By: Denny Hackett
In one of the best rushing performances during the Brady and Belichick era, the Patriots finally clinched the AFC East for a record tenth time with Sunday’s win against the Bills.
In the first half alone, the Pats rushed for 179 yards, the most for the Patriots in a first half since 1991, with Cordarrelle Patterson and Sony Michel leading the way with 66 and 63 yards respectively. The Pats’ first two touchdowns also came on the ground, including a 4 yard run from Michel and a 27 yard run from White. By the end of the game the Pats rushed for 275 yards as a team and Michel led the way individually with 116 yards.
For the second week in a row, Rob Gronkowski was a non-factor in the passing game. While Gronk did his part by blocking for the running backs, he was held without a catch. On some plays it looked like he seemed to give up and was just jogging around the field. Despite dealing with injuries all season long, when Gronk has played he has not looked like himself and has to be a concern as the Patriots start to prepare for the playoffs.
But overall the passing game was a disaster on Sunday and included one of the worst first half performances I have ever seen from Tom Brady. He missed the mark on most of his throws in the half while throwing two interceptions between the late second quarter and first drive of the third. It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that the passing offense started clicking. On the Pats’ only scoring drive of the quarter, Brady passed for 61 yards, including Edelman’s 32 yard touchdown reception. Overall Brady finished with 126 yards and when he was pulled late in the game with victory assured he looked to be visibly annoyed on the sideline with the way he played against the Bills.
In the second half, Julian Edelman came alive and gave the passing offense the spark it needed. Before the third quarter, Edelman had two catches for just 14 yards but ended it with 4 more catches for 56 yards and the touchdown. Then he kick started a drive early in the fourth quarter with a 25 yard punt return to set the Patriots up at the Bills’ 24 yard line.
While the Patriots did an excellent job of stopping the Bills’ rushing attack, they did not really have to do anything when it came to stop rookie quarterback Josh Allen from passing the ball, other than on a few specific plays. All day long Allen was overthrowing and missing receivers, including an awfully thrown ball right into the hands of Patriots’ cornerback JC Jackson. Then on a fourth down play towards the end of the second quarter, Stephon Gilmore was forced into coverage and had to swat away a surprisingly well thrown ball intended for Bills’ receiver Robert Foster.
Allen, who rushed for 351 yards between Weeks 12 and 15, was held in check by the Patriots’ run defense on Sunday. Each time Allen scrambled, there seemed to be a Patriot defender lying in wait at the second level to tackle him and prevent him from doing any real damage with his legs. He finished with just 30 yards on the ground.
The Patriots got lucky on Sunday because of how awful the Bills are on offense. By the early stages of the third quarter the Patriots had three turnovers and the Bills were only able to muster a field goal from them. Any remotely competent offense could have converted at least one of those turnovers into a touchdown. As bad as the Patriots’ offense was for most of the game on Sunday, the Bills’ offense was even worse. Going into the playoffs, the Patriots cannot afford to play that sloppy because the opposition is only going to get better. Even next week against the Jets, who lit the Packers up on Sunday, those types of mistakes could cost the Pats their season and they need to get better.
The Patriots also got a break on Sunday after the Eagles beat the Texans, catapulting the Pats into the second seed in the AFC Playoffs, giving them a first round bye if they can beat the Jets at home next week.
The Patriots may have gotten the win this week, but it did little to alleviate my doubts about this team. While the rushing attack was outstanding, Brady has to get on the same page with his receivers or it is going to be a very short playoff run for the Pats this year. Despite their record, the Jets should prove to be a good test for what this Pats team can do when they come to Foxborough next Sunday.