Patriots' playoff opener on Jan. 10

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
10:15
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will host their divisional-round playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 10, the NFL announced. Kickoff will be at 4:35 p.m. ET.

The game will be broadcast on NBC.

The Patriots will face either the Colts, Bengals or Ravens -- the Bengals play at the Colts, and the Ravens are at the Steelers in the wild-card round.

If the Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game, it will be played Jan. 18 at 6:40 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium.

Tom Brady confident in Patriots' offense

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
9:00
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' offense hasn't been clicking on all cylinders in recent weeks, but quarterback Tom Brady doesn't seem overly concerned.

Brady
"We're confident. We have a lot of confidence as an offense," he said, when asked if there should be any level of concern after Sunday's 17-9 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the season finale.

"We've been able to score points against a lot of good teams, a lot of good defenses. Nothing that we've done this past season is going to help in two weeks from now. What's going to matter is how well we prepare this week and how well we prepare next week and how ready we are to go whenever we play. We'll have a lot of confidence. I'm not worried about us lacking confidence going out there and executing. We've got a lot of good players."

Brady, who played through the first half Sunday before being replaced by rookie Jimmy Garoppolo, talked about the team "looking forward" to the playoffs and not behind them. He paused briefly when asked if the Patriots' offense has sputtered lately because of its own execution, or a result of opponents dialing in on them.

"That's a good question," he responded. "I think it ultimately comes down to how well we execute. I think we've played some pretty good defenses and defenses that really challenge you. We'll be challenged in a couple weeks. Hopefully we're ready to meet the challenge. I'd expect us to be at our best. That's what this time of year requires. We'll be playing a great football team, whoever it is. I think we've got a pretty good team. We'll see where we're at."

Brady pointed out that getting receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field will help. Summing up Sunday, he said: "I think we tried to go out there and give a great effort. They're a good team. They make it tough on you. They made it tough on us down there when we played them and they made it tough today. They've got a good team, but we're looking forward. It's tough -- we always hate losing, absolutely. We didn't make enough plays to win, but hopefully we make them in a couple weeks."

Report card: New England Patriots

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
8:25
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the grades from the New England Patriots’ lackadaisical 17-9 loss to the Buffalo Bills on a day where the backups saw significant action.

Quarterback: Tom Brady played for one half and didn’t look comfortable. He played without Julian Edelman, Dan Connolly and, most importantly, Rob Gronkowski. Rookie backup Jimmy Garoppolo showed signs of poise and the skills needed to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. But with a tough Bills defensive front breathing down his neck and an offensive line that looked like Swiss cheese, Garoppolo was unable to make any standout plays. Grade: C

Running back: It looked like this would be a chance to take a look at rookie James White, but he didn’t get a carry and was only involved in the two-minute drill to close out the game. It was an underwhelming effort from the backfield other than LeGarrette Blount, who found a seam and made a nice shimmy move to shake off Da’Norris Searcy on a 34-yard run in the third quarter. Grade: B-

[+] EnlargeCollins
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJamie Collins celebrates after recovering the ball on his strip sack, one of the Patriots' few highlights.
Wide receiver: Brandon LaFell displayed an impressive burst of speed on a crossing route in the first quarter, turning on the jets for 27 yards. He was the Patriots’ most consistent receiver, as was expected on a day without Edelman. Brian Tyms showed some solid route running early on and his offensive pass-interference call was suspect. Grade: C+

Tight end: It’s tough to put a grade on the tight ends considering the Patriots didn’t have their MVP, Gronkowski, on the field. Michael Hoomanawanui and James Develin (fullback/tight end) made key blocks to spring Blount free on his 34-yard run. Tim Wright and Steve Maneri each had bad drops. Grade: D+

Offensive line: The Patriots didn’t have Connolly or right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. The substitutes couldn’t swing it in the trenches with the Bills. Josh Kline was manhandled on an early sack of Brady as he just staggered backward before falling to the field. Marcus Cannon picked up a holding call and also managed to tackle Danny Amendola on a screen pass as he looked lost on the play. This has been the Patriots’ weakest link. They really need Connolly healthy because the backups are not capable of protecting the quarterback, especially on the interior of the line. Grade: F

Defensive line/linebacker: The play of the game for the Patriots came on a strip-sack and fumble recovery by linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins showed a great second effort as he tossed Bills running back C.J. Spiller around on the big play. Collins’ athleticism is something to marvel at. While used sparingly, Akeem Ayers planted Kyle Orton for a sack with some help from inside pressure forced by Vince Wilfork. Jonathan Casillas had a rough day with a crucial roughing-the-passer penalty as he went in too high and also missed a few tackles on the day. Grade: B

Defensive back: Darrelle Revis couldn’t land the pass breakup on Sammy Watkins’ 43-yard catch and run on the Bills’ opening drive. He redeemed himself later with a textbook breakup on Watkins toward the end of the second quarter on a deep route to the end zone. Malcolm Butler showed strong awareness on a run stop early in the first quarter as he ran along the line from one side of the field to the other. Grade: A-

Special teams: Stephen Gostkowski is as solid a kicker as they come as he went 3-for-3 on field goals. He also bailed out his team with a force-out tackle on a big kick return by Marcus Thigpen. Danny Amendola continues to show consistency in the return game as he had a nice 26-yard punt return. Grade: B+

Coaching: The best coaching decision of the day was sitting Gronkowski. Don’t risk it. He is essential to this offense’s success. Brady probably played a little too long considering the holes on the offensive line with Vollmer and Connolly out. Grade: A-
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' 17-9 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale is one of those games in which it's dangerous to read too much into what unfolded.

Having locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, the Patriots played it safe with some of their injured players, most of whom would have been in action if this was the playoffs. They also made it a half-day's work for other top personnel, a group including quarterback Tom Brady, cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Devin McCourty.

Then there was the decision that stood out above all else -- to make tight end Rob Gronkowski inactive despite his healthy status, the only player not on the team's lengthy injury report to sit out.

That one spoke volumes.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesBill Belichick's decision to sit Rob Gronkowski in the regular-season finale against the Bills served to validate the tight end's worth as a league MVP candidate.
We've touted Gronkowski's value to the Patriots all season, pointing to him not just as the team's MVP, but also as a player worthy of league-wide MVP consideration. It goes well beyond his 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns; more so it is how his sheer presence has consistently opened opportunities for others to make plays, such as four defenders gravitating toward him in the end zone to create favorable matchups elsewhere.

Now we know that Belichick sees it very much the same way, because in some ways sitting Gronkowski was an un-Belichickian-type move by putting one player above the rest of the team.

Gronkowski, of course, is worthy of such consideration and no one in the Patriots' locker room seemed offended.

"He's obviously very valuable, one of the biggest parts that makes the offense go," fellow tight end Steve Maneri said. "I think the tight ends looked at it on the whole as an opportunity to see what we could do, because when 87 is in there, he's 'The Guy.'"

We might propose expanding that to "The Guy Who Changes Everything."

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This is obvious by now when considering what has unfolded the past three years in the playoffs. In the 2011 season, a hobbled Gronkowski gutted through a serious ankle injury in the Super Bowl, but he wasn't himself and the offense sputtered. Without Gronkowski the past two postseasons -- first because of a broken forearm in 2012 and the second due to a torn ACL in 2013 -- the Patriots again faltered.

So one could understand why Belichick didn't want to take any chances in Sunday's regular-season finale, and why Brady seemed to go out of his way to point out that the return of Gronkowski and fellow receiver Julian Edelman (out the past two games with a concussion) would alter the outlook compared to what we saw Sunday.

Nine-year Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who knows as well as anyone what it's like to face the Patriots, essentially said the same thing himself.

"I think any time you have a player that is probably the best player at his position in the league, that obviously opens up a lot of avenues for them offensively. He's a great weapon for them and Tom to have," Williams said after Sunday's game, the first time he has been part of a team that defeated the Patriots on the road.

"He can catch the underneath balls but also take it up the field. He blocks well. They move him around quite a bit. They do a lot of things well with him, schematics wise, where you really have to be on top of it."

The Bills didn't have to deal with that Sunday, yet when Williams was informed that some in New England might have concern with the team's offense based on struggles in recent weeks, he didn't share the sentiment.

"What they do, and their scheme, they're really hard to defend with Edelman and Gronkowski and what they bring to the table, and the way Tom controls everything at the line of scrimmage," he said. "He can get them in and out of good plays and where they can be successful. As long as they have those guys, especially No. 12 at the helm, I think they're going to be OK."

As for Gronkowski, perhaps the statistic that reflects his value more than any other is the team's won-loss record based on his presence.

When he was still working himself into top form coming back from the ACL injury through the first four games of the season, averaging just shy of 35 snaps per game, the Patriots were 2-2 and in search of an offensive identity.

When Gronkowski upped his workload considerably in Week 5 and averaged 63 snaps per game between that point and Week 16, the Patriots were 10-1 and defenses seemed to devote more attention to him with each passing week.

So it wasn't any great shock that the Patriots' offense once again looked out of sorts in the first half Sunday when Brady was still leading the charge. Without Gronkowski, everything looks different, and that's why Belichick took the extreme step of making sure he'd be there when it counts, in the playoffs.

"He's a huge part of their offense, obviously their go-to guy, their playmaker," agreed Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham. "He and Brady have chemistry and what he's done in the league so far, he's changed the game with tight ends."

Jimmy Garoppolo gets valuable experience

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
6:50
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With home-field advantage in the AFC already wrapped up, it was only a matter of time until New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo would spell Tom Brady Sunday against the Buffalo Bills for some valuable, on-the-job learning experience.

Unfortunately for Garoppolo, that learning came via the school of hard knockdowns.

Playing every offensive snap from the start of the second half onward, Garoppolo was tackled a total of seven times -- three times on sacks -- in the Patriots’ 16-9 loss to the Bills. The rookie quarterback finished with 90 passing yards, successfully completing 10 of his 17 attempted passes, while rushing for 16 yards on four carries.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Garoppolo
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaJimmy Garoppolo's day was complicated by a Bills pass rush that kept the pressure on.
“It was a good experience getting out there in an actual game, not a preseason game,” Garoppolo said. “Getting some live reps will only help going forward.”

As one can expect playing behind Brady, Garoppolo’s playing time has been limited this season. Sunday marked the sixth game in which he’s appeared, with by far more playing time than any of the others. As a result, the 23-year-old got a good dose of what the quarterback position requires, including the less-than-glamorous parts that playing under pressure brings.

“I don’t get hit in practice, so that was a little different,” Garoppolo said. “It’s good and bad. It’s been a while. It’s always nice to get that first hit out of the way. But the less the better.”

Likely the result of using an injury-depleted offensive line, the Patriots could do little to contain the Bills’ strong defensive front. In several cases -- notably twice on his fourth drive -- Garoppolo was forced to scramble out of the way of the pass rush in order to avoid being sacked.

“If I have to do it, [I] have to do it,” Garoppolo said of his rush attempts. “It’s one of those things, you never know on a play if you’re going to have to or not, so you just have to be ready for either one.”

A critical example came on fourth down during his second drive. Needing a yard to keep the drive alive in Buffalo’s red zone, Garoppolo faced some quick pressure from the Bills. Instead of taking the time to read the defense, Garoppolo sprinted to his left, looking to convert on the run, only to be brought down for a 1-yard loss.

“I saw a good opening and thought I could get it,” he said. “Came up a little short. You learn from that stuff.”

Of course there’s great value in Garoppolo being able to endure such an experience. In addition to the playing time adding to his learning curve, it also gave the Patriots a chance to see the player many believe to be the eventual successor to Brady in action.

“I thought he did a great job,” offensive lineman Ryan Wendell said. “In the huddle I thought his demeanor was excellent. I thought he had command of the huddle. I thought he had command of the plays.”

“I thought Jimmy competed well,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He was under some pressure. Some things were good; other things could have been better. But I thought he competed well. Some of the opportunities where he had to make plays, he made them. There are definitely some positive things there. There are also things to learn from and build on.”

Garoppolo concurred. Although he didn’t lead the team to a late comeback, he held his own under tough circumstances and learned more about being a quarterback than any practice could teach him. The Patriots are sure to be happier to have that than a virtually meaningless win.

“There’s plenty of room for improvement,” Garoppolo said. “There was some good things, bad things, things I learned from. It will only help me going forward.”
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Jim Basquil and Merril Hoge break down the Bills' 17-9 win over the Patriots.
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ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discusses the injuries suffered by Nate Solder, Brandon LaFell and Sealver Siliga in Sunday's 17-9 loss to the Bills.

Darrelle Revis not worried about Patriots' mindset

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
6:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis' message after Sunday’s 17-9 loss to the Bills: Don’t panic.

While Revis didn’t think the team played well in any phase of the game, he asserted that this was not a full Patriots team.

“It’s just a game where we let it slip by, but most of us weren’t out there,” Revis said. “There were so many things and so many variables of today’s game -- guys not dressing and guys not playing.”

The Patriots already had the AFC’s No. 1 seed locked up, so coach Bill Belichick opted to rest multiple players, including tight end Rob Gronkowski (healthy scratch).

Revis was asked if the playoff situation factored into the team’s lackadaisical showing.

“I don’t know,” Revis said. “I can’t think for everybody or what everybody is thinking about.”

In addition to Gronkowski, the Patriots played without left guard Dan Connolly, wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Jonas Gray. On the defensive side, the Patriots sat cornerback Brandon Browner, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and slot cornerback Kyle Arrington.

The Patriots came out of the gate lacking energy and never seemed to find a rhythm without their regular players.

“It wasn’t good -- all three phases -- it wasn’t good,” Revis said. “Buffalo had a lot of energy out when they started the game and we just didn’t play to our standard at all.”

Revis isn’t going to put this week in the past and forget about it, but he said it’s not an indication that the Patriots are hobbling into the postseason.

“No, I don’t think that’s our mindset,” Revis said. “Our mindset is to go out there and win every game. That’s how we look at it. Like I said, with so many situations in this game -- guys not dressing, guys getting pulled -- you have to account for that and go from there.”

Revis is looking forward to a little rest before the team’s next game at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

“It’s been a long year. It really has,” Revis said. “Guys get banged up here and there, but you just have to take care of your body. That’s what we’ve been trying to do and it’s good that we got a first-round bye so guys can get rest for our next game coming up.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't hold his usual postgame news conference because he was visiting with the team's athletic trainers and medical staff, and later downplayed his absence as "nothing serious" and "just a little thing to look at."

Belichick
"It's no big deal, I don't want to get into it," Belichick said as reporters gathered around a speakerphone for the call about 75 minutes after the Patriots' 17-9 loss to the Bills in the season finale.

Asked if the athletic trainers said he is OK, Belichick responded: "I'll be all right."

Belichick acknowledged that his visit to athletic trainers was specific to his own health, not related to anything with players. He apologized to media members for the delay before answering questions about the game.

On a related note, Belichick said it is his understanding that the Patriots will learn the date and time of their divisional-round playoff game later Sunday.

Ups and downs for the Patriots

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
4:00
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At an initial glance, and without the benefit of film review, a look at which New England Patriots are "up" and which are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills:

Up
Ayers
Akeem Ayers -- In a limited workload, he produced a sack, making a case for potentially being included more in the playing-time mix in the base defense.

Jamie Collins -- Linebacker's second-effort strip sack and recovery in the first half was a terrific individual effort, aided by Bills running back C.J. Spiller not showing much interest in blocking him.

Stephen Gostkowski -- Kicker hit field goals on all three of his attempts, from 24, 44 and 35 yards.

Brandon LaFell -- Receiver finished with four catches for a team-high 70 yards and earned an additional $100,000 in incentives in the process.

Down
Alan Branch -- Big defensive tackle lost his balance and was pushed out of the gap when the Bills scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Jonathan Casillas -- Linebacker was penalized for roughing the passer when the Patriots were attempting to get the ball back late in the game and missed a couple tackles earlier in the game.

Josh Kline -- Left guard was bull-rushed in the second quarter, leading to him being pulled from the game, before he returned in the second half after Nate Solder left with a knee injury and parts needed to be shuffled around up front.

Steve Maneri, Tim Wright -- Tight ends both dropped passes on a day when the passing game wasn't particularly sharp.

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
3:49
PM ET
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Thoughts on the New England Patriots' 17-9 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium:

What it means: The Patriots finish the season 12-4. They were locked into the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs regardless, so this game sort of had the feel of a preseason game from the get-go. The Patriots were very straight forward from an X's and O's standpoint, but at the same time, they didn't execute simple fundamentals well on offense (e.g., too many dropped passes). If the idea was to generate momentum heading into the playoffs, this game didn't get it done.

Detailing Patriots' personnel approach: There were a few layers to the way Bill Belichick used personnel to do "what's best for the team." First, tight end Rob Gronkowski was a healthy scratch, which highlights his value to the team because Belichick didn't want to take any chances of injury with him. Second, injured players who needed more time to recover were held out. Several of those players, such as linebacker Dont'a Hightower, probably would have played if this was a playoffs-type situation. Third, a top level of players, such as quarterback Tom Brady, cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Devin McCourty, had their afternoons cut short at halftime.

Game ball: Rob Gronkowski. The tight end didn't play in the game on Sunday, the Patriots struggled on offense, and it's no coincidence because Gronkowski, from this viewpoint, has been the team's MVP this year. The simple fact that Belichick sat a fully healthy Gronkowski speaks volumes. The complexion of the offense changes dramatically without him, and they want to ensure they have Gronkowski for the playoffs.

LaFell among those to cash in: Several players had incentives in their contracts that would pay them additional money based on their performance in the game. One example came from receiver Brandon LaFell, whose 27-yard reception in the first quarter earned him an extra $100,000 for hitting 900 receiving yards this season. LaFell had already earned $200,000 for 800 receiving yards.

Injuries to monitor: Starting left tackle Nate Solder limped off at halftime with a knee injury and didn't play again. LaFell limped off after being tackled after a reception early in the fourth quarter and was seen jogging on the sideline before returning for the final drive. Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga was slow to get up late in the game, walking off under his own power although not playing again.

Stat of note: The Patriots had won 35 consecutive regular-season games at home against AFC opponents prior to this contest. That was the longest streak in NFL history since the NFL merger (1970).

What's next: The Patriots will host a divisional-round playoff game on either Saturday, Jan. 10, or Sunday, Jan. 11. That date should be finalized within the next 24 hours.

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
2:31
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing some halftime thoughts as the New England Patriots trail the Buffalo Bills 17-6:

Felt more like a preseason game ... sort of. This wasn't a good half for the Patriots. While several top players sat out, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, others did not. Quarterback Tom Brady played throughout the first half. So did cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Patriots didn't show much schematically, and at the same time, didn't execute simple fundamentals very well (e.g., several dropped passes). Not the way they want to play. It almost seems like they're halfway between approaching this as a preseason game and a regular-season game in which they want to work on things leading into the playoffs. Sort of a conflicted message/approach. From a player's perspective, these games can be tough to get up for, and it shows a bit. Not a lot of energy in the stadium either.

Solder limps off. Starting left tackle Nate Solder limped off the field at halftime, so we'll keep an eye on his participation in the second half. Otherwise, no notable injuries.

RB snaps breakdown. Shane Vereen led all Patriots running backs in terms of snaps played (16), followed by LeGarrette Blount (11) and Brandon Bolden (5).

Late switch on O-line with Kline. After left guard Josh Kline got bull-rushed leading to a pressure of Brady late in the second quarter, he was taken out of the game on the following series, with Ryan Wendell flipped to left guard and rookie Cameron Fleming coming on at right guard. This highlights how the Patriots miss injured guard Dan Connolly, who has missed the last two games (knee).

Collins' fine effort. The play of the first half was delivered by linebacker Jamie Collins, whose solid second-effort rush produced a strip sack and recovery. Of course, it helped that Bills running back C.J. Spiller showed little interest in blocking him -- both on Collins' initial rush and the second effort.

Gronkowski's value shows. No Gronkowski, no flow for the offense. This is why he is viewed as the team MVP at this address.

Patriots get the ball. After winning the opening toss and deferring, the Patriots get the ball to open the second half.

Offensive starters for Patriots

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
1:20
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Offensive starters for the New England Patriots in Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills:

LT: Nate Solder
LG: Josh Kline
C: Bryan Stork
RG: Ryan Wendell
RT: Marcus Cannon
TE: Michael Hoomanawanui
QB: Tom Brady
RB: Brandon Bolden
WR: Brandon LaFell
WR: Brian Tyms
WR: Danny Amendola

No major surprises here after learning of the inactive list (no Rob Gronkowski at tight end, no Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle), although we were curious how the Patriots would configure the offensive line after Kline was benched in the second half last Sunday. Kline is back in the top group after that rocky performance.

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