The New England Patriots, able to clinch the AFC East, a first-round bye and home-field throughout the playoffs with a win or New York Jets loss, could not have asked for a better opponent than the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots had beaten the Bills 14 times in a row coming into Sunday’s game in Orchard Park, N.Y., having last lost to Buffalo in the first week of the 2003-2004 season. That streak is now at 15. The Patriots offense rushed for 217 yards, its most in over two years, and the defense and special teams forced seven Bills turnovers, beating Buffalo 34-3 on the road, clinching their eighth AFC East division title under Bill Belichick. Tom Brady also set a new record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception, having now thrown 319 consecutive passes without a pick.
The Deadly Running Duo
Despite the MVP-worthy season Brady is having, Belichick recognized that the Bills’ biggest weakness was their run defense (last in opponent yardage). The Patriots ran the ball 60 percent of the time, using their strong linemen and tight ends to open up seam after seam for the Patriots running backs.
On second-and-2 from the Buffalo 29-yard line with about four minutes left in the first quarter, Danny Woodhead put the Patriots on the board by finding such a seam. Woodhead broke through a hole on the left side of the line, got a good block from Rob Gronkowski, then outran the Bills secondary 29 yards to the left pylon of the end zone, putting the Patriots up 7-3 in the first quarter.
Woodhead finished the game with 93 yards rushing, 23 yards receiving, and a touchdown. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry. Not to be outdone, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 104 yards (plus 3 receiving yards), his second 100+ yard rushing game of the season.
The Patriots’ run success helped them control the clock and win the possession battle, 32:30 to 27:30.
Turnover, Turnover, Turnover… Turnover, Turnover… Turnover… and Another Turnover
Although the Patriots once again allowed an opposing quarterback to rack up yards against them, seven Bills turnovers wiped out every scoring opportunity Buffalo had after their first (a 26-yard field goal). Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (18/37, 251 yards, no touchdowns, 37.1 passer rating) was picked off three times and stripped twice. His first interception, by Patrick Chung on the Buffalo 46 late in the second, occurred when his receiver cut outside and his pass sailed inside. His second, to safety Jarrad Page at the Buffalo 21 right after halftime, happened because Page undercut the route and picked it off. His last, to Dane Fletcher in the New England end zone on Buffalo’s final drive, came after the pass was tipped at the line and Fletcher came down with it.
Fletcher also recovered a fumble when Jerod Mayo stripped Bills running back C.J. Spiller at the Buffalo 36 midway through the third quarter. Mayo also recovered a fumble at the New England 20 when Gary Guyton strip-sacked Fitzpatrick in the first quarter, and broke up several Buffalo passes with strong hitting and tackling, including on a potential fourth-down conversion at the New England 32 in the second quarter.
Spiller also muffed a punt return on what would have been the Bills’ last drive of the game. Sergio Brown recovered the fumbled punt, and the Patriots knelt three times to end the game.
Shortened Fields, Lengthened Leads
Two Buffalo turnovers killed drives that had penetrated into the Patriots’ red zone. Three other turnovers gave New England the ball starting in Buffalo territory, leading to a sizable New England starting-field advantage. The Patriots started their average drive at their 45-yard line. The Bills started their average drive at their 23.
Brady and the Patriots milked their good starting spots for all they could, scoring 21 points off turnovers. Rob Gronkowski accounted for 14 of those points, leading all Patriots with four receptions for 54 yards and two touchdowns. After Mayo recovered Guyton’s first-quarer strip-sack, Brady marched his team 70 yards in eight plays, including a 23-yard strike to Gronkowski on third-and-6 from the Buffalo 34. Gronkowski was sprinting down-field on the play, turned his upper body around without changing direction, and trapped the ball against his chest with his left hand. He was finally dragged down at the Buffalo 11. On the ninth play of the drive, on second-and-7 from the Buffalo 8, Brady sat back in the pocket for several seconds before finding Gronkowski for the 8-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the end zone, putting the Patriots up 14-3 in the second.
That drive used up 4:25 of the clock. The second Gronkowski touchdown capped a drive that took just 50 seconds. The Patriots started at the Buffalo 11 after Page picked off Fitzpatrick early in the third quarter and the Patriots got 10 extra yards on a chop block against the Bills. The second play of that drive- a dropped pass to Gronkwoski- broke the record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception, previously set at 308 by Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar from 1990-1991. The third play of the drive had Gronkowski line up at the right end of the line, throw a quick block and then cut outside. Brady found him for the easy 8-yard touchdown strike, giving the Patriots a 31-3 lead early in the third.
Brady also found Alge Crumpler for a 4-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter, on a drive that started at the Buffalo 27 after the Chung interception. On first-and-goal from the Buffalo 4, Crumpler ran up the middle, then cut to his left. Brady floated the ball over his head for another easy touchdown pass, putting the Patriots up 21-3.
The Patriots went into Buffalo knowing exactly what a win would mean, and they went out and got it. They were methodical and professional, executing at a level the Bills just weren’t good enough to match. The fruits of their labors: a division title, a first-round bye, home-field advantage. Never content to write the squad off as “rebuilding team,” Belichick has transformed this young Patriots roster into the best team in the AFC.
Their final match will be a home game against the Miami Dophins. This will likely be a game that relies heavily on reserves and practice squad players. The Patriots have nothing left to play for in the regular season, and Wes Welker’s season-ending injury in last season’s Week 17 game against the Baltimore Ravens is still fresh in their minds. It may cost them a 28th consecutive home regular season win, but a fourth Super Bowl title would be a more than adequate replacement.