NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots will enter the playoffs as the AFC’s second seed after defeating the Buffalo Bills by a final score of 34-20 in what was a game characterized by outstanding success on the ground, which was able to successfully mask a pedestrian passing game and questionable defense. Read on for five observations from the victory.
1. Rushing attack, led by LeGarrette Blount, proves unstoppable
Of the thirteen plays New England’s first offensive drive was composed of, the Patriots ran the ball eight times, with LeGarrette Blount gaining thirty-three yards over seven carries to establish an early presence on the ground; Stephen Gostkowski converted his first field goal attempt of the game to give New England a 3-0 lead. On the following drive, Stevan Ridley entered the game, benefiting from excellent blocks by Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, and James Develin in order to gain twenty-nine yards on his second carry, that drive also concluding with a Gostkowski field goal. That the Patriots were able to run the ball was particularly significant due to an inability to move the ball through the air consistently; the team gained an astonishing 267 yards and two touchdowns on the ground over forty-three attempts, with Blount posting a career-high 189 yards and contributing both of the scores. Blount’s contributions were not limited to running the ball, as he also returned a punt eighty-two yards after replacing Julian Edelman in that role, and a kickoff for sixty-two yards shortly afterward. An incredibly hard runner set to hit the open market in the offseason, Blount significantly increased his market value this week.
2. Defense struggles against one of the league’s premier rushing attacks
Limiting Buffalo’s running game was identified as the defense’s primary concern entering the game, but on the difficulty of doing so became apparent on C.J. Spiller’s second carry, a play in which a missed tackle attempt by Steve Gregory allowed Spiller to escape for a twenty-four-yard gain, moving the Bills into Patriots territory, where, seven plays later, they were able to tie the score at three points apiece via a fifty-one-yard field goal from Dan Carpenter. New England did a better job against the run on their following two drives, including stopping a sneak attempt by Thaddeus Lewis on a fourth-and-one situation to regain possession of the ball, but ultimately proved incapable of limiting them for long, as the Bills were able to rush for 165 yards on the game, with C.J. Spiller contributing 105 and Fred Jackson adding sixty-one and a touchdown. Fortunately for New England, Buffalo’s overall execution was poor enough to prevent their success on the ground from making this a particularly competitive game, but the Patriots nonetheless failed to capitalize on an opportunity to make a statement against an impressive rushing attack.
3. Coverage struggles as well, with Thad Lewis enjoying a productive day
The scouting report on Bills quarterback Thad Lewis was that he favored short passes, but that, given the absence of Patriots free safety Devin McCourty this week, he may be able to successfully target New England on deeper passes. Ultimately, Lewis was successful against the Patriots on both short and deeper throws, with five of his passes gaining over twenty yards, those five accounting for well over half of his offensive output. Some, such as Fred Jackson’s thirty-seven-yard catch-and-run on a slant pattern, were short passes which were turned into bigger gains, while some, such as his twenty-two yarder to Marqise Goodwin, his twenty-seven yarder to Robert Woods, his twenty-seven yarder to Scott Chandler, and his forty-one yarder to T.J. Graham, came by throwing passes downfield. While Lewis’ production came in chunks rather than via consistent gains, it’s still disconcerting that a backup quarterback was able to average 8.5 yards per attempt through the air in inclement weather.
4. Brady intercepted once, Patriots fumble on four different occasions
If there was one area of the game which placed the Patriots in the most jeopardy of losing, it was in terms of protecting the football. New England fumbled the ball on four different occasions, somehow managing to recover on all four occasions. The strong statistical correlation between maintaining a favorable turnover differential and winning has been well-established, but there does not appear to be any reliable way of predicting which team will recover a fumble, as there has historically been significant variation in the percentage of fumbles individual teams recover on an annual basis. Many of the fumbles, had they been recovered by the Bills, would have dramatically impacted the game: Shane Vereen’s first-quarter fumble occurred on a drive ending in a field goal, as did LeGarrette Blount’s. Had Julian Edelman turned the ball over on his muffed punt, Buffalo would have gained possession the ball near the goal line. Tom Brady’s interception was caused by Shane Vereen’s inability to handle a routine screen pass. Fortunately, the weather conditions appear to have been responsible for many of the ball-security issues.
5. Patriots avoid major injuries to Mankins, Arrington, lose Dobson
Injuries have been a constant problem for the Patriots this year; this week was no exception. It originally looked as though they were facing the real possibility of left guard Logan Mankins becoming their latest addition to injured reserve, as Mankins needed to be helped off of the field and into the locker room with an ankle injury which occurred on LeGarrette Blount’s touchdown run early in the second quarter. He was replaced on the following drive by Josh Kline, who started at left guard last week. However, he made a surprise return to the field later in the second quarter, appearing as athletic as ever while pulling on a screen pass. Cornerback Kyle Arrington the game early with a leg injury, but reappeared in the third quarter. Unfortunately, wide receiver Aaron Dobson came up limping after being targeted down the field and did not return; it appears as though he may have exacerbated his sprained foot. He was replaced on the field by Kenbrell Thompkins, who returned this week after previously missing time due to a hip injury.