Commentary

Patriots carry on, get big payoff

Facing three-game skid, Bill Belichick sticks to plan and ground game delivers

Updated: October 1, 2012, 6:42 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The vultures were circling around the New England Patriots. Even Bill Belichick acknowledged that his team was close to absorbing a knockout punch from the Buffalo Bills.

Honestly, what were you thinking right around the time the Patriots gave up a 68-yard catch-and-run touchdown four minutes into the third quarter, falling behind 21-7?

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Perhaps it was one of these: Maybe this team just doesn't have it this year … Fire offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels! … Too many injuries … Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is killing us! … How could Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski let us down with lost fumbles? … What a disappointment.

Maybe it was all of them combined. Things looked grim.

Then there was the turnaround that whipped through Ralph Wilson Stadium as fiercely as the wind sometimes does here off Lake Erie, producing what could become a signature win for the 2012 New England Patriots.

Facing their greatest adversity of the season, and staring at the possibility of a third straight loss and a 1-3 record, the Patriots scored touchdowns on their next six drives to stun the Bills 52-28.

"That's a lot of adversity we faced. I thought we showed a lot of heart," quarterback Tom Brady said. "That's what this team is made of."

We didn't truly know what the Patriots were made of at that point. The previous two games were disheartening for them, particularly with the inability to close out would-be victories, and they looked like a once-proud champion on the ropes early in the third quarter on Sunday.

"We could have gotten knocked out at that point," Belichick acknowledged.

But what turned things around and started that six-touchdowns-in-six-drives streak was a cool-headedness combined with mental toughness and discipline to stick with the run even after falling behind by 14.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bolden
Timothy T. Ludwig/US PresswireThe Patriots stayed with their running attack and were rewarded with 137 yards from Brandon Bolden and 247 rushing yards overall.

This was the "game within the game" from a strategy perspective. The Bills kept daring the Patriots to run by playing their smaller nickel defense (five defensive backs) -- which could have even been viewed as a dime with converted safety Bryan Scott (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) at linebacker -- when the Patriots had their bigger personnel on the field.

So the Patriots ran it. And ran it. And ran it some more, ringing up 247 yards and four touchdowns, with rookie Brandon Bolden (137 yards, 16 carries, TD) and second-year man Stevan Ridley (106 yards, 22 carries, 2 TDs) in starring roles. Bolden was the closer, playing 20 of his 26 snaps in the second half, as the Patriots had two running backs go over the 100-yard mark in the same game for the first time since 1980.

"It was the play calling by our offensive coordinator; I think Coach McDaniels did an awesome job," said Ridley, who at 5-11 and 220 pounds brings a combination of speed and power to the attack. "That was critical. We could have panicked and went to throwing the ball and trying to score quick, but we knew how we could beat this team and we believed in ourselves and believed in our team."

That's why this could be a galvanizing win for the Patriots, the players reminded by Belichick afterward that they showed impressive mental toughness at a time when things could have crumbled.

They showed physical toughness, too, as evidenced by 200 of their 247 rushing yards coming between the tackles (according to ESPN Stats & Information). The Patriots simply steamrolled the Bills' smaller defense.

"You have to do different things [scheme-wise], obviously with Brady, but we were in nickel and I think the most discouraging thing about it is that they literally ran three running plays," Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "They ran the same thing over and over and over and it was just disappointing how we handled that."

Williams described the plays as a linebacker trap that included a block back on the nose tackle and a double-team on the other defensive tackle, a kick play that doubled the two tackles with the run going to the perimeter with the option to cut back in or out and finally a stretch play.

"Bottom line, they whipped us," Bills coach Chan Gailey said, adding that the Patriots forced Buffalo's cornerbacks to tackle, which was an area in which they struggled.

Belichick raved about the team's offensive line, which was without four-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, noting he couldn't "say enough" about left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Donald Thomas, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui were a big part of it, too.

Then, of course, there was Brady. His 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, which seemed like it was in slow motion, contributed to the dominating rushing effort and highlighted his emotional fire on the sideline when his easily-read lips uttered something not fit for family-friendly television.

Brady also hurt the Bills with his arm, finishing 22-of-36 for 340 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was sort of a quiet big day, if that makes sense.

But in the end, this was more about a defense that produced six turnovers (the offense and suddenly inconsistent kicker Stephen Gostkowski had trouble capitalizing on two of them in the first half) and that hard-charging running game against the Bills' little D.

Apparently, Belichick was hard on his players early last week, telling them the running game had to improve and that averaging 2.3 yards per carry, as they did against the Baltimore Ravens, and 3.2 yards per carry the week before against the Arizona Cardinals, just wasn't going to cut it. So just as the Patriots pounded the Bills on Sunday, gaining 6.2 yards per carry, Belichick pounded his players all week. Running game, running game, running game.

"When you play in an organization like this, and Bill breaks down football the way he breaks down football and makes it clear he wants to run the football, it's crazy how everybody goes to work," relayed Ridley, who played 17 snaps in the first half and 17 in the second half. "That was our focus this week, to get that back.

"We knew there were going to be some yards on the [Bills'] secondary. Coach told us at the beginning of the week, 'You see the green grass, take it. We'll live with the decision. Don't try to make the perfect read or the perfect cut, just go out and be the players you are.' For the coaches to say 'we're going to attack them with the run' and for us to stick with the plan and prove we can run the football, it came together."

Yes it did, in impressive fashion.

And one got the sense that maybe the 2012 New England Patriots, at a time when doubt was starting to creep in, did so, as well.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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