FOXBOROUGH – It was frigid in Foxborough Monday night, and I'm not just talking about the thermometer.
New England's offense never really found a comfortable rhythm against Buffalo, in part because injuries continue to exact a costly toll on the Patriots. Julian Edelman's absence left a void that Danny Amendola filled admirably for nearly three quarters… before he was reduced to a spectator when he injured his left knee.
The other part of the equation was the Bills defense. All night long, that unit harassed QB Tom Brady, who was playing behind yet another different starting o-line combination. Buffalo brought the heat on Brady repeatedly throughout the frosty night. Although he was only sacked once, TB12 took several hard hits just after delivered the football – at least a dozen, but unofficial tally. That forced him to underthrow several passes and intentionally throw away seven more, by far the highest total in that category all season. He'd thrown the ball away intentionally a total of eight times in the previous nine games combined.
Rex Ryan's Buffalo defense also deserves credit for doing something few teams can accomplish. The Bills limited Rob Gronkowski's impact in the passing game to a paltry two grabs (on seven targets) for just 37 yards.
"It's good. It's tough to get a win every week in the NFL and you take whatever you can get," Gronkowski said afterward. "We definitely could work on a lot, but a win is a win, and you got to give credit to our defense. They played unbelievable today. The effort they gave and all the stops they had - huge for our defense."
It was a frustrating night for the Patriots offense, which is used to putting up at least 30 points per game. Clearly, the mounting injuries are beginning to expose flaws in this otherwise unblemished 2015 Patriots team.
Yet, even while the offense was struggling, the defense and special teams units came up with big plays at crucial times to mitigate the damage, as Gronkowski suggested. Whether it was creating negative-yardage plays on defense or creating a turnover on special teams, New England was forced to adapt in all three phases to overcome their banged up bodies and eke out a win against a tough AFC East division rival.
"It's next man up. I feel like year after year in the game of football tough injuries happen, but guys [on our team] step up and play well," remarked safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "Obviously we hope guys don't go down and guys that are down we hope can get healthy and get back as soon as possible, but guys stepped up and were ready to go. I think we have a team of competitive guys who all want to play.
"We know it's always going to be tough playing a division game. [The Bills] have got a good defense, so we have to step up and play well. Our job is to get off the field and obviously we want some turnovers. [Brandon] King and [Jonathan] Freeny's [forced fumble and recovery] was big on the punt, so we've got to keep playing tough like that."
This was far from the barn-burner these two teams engaged in at Orchard Park in Week 2. In fact, that 40-32 final was virtually double what the rematch wound up being here at Gillette. That was perhaps a direct result of the time of year, when the temperatures dip and the injury lists soar, and the need to improvise with personnel groupings due to a lack of healthy bodies.
"We are going to do anything it takes to win the game. Whether we have to run the ball or throw the ball. Their [the Bills] game plan was very different from what it was the last time; they didn't let us go out there and throw it 50 times like last time. We had to go with a different game plan, but we had a lot of guys step up and make plays."
"We're a team. Sometimes the offense will win it for us and sometimes the defense will have to go out and win it for us," declared cornerback Malcolm Butler. "We're all going out there together and taking it play-by-play. We have 60 minutes of playing and we just hope for the best."
Butler, meanwhile, was again a bright spot for the Patriots. Matched up mostly against Buffalo's top receiver, Butler held Sammy Watkins to just three catches for 39 yards. He continues to improve each week, which is further fueling his confidence as the team's top corner.
Right now, the Patriots are unbeaten in the record column, but they're unquestionably a beaten-up team. Injuries might be the only opponent that can conquer them.