The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at New Era Field on Sunday, December 3, 2017.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Since the bye week, the Patriots defense was holding opponents below 17 points per game, while its offense had been scoring more than 30 with relative ease. Something about the deceptively tough 6-5 Bills, though, made at least some of us wonder if it would be so easy this particular week.
For a while, it wasn't.
Without leading pass rusher Trey Flowers (out with a rib injury), newcomer Eric Lee, in just his second game as a Patriot, saved New England on the game's opening drive with a goal-line interception of QB Tyrod Taylor, and later added his second sack in as many weeks. Thereafter, the defense settled into its normal routine and held Buffalo to just one first-half scoring drive, a barely-made 49-yard field goal.
Meanwhile, a stiff breeze that had flags atop New Era Field whipping straight out all afternoon may have been a contributing factor to both teams' decisions to run the football a considerable amount during a fast-moving first half.
The Patriots had frequent success doing so, accumulating 130 yards on the ground between three of their running backs – Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White – and wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who chipped in with an end-around for five of those yards.
When the Patriots did pass, Brady often found himself either skittishly maneuvering in the pocket to avoid pressure from Buffalo's front or succumbing to it. He also misfired on six of his 14 first-half throws, one of which sparked an eyebrow-raising sideline shouting match with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
An overall lack of execution offensively saw New England head to intermission with a tenuous 9-3 lead thanks to three Stephen Gostkowski field goals, including one with seconds to go in the first half.
"Just have to execute a little bit better," Lewis told reporters later. "They're a good defense and force you to stay patient and not get frustrated. Don't get frustrated if we don't get 30 yards on every play. Stay the course and keep giving great effort."
That philosophy paid off. As they so often do, the Patriots won the opening coin toss, deferred to the second half, and completed the desired score-at-the-end-of-the-half-and-again-at-the-start-of-the-half trick.
Taking the opening kickoff of the second half, the Patriots proceeded to march down the field at the start of the third quarter. That drive ended with Burkhead plowing into the end zone for the first of two touchdowns on consecutive possessions. His second plunge into the Buffalo end zone came with just over a minute to play in the third.
Just like that, New England had a 20-point lead and the game was effectively over.
"It was a big win for the team," Burkhead said afterward. "We knew coming in here was going to be a challenge. We didn't start off fast. They made plays that ended our drives early, but the second half we got it going. The offensive line did a tremendous job up front all day opening up holes and giving us opportunities."
Although the Patriots managed to apply some pressure to Taylor, he kept his team in the game with a number of positive scrambles out of the pocket. But he may have done so one too many times. He was carted off to the Bills' locker room with a knee injury at the start of the fourth quarter.
Just when it looked like the Bills might get a lift from backup QB Nathan Peterman, who led Buffalo down to the Patriots' 1-yard line, Stephon Gilmore thwarted his former teammates with a pass breakup in the end zone on 4th-and-goal. He heard boos all afternoon from Bills fans, but relished them in the afterglow of victory.
"The fans are going to be fans, especially since I played here five years," he said afterward. "Maybe that's a good thing, you know? [It indicates] the kind of player I am."
The crowd's attitude seemed to spill onto the field later. The game got rather chippy towards the end, with both teams venting some frustration by committing personal foul penalties after the outcome had been decided. Tight end Rob Gronkowski in particular was lucky not to have been tossed out of the game when he delivered a forearm shiver to a defenseless Bill, Tre'Davious White, who'd just intercepted a Brady pass along the Patriots' sideline.
In the end, though, New England won its second straight AFC East matchup in hard-fought, sloppy fashion. They'll take the result, which ups their record to 10-2, but not the manner in which it was accomplished.
"I want to apologize to No. 27. I'm not in the business of that," Gronkowski declared. "It was a lot of frustration. I was just really frustrated in that moment. It just happened naturally through emotions and frustration. Just want to apologize to Tre'Davious White. I don't believe in taking shots like that.
"That [kind of behavior] definitely can hurt the team. Obviously, it didn't hurt the team there, but it could in the future."
With two more road games coming up over the next two weeks – and a huge one at currently 9-2 Pittsburgh in the second of those two – the Patriots need to clean some things up if they hope to continue being the only NFL team with a spotless record away from home. If they can do so and come back to Foxborough before Christmas with two more road wins, they'll likely own the pole position for the AFC playoffs.