a difficult season.
But this was paint bar work, not a Picasso. There also remains the looming question of Brady’s health. Brady spun out of some throws once again. Whether it’s self-preservation creeping into his game or a physiological necessity due to an injury, it’s disconcerting. With the Patriots leading, 24-6, and 6 minutes, 39 seconds remaining, Brady was removed from the game for Brian Hoyer. After the game, the GQ QB was adamant that he’s not hurt. But something is off.
The most encouraging development of the day for Brady happened about 300 miles to the south, where the Philadelphia Eagles, the team that denied him a sixth Super Bowl ring in February, did him a holiday favor.
While the Patriots struggled to get their passing game going, they were able to pass the Houston Texans for the second seed in the AFC and the all-important first-round playoff bye that goes with it, thanks to old foe Nick Foles. The man who outdueled Brady in Super Bowl LII delivered for the Patriots, driving the Eagles to a game-winning field goal on the final play that gave them a 32-30 victory over the Texans. Consider it an early Christmas gift from the Eagles.
That was the most important pass that Brady and the Patriots completed Sunday. They’ll have to complete more to make sure the division title isn’t the only title they celebrate this season.