ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. –October always ends with the fright-filled holiday of Halloween; for the Patriots, the month also had a scary beginning.
Just four weeks ago, on the second day of October, New England suffered its first shutout loss at home in nearly a quarter century. The perpetrators: Rex Ryan's pugilistic Bills.
Of course, the Patriots were without a suspended Tom Brady and a less-than-full-strength Rob Gronkowski at the time.
Ryan's Buffalo bullies sought to exploit this even before kickoff, by instigating a pre-game fracas on the field. Bills defenders claimed (erroneously) that rookie third-string QB Jacoby Brissett intentionally disrupted Buffalo's defensive back drill when he arrived on the field, so, they took a pot shot at him, setting off a brief skirmish between players and coaches.
Today, on the second-to-last day of October, Bill Belichick's squad came to the Bills' backyard with hopes of bookending the month with an avenging victory. And they succeeded in dramatic fashion.
"It's always big coming here, get a win before the bye, obviously against a division team that beat us at home before," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty acknowledged. "We wanted to get a win and move on and get going for the rest of the season."
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills in a regular season game at New Era Field on Sunday, October 30, 2016.
Opening drive of the game, Buffalo drove deep into Patriots territory thanks in part to QB Tyrod Taylor's ability to elude pressure from New England's defense. The defense eventually held firm, surrendering just a field goal.
Brady and New England's offense responded with a methodical, 14-play march, covering 70 yards and ending with TB12 finding Danny Amendola in the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Amendola was one of six Patriots who caught passes from Brady on that first possession.
"Started with a good week of preparation," Amendola explained. "Started [the game] fast, put 14 points on the board really quickly and tried to keep that momentum through the second half."
Chris Hogan, the former Buffalo Bill, was another, and on New England's second possession, he made an emphatic return to the area with a 53-yard touchdown catch from Brady. Just like that, the Patriots were up 14-3 and the first quarter was history.
To be fair, it was the Bills who were undermanned this time around. Their best offensive player, RB LeSean McCoy was out with a hamstring injury. During the first quarter, meanwhile, NFL sack leader Lorenzo Alexander sustained one of his own and was questionable to return to action. He never saw the field again Sunday.
Like the Patriots did in Week 4, Ryan's Bills spent much of the first half beating themselves with dropped passes and inopportune penalties. Third-down success was also a key to the early going. New England was a perfect 5-for-5 offensively, while Buffalo only managed 1-of-4 third-down conversions. At the end, New England had converted two-thirds of their third downs, while the Bills only succeeded on one-third of theirs.
"We contained Tyrod a little bit, played tight coverage on the receivers," cornerback Malcolm Butler observed. "We tackled well. We just executed overall. The game plan worked out well."
The pendulum began to swing back in Buffalo's direction midway through the second quarter after Brady was sacked on third down on consecutive drives. Then CB Eric Rowe's earned a pass interference penalty on a long third-down pass. That mistake (a questionable call) gave life to a Buffalo drive that was going nowhere fast, but ended with a Mike Gillislee three-yard TD run.
However, as he so often does in western New York, where he grew up and rooted for the Bills, TE Rob Gronkowski stole the momentum right back. Just a few plays after Buffalo trimmed New England's lead, Gronk added to it with a spectacular 53-yard touchdown strike from Brady. The throw was precise down the seam, over the head of a trailing Bills defender, and it gave Gronkowski 69 for his career, setting the Patriots franchise record for most touchdowns ever scored by a single player.
"I'm so glad to come here and show them what we're really about," a passionate Gronkowski told reporters later. "It's awesome to come here and tear it up. I love being part of this organization, I love being part of the Brady era."
The final minute of the half was emblematic of the game to that point. Buffalo tried to fire back, but a 49-yard field goal attempt by Dan Carpenter doinked off the right upright. With seconds remaining in the half, Brady got his offense down to the Bills' 33-yard line, where Gostkowski launched a kick from 51 yards away. His ball, too, hit the left upright, but instead of rebounding back into the field of play, like Carpenters, it fell behind the upright, giving New England a 24-10 lead at intermission.
After a Danny Amendola kickoff return set up a fourth Brady TD pass (this one to Julian Edelman), New England's D thwarted the Bills' subsequent drive, but on the punt, Buffalo's punter dropped the football. The Patriots coverage team should have had him dead to rights inside the red zone, but his managed to scoop up the ball and run for a first down. Taylor eventually ran for a score, which should have been called back due to an egregious facemask penalty on LB Jamie Collins that went uncalled by the officials.
Even after RB LeGarrette Blount gave the Patriots their 21-point advantage back with a short touchdown run, it looked like the Bills would threaten to score again, but New England's defense came down with a fourth-down stop from their own 10-yard line.
That essentially ended any chance Buffalo had of a comeback.
With this latest win, since 2001, the Patriots have a symmetrical 51-15 record in the month of October, easily the best mark in the NFL over that span. New England can now enter their midseason bye week with a near-perfect 7-1 mark and get some well-earned rest for the second-half stretch of the schedule. The Seahawks are up next in Week 10 after the bye.
"It's a great win and now we're able to go into this bye week feeling good about ourselves," said Hogan. "Obviously, we're going to look at this film and get better and move on to Seattle."
"I feel like we're right where we need to be, right where we should be," added Amendola, "but seven games isn't enough. We've got to win a lot more."
"As Bill [Belichick] always says, seven games won't win us anything," McCourty concluded. "It's work to win seven, but we've got to keep getting better. The back half of the season is what always really matters."