By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Now that’s more like it, eh class? We’d much rather stick to the blueprint generated from the Jets and Bears games than last week against the Packers, wouldn’t we? We would indeed, which is why Sunday’s 34-3 Pats win over the hapless Bills was even sweeter than most of the other 15 consecutive victories over the snakebitten franchise from Western New York. After the Bills first drive of the game, pretty much all suspense and subsequent stress and worry were eliminated from the equation as the Pats reverted back to their dominant form from earlier this month and absolutely lambasted Buffalo every which way in each and every facet of the game. You want offense? How about 348 total yards, a season-high 217 on the ground, Tom Brady extending his now league record streak of pass attempts without a pick to 319, seven different receivers catching passes and even a rare Fred Taylor sighting during garbage time. You want defense? How about six forced turnovers, two sacks, three more QB hits, and 12 pass breakups, with even Darius Butler accounting for two of them. You want special teams? How about a seventh forced turnover, our man Zoltan dropping three of his five punts inside the 20 and the stifling of Bills rookie returner C.J. Spiller, one of the more dangerous at that position in the league, to the tune of just 16.8 yards per runback on six tries. And of course, it all resulted in hats and t-shirts denoting the Pats as AFC East winners yet again, the seventh time in eight years they’ve achieved that goal and the eighth time in Bill Belichick’s 11-year tenure at the helm. One goal down, two more to go and with next week’s game against Miami now meaningless and a first-round bye the week after, the Pats can use their time judiciously so as to ensure having the healthiest possible group available come the divisional round game at Gillette Stadium on either January 15 or 16. Minus a few very minor blips, Sunday’s stellar performance in Buffalo allows them that luxury so with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, yours today along with your very own complimentary Patriots Daily shovel, snowbrush and ice scraper.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A
Subtract three very uncharacteristic, though only slightly alarming, drops by Wes Welker, and a stretch of three straight three or four-and-outs in the second half and it was another virtually perfect day for the offense. The Pats came out, got their feet with wet in regard to the conditions on their first drive of the game, got the ball back three plays later and proceeded to blow the doors off ancient Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills feature a porous run defense (and when I say porous, I’m being as gentle as possible) so the Pats eschewed their usual, high-powered passing attack in favor of running the ball right down the Bills collective gullet. The result was those 217 yards, 163 of them in the first half and achieved at a 5.1 YPA clip. The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Rudy 2, aka Danny Woodhead frolicked in the bitter wind chills off the shores of Lake Erie all day long. BJGE rolled up 104 yards on 19 attempts (5.5 YPA) with his usual combination of strength, attitude, decisiveness and power. He routinely followed his blocks, hit every hole with a head of steam and just generally did all the things he’s been doing so well all year long, particularly over the past two months. He now has 928 yards on the season and while it’s still up in the air how much time the starters see against the Dolphins this weekend, it would be pretty awesome to see him reach the 1,000 mark. If anyone’s earned that kind of accolade, it’s the Law Firm. As for Woody, it was another ho-hum, 93-yard, one TD, 32 more yards receiving kind of day. The Pats scored their first points of the day courtesy of a perfectly executed shotgun draw to Woody on which he used textbook blocks by Matt Light and Rob Gronkowski, who came across the formation to land a perfect trap block which allowed Woody to quickly skirt to the outside and practically glide into the end zone. After the game, Brady remarked that Benny and Woody, the undrafted duo, have “carried us all year.” Truer words have rarely been spoken.
In the passing game, Brady didn’t have to do much due to the run, run, run game plan. But he was typically outstanding anyway. He completed just 15-of-27 passes and threw for just 140 yards. But there were three more TDs included within those numbers, two to Gronk (tying him for the franchise record for tight ends with nine) and one to Alge Crumpler and each featured his usual masterful dissection of the defense. All three came inside the 10 and on all three, he either checked into what looked like a running formation before delivering the ball to a wide open man or at least seemed to do so. And again, there were no INTs. Again. That makes 34 TDs and four picks all year and, as we always mention, one was on a Hail Mary. MVP, don’t ya think?
The receiving corps was quiet on Sunday, with Welker’s bizarro day overshadowing a rather pedestrian three catches for just 19 yards and Deion Branch posting just two for 25. Luckily, the tight ends, even without Aaron Hernandez, who was home remedying a sore hip and a touch of the flu, picked up the slack. Gronk had over 100 family and friends from his hometown of nearby Amherst on hand to watch him scurry unnoticed (which is hard to do when you’re 6-6, 265) into the end zone on his first score and outrun the coverage to get wide open in the middle of the end zone on his second, as well as provide veteran-style blocking in the running game. And Crumpler’s TD was his first of the year, perhaps a reward for a year of outstanding blocking and mentoring the kids Gronk and Hernandez. And the O-line performed as well as it has all year long, not just in the running game, in which Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins and Ryan Wendell (filling in for the concussed Dan Connolly) dominated the middle of the Bills front seven, but in the passing game, in which Brady had enough time to make himself lunch seemingly every time he dropped back to pass. Sebastian Vollmer, in particular, was terrific, though he’s been that more often than not over the past couple years. It was the Pats seventh straight win as well as their seventh straight game with 31 or more points scored. The offense is a well-oiled machine. However it needs to play, it will play and more than likely succeed. With just under three weeks until its next meaningful game, there will likely be some consternation as to whether it can still operate at such a high level the next time it needs to. You heard it here first – it will.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: A
Given the shortage of personnel (Jermaine Cunningham, two-thirds of the defensive linemen) and the Bills success moving the ball on the Pats during the two teams last meeting in Week 3, it wasn’t terribly surprising that the first time they had the ball, the Bills went right down the field in 10 plays, all on the ground. 64 yards later, though, the Pats had made a red zone stand to hold the hosts to a field goal and that was that. Everyone played well on defense, especially Jerod Mayo, who spent the entire afternoon roaming the middle of the field and administering punishment to anyone wearing a blue jersey. The tackle numbers weren’t as high for Mayo as usual but he was all over the place. Multiple blasts on receivers coming over the middle to force incompletions, a fumble recovery, two pass breakups and a hit on poor Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick that surprised only in that Fitzpatrick’s helmet was still on straight afterward. It was a performance worthy of a captain, Mayo’s best of the season and so good, even the venerable Tedy Bruschi spent a large chunk of his ESPN Boston recap column touting him for All-Pro honors.
Elsewhere, it was opportunism at it’s best. Gary Guyton had a strip sack and broke up a couple throws. Dane Fletcher, seeing regular time due to the absence of Brandon Spikes, followed up his huge sack at the end of the Packers game with a fumble recovery and an interception. Patrick Chung, who has been asked to do a lot of covering the past several weeks (probably to his detriment) made his first play in weeks with a second half INT. Some guy named Landon Cohen, signed off the scrapheap last week to provide depth on the D-line, started and had two tackles. Kyle Love (who??) had a sack from his spot up front. Eric Moore saw some time at defensive end and had five tackles and a fumble recovery. Even Brandon Meriweather didn’t do anything stupid (though when he went on the radio yesterday and talked of how the Pats secondary is out to “punish” opposing receivers at all times, there was a slight temptation to call up and advise him to learn how to actually tackle properly first, but that’s another column). And Vince Wilfork was placed firmly in the middle after shifting around throughout that first Buffalo drive and made his requisite handful of plays. It was quite a day for the entire group, made even more impressive given how thin it was, especially up front.
The Pats seem content on defense to continually give up yards and yards and yards in the middle of the field in favor of anything remotely approaching a big play, then tighten up when the field gets smaller. That, and of course, forcing turnovers. With the seven more on Sunday, the Pats have now caused 36 on the season, good for a plus-27 differential. The franchise record is plus-17. It’s probably a safe bet that mark will fall. With the exception of last week against Green Bay, this young defense, which according to the great Mike Reiss of ESPN, features eight regular contributors drafted in either the sixth round, seventh round or not drafted at all, has passed every test its taken since that disastrous day in Cleveland several weeks ago. The playoffs will feature the toughest one yet.
Special Teams/Coaching/Everything Else: A
The NFL Network showed the 2003 Pats installment of their excellent, America’s Game Super Bowl Winners series recently and in it, Rodney Harrison talks about Belichick’s pre-game speech the day of Super Bowl XXXVIII and how it made him and his teammates want to run through a brick wall. Imagine what he’d say if he’d been around for either of Belichick’s two best season-long coaching jobs – 2001 and this season. His mastery was on full display yet again on Sunday with game plans on both sides of the ball so brilliantly devised, the game was virtually over early in the third quarter. The Pats didn’t just run the ball, they ran it predominantly to an area they specifically schemed toward, that being up the middle. Defensively, they played conservatively when they needed to, aggressively when they could and weathered the storm of having so many regular parts missing and then some. Like in 2001, he’s managing some big name, high-profile guys but far more unheralded, second, third or no-chance guys who are willing to completely and totally buy into his system because he and they know it works. It has to be a lot easier to get through to guys like Gary Guyton, Kyle Arrington and Mike Wright than established, swollen-headed, me-first guys like Adalius Thomas, Shawn Springs and Derrick Burgess. There is a selfless, team-first mentality up and down the roster that plays into Belichick’s coaching hand perfectly, beginning with guys like Brady, Branch, Welker, Light, Wilfork, Koppen and so forth and permeating right down the line. There may have been more individual talent on last year’s team (or 2003’s or 2004’s for that matter), but this year’s is a better group from 1-53, a circumstance right in the coach’s wheelhouse.
It was almost sad to see Bills coach Chan Gailey, who has done a fairly decent job this season under some trying circumstances, come out doing something that was working, then immediately abandon it for something that wasn’t, probably all in the name of trying to keep pace with the Pats. Bad idea, Chan. There’s no keeping pace right now. There may be down the line; the playoffs are a different animal altogether and, as we saw in 2007, Belichick and his peeps are capable of being outdone by inferior-seeming types, even under the brightest lights. But it’s hard to envision that happening this year. He’s back in a class of his own.
Oh yeah, the special teams and everything else was great too. Onward and upward.