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Game Observations: Defense, ground game do it again

The Patriots defense just continues to stifle opponents and extended its streak of holding opponents in check in New England 23-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills. Opponents now have failed to score more than 17 points against the Patriots in eight straight games.

Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots 10th win of the season.

-There were times when things didn’t look quite right but at the end of the day the Patriots defense continued its recent dominant play by holding the Bills out of the end zone. Buffalo opened the game with an impressive drive and worked its way downfield to set up first-and-goal. But Tyrod Taylor made a poor decision to float a pass in the general direction of LeSean McCoy but actually went right to newcomer Eric Lee. The Bills enjoyed plenty of success on the ground but chose not to stick with McCoy, and the Patriots defense picked up steam as the game went on. Lee enjoyed a solid afternoon with 1.5 sacks to go along with the pick and a pair of passes defensed. “He’s worked really hard, asked a lot of good questions and picked things up well,” Belichick said of Lee. The coach added that Lee’s time in Houston helped with his transition. The Bills finished with just 268 yards of offense and three points with most of that production (183 yards) coming on the ground. The Lee pick was the Patriots fifth takeaway in the red zone this season, most in the league.

-For the second week in a row it was the work of the running game that led the Patriots to victory. Both Dion Lewis (15 carries, 92 yards) and Rex Burkhead (12-78-2 TDs) enjoyed productive afternoons against the porous Buffalo run defense. Lewis set the tone early, ripping off a career-best 44-yard run down the right sideline that included an impressive stiff-arm of Bills safety Jordan Poyer. Not to be outdone, Burkhead also recorded the longest run of his career, a 31-yarder in the second half. James White again was relegates to a role player but added 18 yards on five carries as New England followed up last week’s 196-yard effort on the ground with 191 yards in Orchard Park.

-The Patriots needed that effort in the running game because aside from Rob Gronkowski things weren’t nearly as productive through the air. Tom Brady was sluggish in the first half, holding the ball at times and throwing off target at others. Brady’s discomfort in the pocket led to three first-half sacks, which in turn led to three field goals for New England before intermission. The red zone struggles (the Patriots were 2-for-5) allowed Buffalo to stay in the game trailing just 9-3 at the break. Gronkowski was a going concern for Poyer and fellow safety Micah Hyde simply couldn’t contain the tight end. Gronk had a big second half and finished with nine catches for 147 yards while no other Patriots receiver finished with more than four grabs (White) or 34 yards (Danny Amendola). Gronk’s day was marred somewhat by an incident late when he was lunged at Tra’Davious White after the rookie picked off a Brady pass. White appeared to grab a hold of Gronk’s shirt as the tight end was making his break, and frustration soon followed. White was already down and out of bounds when Gronkowski landed a forearm/elbow to the back of the corner’s head, drawing an unnecessary roughness flag. White appeared woozy and was sent to concussion protocol following he play. Gronkowski expressed regret for the incident, which will likely result in a fine, after the game.

-Brady showed some frustration during the first half struggles and the CBS cameras showed the quarterback in a heated exchange with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels after a failed red zone trip. Brady downplayed the argument after the game and the Patriots offense obviously got in gear in the second half.

-There was an interesting aspect to an otherwise meaningless series late in the game with the Patriots well in control with a 23-3 lead. The Bills moved into scoring position and had a first-and-goal in the fourth quarter. Rather than continuing to run the ball, which Buffalo did effectively all day, the Bills tried to throw the ball and seemed to target Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore, who spent the first four years of his career in Buffalo, blanketed Zay Jones twice, including on fourth down from the 1 when backup quarterback Nathan Peterman tossed a fade in his direction. Devin McCourty suggested after the game that he felt the Bills were trying to get a touchdown with Gilmore in coverage, which not only didn’t work but seemed rather silly.

-Eric Rowe returned to the lineup after missing the last seven games with a groin injury. Rowe struggled at the start of the season and then missed time with the groin injury before returning against Carolina. He struggled badly in that game and re-injured the groin, which knocked him out of action for half the season. Rowe did not see much action but did replace Gilmore early in the second half when the latter was working on an apparent leg injury with trainers.

-LaAdrian Waddle (ankle) joined Marcus Cannon (ankle) on the inactive list, putting Cameron Fleming into the starting lineup. Waddle missed some practice time during the week and was put through a short workout prior to the game in Buffalo but was unable to go. On a positive note, David Andrews was able to return to the starting center spot after missing the last two games due to an illness.

-Linebacker Nicholas Grigsby was signed off the Ravens practice squad during the week and was in uniform in Buffalo. Grigsby saw action on special teams and absolutely destroyed Travaris Cadet covering a kickoff in the first quarter.

-There was some potentially bad news on the injury front as Kyle Van Noy left the game after apparently aggravating his calf problem. Van Noy was questionable heading into the game after hurting his calf against Miami, and he was given the task of spying the mobile Taylor. It was while chasing Taylor down as part of a 20-yard sack in the second half that Van Noy came up limping. He left the game and did not return. That’s bad news for a front seven that was already without Trey Flowers (ribs) and allowed 183 yards on the ground.

-Bills coach Sean McDermott made a curious decision to challenge a play in the second quarter. Brady tripped over Rex Burkhead’s foot and hit the ground as he threw the ball away. Brady’s knee hit the ground prior to releasing the ball but because he wasn’t contacted by a Bills defender he was technically still able to release the ball. McDermott evidently wanted an intentional grounding call, which is not reviewable, but referee Gene Steratore announced the Bills coach’s challenge was “down by contact.” Since there was no contact, there was no chance for Buffalo to win the challenge.

-The Patriots opened the second half with a touchdown after putting a field goal on the board at the start of the game. Those two scoring drives gave New England points on seven consecutive drives to open halves this season. Also, the Patriots now have 88 points this season on drives to open a half, which leads the NFL.

-Another newcomer, Bernard Reedy, made his Patriots debut and was back to return punts on a couple of occasions. Reedy was promoted from the practice squad on Saturday and turned in an 11-yard return on his first attempt with New England.

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