Report card: Patriots-Bills
From a game management standpoint, it was a clean game for the coaching staff. There were no procedural penalties, no clock management errors, and Bill Belichick's lone challenge was successful. However, it's hard to grade the coaches, especially on defense, higher than this. With the exception of last season, the Patriots typically come off their bye week very strong. With an extra week to prepare for the Bills, the coaches didn't get much improvement from the players from their poor showings of the first half.
Just another ho-hum day for this unit, although statistically Brady wasn't as prolific as he's been in other games this season. He finished 23-for-38 for 237 yards and 2 touchdowns. Play-calling in the passing game seemed more controlled and managed than it has been, focusing more on the middle of the field. Pass protection also was a strong point, while Brady didn't make any mistakes after two near-interceptions early on.
Given that the Bills came in as one of the league's worst teams in run defense, the Patriots weren't able to take advantage of that weakness as well as they did in the first meeting. One reason might have been the heavy workload on Stevan Ridley, who finished with 98 yards on 22 carries, a respectable 4.5-yard average. The Patriots weren't able to get a consistent spark from their change-of-pace backs, with Danny Woodhead scampering for a 15-yard TD on his only carry while Shane Vereen ran for just five yards on five carries. Not the dominant performance some expected.
The positive here was that the secondary didn't give up any completions of more than 25 yards, which has been a big problem. However, the Bills were 7-for-11 on third down, converting on third-and-9 with a 21-yard catch when the Patriots had a chance to put the game away. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished 27-of-40 for 337 yards and 2 touchdowns, with his 99.7 QB rating surely taking a big hit on his final pass, a head-scratcher that was intercepted by cornerback Devin McCourty in the end zone.
This may have been the biggest problem in the game. While the secondary has struggled all season, the run defense generally has been strong. The Bills were able to gain 162 yards on 28 carries, an impressive 5.8-yard average that put more pressure on the pass defense. Tackling seemed to be the biggest issue, and that applied to both the front seven and the secondary. The only thing that prevented this unit from dipping lower was its three forced fumbles, two of which were recovered by the Patriots, including one at the goal line.
The Bills frequently boast one of the NFL's strongest special teams units, and the Patriots were able to neutralize their impact. Playing a big role in that was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who boomed six of his eight kickoffs for touchbacks. Gostkowski also nailed a key 48-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that kept it a two-score game. Also credit the Patriots' punt coverage unit for getting off a 44-yard punt when they were backed up on their own 1 in the fourth quarter.