By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

OK, class, let’s see a show of hands. Who here thought it would be next to impossible for the Patriots to win uglier than they did last week against the Panthers? All of you? Me too. Same with just about every other professor here at our esteemed institute of higher learning. But that’s exactly what the Pats did on Sunday in sunny Buffalo. Despite another performance by their once outstanding, now pedestrian offense that could be described as dispiriting as best and a steaming pile of crap at worst, the Pats gritted and gutted their way to a 17-10 win over the worse than terrible Bills, a win that, combined with losses on Sunday by both the Jets and Dolphins, lined up a division title that can be locked down with a win either this week against Jacksonville or next week at Houston. Granted, the Pats made more plays than the Bills did and enough to win. Randy Moss and Laurence Maroney were big, important factors in the victory. And the defense, despite missing its two best players (Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren) played its best game in weeks, mystifying the Bills anemic offense all day, a lot in part to some new schematic wrinkles. But Buffalo was quite complicit in its own demise, doling out one bad penalty or missed opportunity after another, the worst of which were a horrible dropped pass deep in Pats territory late in the game and a recovered onside kick, also late in the game, that was erased by a procedure penalty. For the second consecutive week, the Pats got away with a win they would have been hard pressed to get if they’d played a real, decent team. But, as has been our motto here at PDU for going on at least five weeks now, a win is a win and the aesthetics of it don’t matter in the slightest. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, now manufactured with a fresh, lavender scent to keep anyone from getting sick from the fumes of the actual game.

OFFENSE: Overall Grade: C-

Ugly, ugly, ugly. Since this seems to be shaping up as a pretty interactive report card, let’s ask the masses to describe 224 total yards, 3.93 yards per play, 19 total first downs and just five third down conversions on 12 tries in one word. Ugly? Yeah that sounds right. How about eight total yards and no first downs in the fourth quarter prior to their last possession? Yeah, ugly. Here’s another one: a three-and-out on four of seven second half possessions. U-G-L-Y. But again, it was the Bills that the Pats were playing. You know, the team that they’ve beaten 13 times in a row and 18 of 20? So while all of these numbers are yes, ugly, against a team like the Bills, ugly will still cut it. Let’s just hope they get a little prettier by the time the playoffs come around. Those games will require an offensive effort far better than ugly. This offense has struggled mightily for the past few games, especially in the second half. But Sunday was the worst.

Quarterbacks: C-

It says something that the Pats were able to win with Brady playing as poorly as he did on Sunday. 11-of-23 for 115 yards (5.0 YPA), one TD, one pick (and two more should-have-been picks) and a passer rating of 59.1 isn’t going to cut it most days. Numbers-wise, he was outplayed by Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was benched in the fourth quarter. Many, many times, Brady would drop back, not be able to find Randy Moss or Wes Welker and hold the ball. He wasn’t sacked, but on the interception, he should have taken one instead of try to force the ball to a triple-covered Welker. Whether his refusal/inability to throw the ball away when he needed to was an example of stubbornness or simply a product of not having anyone he trusts other than Moss or Welker to throw to, I don’t recall him ever a) holding the ball for as long as he did and has been lately, or b) looking as indecisive as he has recently. There were some great moments of course, his rocket TD pass to Moss in the second quarter being the high point. And his lack of accuracy on a couple of the downfield throws was diluted by both the double and triple teams the Bills ran at Moss as well as the multiple defensive pass interference penalties (and when he did put a long throw on the money, such as in the third quarter when he had Sam Aiken streaking down the left sideline, Aiken simply dropped it). The Pats have to get better in multiple areas headed into the playoffs and apparently, quarterback is one of those. It’s somewhat stunning, but if it wasn’t obvious before Sunday, it is now.

Running Backs: B-

Maroney continued his resurgence, especially in the first half, continually plowing ahead even with no daylight in front of him, and moving further and further away from his former, dancing fool self. There is nothing spectacular about Maroney’s play of late; he’s not explosive at all and for all of his success since taking over the featured back role two months ago, he hasn’t broken a big run since the 59-0 snow game win over the Titans. But he’s been steady and solid and there’s nothing wrong with that combo. He just gets tough yards, regardless of the formation he gets the ball out of and he’s learned how to make something out of nothing with the perfect evidence of that being his one-yard TD run near the end of the second quarter. He finished with 81 yards and that score on 23 carries which only comes out to a 3.5YPA . But there is a purpose and a power to his game that was non-existent for the majority of his time here before the onset of the season’s second half. KevinFaulk was as limited as he’s been in weeks, getting only two touches all day and missing a block on Bills pass rushing demon Aaron Schobel that almost left Brady with another knee reconstruction and Sammy Morris was in at fullback/lead blocker more than as the primary ball carrier. And where the running game was very successful in the first half, it sunk in the second following a 14-play drive that ended with a field goal. Still, there’s more here to praise than to complain about and the ongoing commitment to this aspect of the game, especially given the struggles of the passing game lately is certainly a positive development.

Wide Receivers: B

I sure am looking forward to not hearing anyone rip Moss for quitting this week, aren’t you? Moss bounced back, as he said in his postgame remarks, with five catches for 70 yards and that awesome TD catch as well as drawing the 43-yard pass interference call that set it up. It was obvious that the offensive game plan was strongly tilted toward getting Moss involved and getting him involved early. He was lined up all over the line of scrimmage, ran several crossing routes and made a couple of plays in traffic, including one on which he saved Brady from another pick on a throw into coverage in the middle of the field. It wasn’t as flashy as some of his best performances as a Patriot, but it was more than serviceable and showed that whatever steps Bill Belichick and his staff took to get him more involved after the past few games, they worked. Welker was held to just four catches, a season low, but made the most important one of the day snaring an eight-yarder on third-and-six with just over two minutes left to preserve the win. It seemed that Welker was the Buffalo defense’s focal point, and why not? But even though there were a few throws by Brady that he didn’t come up with (he was targeted 11 times), he made enough plays to contribute well, also drawing a long interference penalty that led to a TD and picking some tough yards on a reverse. Aiken again was able to beat his man on a go route but can’t seem to catch the ball with any consistency which is a problem given that he is, after all, a receiver. If the Pats are going to keep throwing to him, he had better use more stickem because he has stones for hands.

Tight Ends: Incomplete

Wait, what happened to involving the tight ends in the game plan? Neither Ben Watson or Chris Baker had a single pass thrown his way, even though Watson (according to Mike Reiss’s invaluable snap chart on ESPN Boston .com) played more snaps than anyone on the rest of the offense. So again, even though each of them contributed to the running game, especially Baker, who was praised in the aftermath by Belichick, it’s impossible to grade them. Maybe Watson is playing hurt and can’t get open. Maybe Brady doesn’t trust either of them to catch the ball if he throws it their way. But given the total lack of weapons in the passing game beyond Moss and Welker (Brady completed just two passes to anyone other than them on Sunday and both were to backs), it just seems like going forward, more of an effort must be made to get Watson and Baker involved.

Offensive Line: B-

Matt Light on Brady’s nemesis Schobel? Excellent. Everything else? Average. With the line again missing Stephen Neal and this week without weak link Nick Kaczur, Brady was not sacked once, but he was under a lot of pressure and took a handful of hits. The running game was physical and these guys set the tone. But just over three yards per rushing attempt against the league’s worst ranked run defense? Not so good. It wasn’t the best day Dan Koppen has ever had, mostly due to having to deal with the Bills giant nose man Marcus Stroud. And after looking so good in battening down the hatches on the right side last week against Carolina, Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly looked more like rookies on Sunday. Whether or not the Pats can run the ball with any consistency and whether or not Brady has time to throw obviously depends on this group. The performance in Buffalo was fine, even pretty good, but far from great.

DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B+

It started out so poorly. Without Wilfork and Warren, the Bills came out running right up the middle and right down the Pats collective throat. 14 plays (nine of the runs) and 9:24 later, the Bills were in the red zone and if it weren’t for their total ineptitude (a false start from the 2, having to burn a time out), the Pats wouldn’t have escaped down just three points. But after that, the Pats D took over, in great part due to what my PDU colleague Chris Warner so awesomely calls the “cocktail party formation.” Eschewing any linemen (save for Mike Wright, a traditional pass rusher), the Pats spent several snaps employing multiple linebackers, DBs and edge guys, most of them milling around the middle of the formation without setting up in a given spot. To say this wrinkle completely flummoxed the Bills, whose offense was suspect (to be kind) already, would be an understatement as they didn’t see the red zone again until the fourth quarter. The “cocktail party formation” allowed the Pats to bring pressure more than at any other point this season and it worked out even better than they’d likely hoped thanks to Buffalo’s hapless, shredded offensive line, to the tune of six sacks, six more hits on Fitzpatrick and backup Trent Edwards and seven tackles for negative yards. The Bills non-existent passing game allowed the spotlight to be mostly shined away from the secondary (although Brandon Meriweather still managed to make yet another utterly hideous, bone-headed play that nearly cost his team dearly) and onto guys like Wright, Derrick Burgess (again with the ups for Burgess!!!) and Tully Banta -Cain, who played what may have been the game of his life. It seems pretty clear that employing this scheme was a reaction to not having Wilfork and Warren as well as a way to attack Buffalo’s weakened line. But it worked so well that it may be worth trotting out again.

Defensive Line: B+

No Wilfork and Warren? After the Bills’ first drive, no problem. It was Mike Wright’s day to shine above all other D-linemen and he submitted his best day in a season full of good ones. Wright was responsible for a sack, five solo tackles, two for a loss and another hit on the quarterback. He was so good, whether playing at Warren’s left end spot, on the nose in place of Wilfork or in any sub package, that Belichick said he had, “a tremendous game. About as good a game as a defensive lineman can play, really.” And if you don’t believe that, watch the play on which he tracked down wide receiver Josh Reed 30 yards downfield after a catch and run. Great stuff. Jarvis Green kept things on an even keel for this group (which was also without rookie Myron Pryor)and provided five tackles to go with some heady, veteran leadership, earning himself a game ball from the coaching staff for his efforts. And rookie, second-round pick Ron Brace, who has been unable to find his way on to the active roster in seven games, got the call in Wilfork’s stead and acquitted himself fairly well after getting dominated on that opening Buffalo drive. Brace had three tackles and did well in run support and even though his face mask penalty when he was coming in to finish off a Gary Guyton sack was a big one, he showed that he’s capable of playing and contributing in a pinch and that should earn him at least a little more time down the stretch. Get used to seeing him out there; he’s going to be playing a lot more next year when Wilfork is in Seattle or Tampa Bay or even Oakland alongside Richard Seymour counting the money that the Pats most likely won’t give him when his contract is up after the season.

Linebackers: B+

Not just another day at the office for this beleaguered bunch – who knew that having them all stand around looking like they were waiting for the bathroom would be the key to their best collective game of the year? When the Bills were running at will in the first quarter and Guyton and Jerod Mayo (who was again so mediocre that he absolutely has to not be completely over his Week 1 knee injury) were getting blown away again and again, it was hard to imagine things getting much worse for the linebacking corps. But the “cocktail party formation” opened things up for them in a major way and several of them responded, starting with Banta-Cain. Along with those three sacks (which gave him 8.5 on the season), he also put up six tackles, three for a loss and hit the QB another three times. It was a virtuoso game for Banta-Cain, a former castoff of two teams who is having the definition of a career year and while he’s still limited, especially against the run (though he is much improved in that area), he is now someone who opposing coaches may well have to game plan for and who in the hell saw that coming? Burgess had his second great excellent game, clearly emboldened by being set free to do what he’s always done best thanks to the game plan. He had another sack and led the team in solo tackles and looks as if it’s no coincidence that his two best games of the year have come on the heels of his banishment along with Moss, Guyton and Adalius Thomas. Thomas, for his part, played a decent game a week after being benched for the second time this year, though he was far from the most effective linebacker wearing a white uniform and his “the cream always rises to the top,” comment after the game when he was asked if he knew he’d get back on the field after last week’s embarrassment was rather nauseating, proving at least somewhat that he still doesn’t get it. Guyton and Junior Seau pitched in solid efforts, and even Rob Ninkovich did some good things, also benefiting from the “cocktail party formation.” Only Pierre Woods really stunk out the joint but luckily, his playing time has diminished over the course of the season and he’s back mostly to being what he is, which is a special teams player.

Secondary: B

Sort of a boring day for this group, mostly due to the Bills inability to throw the ball downfield before the fourth quarter. At the corners, Leigh Bodden had a mostly good showing, knocking down a couple passes and being in good position on the great TD reception by Lee Evans. Shawn Springs got another start and competently did his job while Jonathan Wilhite again looked comfortable not having as much responsibility as he did when he was starting and getting torched regularly, with his second quarter interception on which he displayed perfect technique in tracking and making a play on the ball while staying with his man easily one of his high points of the season. James Sanders started at safety again and made a couple of plays while Brandon McGowan saw more action than last week against Carolina and laid out a couple of his patented big hits. The only real problem was Meriweather, again. He mostly looked OK, making a couple tackles in run support and just missing an interception on a long pass intended for Evans. But in the fourth quarter, with the Bills driving but facing a fourth-and-long, Fitzpatrick found Reed two yards shy of the first down with Meriweather right on him. But instead of tackling Reed, Meriweather got macho and tried to lay him out with a single hit, only the hit was weak, Reed bounced off it, Meriweather crumpled and Reed was off to a 29-yard gain (luckily, Reed dropped a wide open throw that hit him in the chest four plays later, one of the 48 enormous breaks for the Pats on the day). Why Meriweather, a player with so much obvious physical talent, can’t seem to get out of his own way for at least one week, is one of the more confusing things about this team. Given the amount of responsibilities he has, it would do everyone a lot of good for him to get over these weekly mental lapses and do it quickly.

Special Teams: B-

Major props to Kyle Arrington, who has come out of thin air to assume the mantle as the Pats best special teams player. He had two special teams tackles and was regularly one of the first down the field on both punts and kickoffs. Elsewhere, the kicking game was fair with Stephen Gostkowski still not getting kickoffs to the end zone anymore and Chris Hanson managing a measly 33.8 yards per kick (just one was returned but unfortunately for both Hanson and the punt team, it went for 20 yards and set up the Bills TD). Aiken and his stone hands couldn’t handle the onside kick that came right to him, but was saved by (surprise!!) a Buffalo penalty. The Pats were decent on their own returns, nothing more and nothing less. Pretty much sums up the whole day for this phase of the game.

Coaching: A-

It’s easy to forget since it’s been so long since he’s done it, but Belichick used to roll out gems like the “cocktail party formation” with regularity, oftentimes for large swaths of games. It was nice to see him go to that well on Sunday, regardless of why he did it. Again, the Bills and their incompetence helped a lot, but the decision to really shake things up on defense energized the players on that side of the ball and made it feel like the Pats were in total control all along despite their offensive struggles until the final five minutes of the game. Both coordinators, Dean Pees on defense and Bill O’Brien,de facto on offense, had good days with most of their calls, no small feat considering what a tough year they’ve both had, especially O’Brien. It was an encouraging turn of events, made all the more important due to the playoffs being right around the corner. As has been pointed out before, this is a pretty good time for anyone to get on a roll, including coaches. The players’ execution of the material given to them hasn’t been so great recently, but don’t blame Belichick and his coaches. They’re on the right track.